SORTING PEOPLE OUT Radical Bleeding Heart image

How We Stick Folks in Boxes and Slap Labels On Them.

Of course we do it because it saves time and effort thinking. But now, let us take the time and invest the effort.

What does it mean to call someone a liberal? A progressive? A conservative? A socialist or a communist, a fascist, a right-winger, or a leftist? We fling these terms around with great assurance, but do we really know what they mean? Do they help the political discussion or do they confuse things?

Unfortunately, terms like “communist” and “fascist” have become virtually useless for normal purposes because they have been loaded down with emotional baggage. In the United States, if not everywhere, “socialist” is an almost equally loaded term. The words themselves have become poisoned. This is extremely useful to those who oppose the ideas the words stand for. The label contaminates the thing it is supposed to stand for. This short-circuits any possible rational discussion. People who simply want to discredit someone or something will try to slap on such a label and hope that it sticks, as Jonah Goldberg did by insisting that liberals are “fascists.” The accusation was a great hit with folks who hate liberalism, but it makes no sense. This sort of thing incites much passion (on both sides) but does not advance anyone’s understanding.

Perhaps you are thinking “But that is just because communism and fascism are bad ideas!” No, it means that the words themselves have become contaminated. Everyone is afraid to touch them for fear of infection. It is no longer about the ideas behind the words. So it becomes impossible to examine the ideas to see what about them might actually be good or bad.

What about the more usual terms used in political discourse: liberal and conservative? Are they any better? Not much. American conservatives claim liberals want to take away their freedom, but liberals are aware of no such desire. Indeed, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin for “free.” It originally was applied to the arts and sciences to distinguish the free or “liberal” arts (which were their own justification) from the “servile” arts (which served some practical purpose). Applied to people it means open-hearted, generous, or bountiful. It means free from bigotry and prejudice; free from restraint or free in speech or action. Politically, it originally meant those who favored greater freedom and democracy as well as social egalitarianism.

So why are liberals accused of opposing freedom? What freedom are their opponents talking about? Why does no one ask this question? What do they really object to? A rational discussion of political differences would certainly want to look at that question.

What does it mean to be conservative? Apart from politics it suggests someone who is careful, cautious, and thoughtful. Someone who avoids unnecessary risk, who moves slowly into to unknown territory. But political conservatives have recently been insisting on policies of reckless abandon. Confronted with the possibility that we are destroying our planet and thus our means to live, they insist that we charge madly ahead. We are like passengers on a speeding train who receive word that the bridge ahead may be destroyed. The “liberals” ask that we behave conservatively: slow down and move cautiously, while the “conservatives” say we should stoke up the engines and speed up. The liberals ask that we preserve our resources and the conservatives want us to consume more and more as if there were no possible end to them. The liberals want to conserve, and the conservatives want to destroy.

What is going on here?

Should we switch to new labels? Would that help? Many in the “liberal” camp prefer to be known as “progressives” (mostly because to many “liberal,” like “fascist” or “communist,” has become a dirty word). But what does that mean? Among those “progressives” — people who think of themselves as “progressive” — there are some who consider it foolish to actually believe in the possibility of progress. So we actually have progressives who do not believe that progress is possible!

What is going on here?

Labels are hopeless. But without them, how can we talk about the issues? Don't we need to generalize, and if we do, don't we need some kind of labels? Is it possible to have a rational discussion of politics at all?