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Labels and stereotypes: Where would we be without them?
Closer to understanding the world
Was Jefferson Davis a traitor? Was Harry Truman a war criminal for using the atom bomb? Did Turkey’s treatment of Armenians during the 1910s amount to genocide? Is criticism of Israel a form of anti-Semitism? Is the SAT test racist? Is J. K. Rowling a transphobe? Was Barack Obama as president a socialist? Is Donald Trump a fascist? Was the January 6 riot an attempted coup? Is America’s relationship with China a new Cold War?
What do these questions have in common?
Two things. First, they can keep pundits and historians debating endlessly. Second, they reflect the human desire to put labels on people and things—or, conversely, to put people and things into conceptual boxes.
This desire doubtless has roots in human evolution. Our ancestors needed to be able to distinguish friend from foe, prey from predator, and do so quickly. Seeing a tawny feline in the grass, they didn’t have time to discuss the variation in aggressiveness among lions. Safer simply to shout “lion” and start running. Labeling can mislead, but it doubtless saved lives and kept our human lineage going.
Labeling continues to serve purposes. Laws and social norms are constructed around labels. Actions that constitute genocide trigger particular responses from courts and governments. Likewise for war crimes. For a person to labeled a racist can make that person a pariah. The aim of conservatives in calling Obama a socialist is to link him to Marx and Lenin. The aim of progressives in calling Trump a fascist is to liken him to Hitler. Labeling America’s relationship with China a new Cold War suggests reprising the containment policies of the old Cold War.
Which reveals the problem with labeling. Obama isn’t Lenin; Trump isn’t Hitler; China isn’t the Soviet Union. Individuals are individuals and can only be understood as such. Analogies are helpful but only up to a point. Beyond that they don’t serve analysis; they become a poor substitute for analysis.
Labels are essentially stereotypes. Labels diminish the salience of differences among items assigned the same labels. Call Jefferson Davis a traitor and you put him in the same box as Benedict Arnold, who certainly would have been executed had he fallen into George Washington’s hands; ergo Davis should have been executed. But Davis wasn’t executed, which leaves the labeler at a loss.
Stereotypes do the same thing. If you say women are more sensitive than men, you posit a whole set of expectations about how half the population of the planet relates to the other half—expectations that don’t fairly apply to very large subsets of each half.
Yet while polite people try to avoid stereotypes, many of them have no problem with labels. Partly this is because stereotypes, historically, have often been pejorative. The Irish drink a lot. People with Southern accents are slow-witted. But even when stereotypes are positive—Asians are good at math, gay men know fashion—they put people into boxes.
Labels do the same thing. And yet labels are tolerated, in some cases mandated. “Are you now or have you ever been a communist?” was demanded of many people suspected of leftism during the McCarthy era. Refusing to answer was perceived as tantamount to saying yes. In progressive circles lately, “systemic racism” has been the required explanation for differences in performance of different racial groups.
Often the labels are less about the people and things being labeled than about those doing the labeling. Any Republican not willing to call Obama a socialist is suspected, by other Republicans, of being insufficiently devoted to the conservative cause. Among progressives, to defend the idea of Columbus Day is to risk being accused of countenancing genocide.
This is the more reliable part of the labeling process. Calling Obama a socialist doesn’t make him a socialist, but it does, with pretty good accuracy, identify the caller as a conservative Republican. Insisting that Columbus Day be renamed Indigenous Peoples Day doesn’t tell us anything useful about Columbus or indigenous peoples, but it does identify the insister as a progressive.
So: If you want to start an argument or keep it going, use labels to your heart’s content. If you want to signal your affiliations to the world, do the same thing.
But if you want to understand the world, past and present, set aside the labels and seek the individuality of people and things. Individuals are always more interesting than labels.