Labels allow us to paint others into a box where we can then apply our preconceived notions to them. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said:
The moment when someone attaches you to a philosophy or a movement, then they assign all the baggage and all the rest of the philosophy that goes with it to you. And when you want to have a conversation, they will assert that they already know everything important there is to know about you because of that association. And that's not the way to have a conversation.
Labels are easy to use, and they allow us to skim past the complexity of an individual’s ideas and thoughts.
In political discourse, labeling is a simple way of describing complexity. Few persons are ideologically pure, and, by nature, we are complex beings. American political parties are generally representative of this phenomenon. While the modern Republican Party is broadly conservative, there are numerous libertarians, Christian conservatives, nationalists, and right-wing populists. On the whole, the Republican Party is conservative, but the label is a simple means of describing a much more complex truth.
Republican Congressman Justin Amash and Republican Senator Rand Paul have made headlines recently. The two libertarian politicians are symbolic of the conflict even among those in a specific group of individuals. While both politicians agree on the necessity of federal surveillance reform, they hold two widely diverging opinions on the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump. Applying labels to political opponents can be weaponized to shift the focus of a discussion away from policy.Senator Paul appropriately refused to attack Congressman Amash and explained his differing interpretation. This recent dispute among libertarian Republicans demonstrates that individuals can express disagreement “in a way that nevertheless keeps the focus on policy shifts that they both share,” Reason’s Scott Shackford observed this week.
Applying labels to political opponents can be weaponized to shift the focus of a discussion away from policy. Consider the common “liberal” label for an individual who believes in questioning authority. Liberal is often used in a derogatory fashion, largely as a means of promoting internal conflict against those who are thought of as enemies of American values. Additionally, many use the “alt-right” label in a similar manner. Alt-right describes right-wing individuals “who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of forms of conservatism that embrace implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Labels such as “liberal” or “alt-right” can be easily extrapolated to those who diverge from the established norms of a political party’s agenda. For example, Andrew Yang is an outsider Democratic candidate for president. Ali Breland from Mother Jones wrote a smear piece titled “Here’s Why Andrew Yang’s Alt-Right Supporters Think He’s the 2020 Candidate for White Nationalists.”
The Politics of Conversation
According to Breland, Yang’s appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and on Joe Rogan’s podcast led the alt-right to support his presidential bid. In today’s outrage culture, a mere willingness to engage in conversation can be costly to a public figure. The association with a negative label can lead the public to believe the label defines the individual.
A recent report by Data & Society used this tactic to associate mainstream conservative and libertarian individuals like Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin with white nationalist figures. Rogan, host of The Joe Rogan Experience, and Rubin, host of The Rubin Report, utilize their massive platforms to interview figures of various ideologies and backgrounds.
Some of the interviewees are controversial figures who hold ideas outside of the Overton Window. The central concept is that politicians are limited to supporting policy ideas that are widely viewed by society as legitimate. Constant shifts in the Overton Window can result in individuals being falsely labeled, or in some cases defamed, as outside the mainstream.
Juan Linz, a sociologist and political scientist at Yale, argues
that authoritarianism can be characterized by four qualities: 1) constraints on political institutions and groups, 2) a basis for legitimacy based on emotion, and 3) "minimal social mobilization most often caused by constraints on the public such as suppression of political opponents."
Labeling is not inherently authoritarian, but the overuse or misuse of such a tool may be authoritarian in nature. Accusations of being “racist” may be false, but the mere accusation presents the public with the question of whether the accused may, indeed, be racist.
As Peter Beinart writes in a piece titled “Republican is Not a Synonym for Racist”:
What America needs is a conservatism whose devotees feel less stigmatized, and who earn that lack of stigma by trying harder to disentangle their support of small government and traditional morality from America’s history of bigotry.
Accusers may utilize labels to delegitimize their opponents, especially by invoking emotional appeals. Such a tactic would be a smear and, if false, highly unethical.
Politics Is More Difficult Than Physics
Today, progressives seem to have made a habit of describing their opponents as “fascists,” while conservatives have described their opponents as “socialists.” Each political party’s preferred label for their opponent brushes over the complexities of our politics. Notably, these preferred descriptions invoke memories of the murderous, failed Nazi Germany and Communist Russian regimes. American biologist and “the father of sociobiology” Edward O. Wilson writes in Newsweek that in ancient history,
tribes gave visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusiastically against rival groups. It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world.
Wilson notes that this human instinct is still pervasive in modern times.
Today, the social world of each modern human is not a single tribe but rather a system of interlocking tribes, among which it is often difficult to find a single compass.
He mentions a study by social psychologists that reveals that participants “judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likeable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.” This study would lend credence to why liberals may view conservatives with disdain and vice versa.
As theoretical physicist Albert Einstein said, “Politics is more difficult than physics.”
Despite our differences, the exchange of ideas and debate among various groups helped to create the extraordinary society we currently live in. While it may be difficult to avoid labeling individuals in an increasingly complex society, we must act in good faith to avoid stifling debate and democratic dialogue.