The Trouble With Labels

I recently had an exchange in an obscure corner of Facebook with an individual.  This gentleman, whom I will not name, objected to my position on an issue of fiscal policy.  He then went on to tell me what my problem was.

The trouble with you liberals is you deal in emotions rather than facts. At least that is about the only reason I can see why you would so willingly want the government and then spend in the most foolish ways imaginable. […] The dirty little secret liberals don’t want to admit is that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.

When I expressed that I found his attitude arrogant and condescending, and that he knew nothing about me, he responded with the statements below.

Hi again Nick. I take exception to your calling me arrogant and condescending. I said nothing in my post that should cause you to say that. To the contrary I do know something about you. You are a liberal. You don’t have to refer to yourself as a liberal. All one has to do is read over some of your posts. There is nothing you say that indicates that you are anything but a liberal. Hell, if you are a liberal, admit it. […] I had taken the time (which I don’t have enough of to be doing this) to send you some links with actual facts, but after seeing what you read and the things you have said in your posts, it’s pointless. You read liberalism, you think liberalism. Liberalism in, liberalism out. I know that right about now you are thinking that I am a stupid, illiterate, red neck conservative, but that’s okay, I understand that’s the way most liberals think of us.

So, I provided a description of “the trouble with labels” which I’m reproducing here.  The excerpt below addressed to this individual, whom I will call Frank (name changed).

Hi Frank, Thank you for writing back. 

The first two sentences of your previous response were the cause of my concern.  You see, when you label a person, you offer yourself an opportunity to treat that person as a thing and not an individual. For example, I can say "Tom is XXX" (use any label you want… conservative, liberal, black, gay, racist, feminist, whatever Tom is). Then I can say "XXX are fools."  Then I can say "Tom is therefore a fool" without ever knowing anything about Tom.  Perhaps Tom is not a fool.  Perhaps Tom is an individual.  That step (from label to person) is important in allowing an actual conversation to form.  You need two people speaking to each other.  Neither one treating the other as a label.  I will not treat you as a label Frank.  My offense came from your choice (twice) to label me.  If you want to know more, look into the writings of the philosopher Martin Buber (I and Thou) ( ).

Your decision to apply a label and then discount my words because of that label is a type of logical fallacy called an "Ad Hominem" attack.  In this type of argument, one person does not address the truth of the other’s words.  Instead, he attacks the person making the argument.   

Here’s how Ad Hominem works:  "Tom says the sun is a star. Tom likes broccoli.  Anyone who eats broccoli is a fool.  Therefore, Tom is a fool. Therefore, the sun is not a star."  The words of Tom may be true, but because Tom is a member of a "fool" group, all of his arguments are wrong.  Ad Hominem is taught.  It is a favorite of propagandists who want you to ignore the words of others.  Individuals who think critically can still be fooled by Ad Hominem attacks.  I do my best to ignore and refute Ad Hominem attacks.  That is another reason that I find offense with labels. 

Here’s the rub.  I have spoken earlier about the need to spread the word about critical thinking.  I will continue to ask people to consider ideas that may be foreign to them.  However, before we can convince, we must connect.  Two people cannot grow through a relationship unless they first relate to one another.  This is what Martin Buber means with his concept of the “I and Thou” relationship.  Buber compared it to the “I and it” relationship, where we perceive our world in the context of the things that surround us.  By using the “I and Thou” relationship, I treat the other person as a person, not a thing.  I begin an honest connection and open myself to the possibility of learning from him.  I believe that this is the first step to removing the artificial barrier that has crept into American life as a result of the years of propaganda from Fox News.  To change, we must first connect.

In my prior thread, I had wished Frank “happy holidays” to which he replied “Merry CHRISTMAS” as though I were offering an insult.

Here’s how I ended this particular thread with Frank:

Now, rather than Ad Hominem, I encourage you to actually read the articles that I cited, and then go further, and read the **actual source material** that they cite… all from non-partisan sources like the CBO and the IMF.  If you take a few minutes and think critically, you may discover that your understanding of fiscal policy has been based on incomplete or incorrect information.  I am willing to learn and grow.  I will read ANY article you point me to, and look under the article for the source material that backs it up.  I will consider the credentials of the person making the statements, and the credibility that they have in their own field, before accepting their words as facts.  Please do the same.

Lastly, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and hope that the spirit of love and friendship fills your home this holiday season.  As for myself, I will have a warm and beautiful Hanukkah with my family.  Please do not be offended that I chose not to wish you Hanukkah Sameach in my earlier post.  I did not want to assume that you and I shared a religion. 

All the best.

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1 thought on “The Trouble With Labels”

  1. Nick,

    I think many of us have had the kind of exchange that you relate, especially though the last couple of election cycles? Acknowledging that we all likely suffer from human failings in critical thinking, including the kind of “confirmation bias” that you encountered, it does seem to me that more and more of our compatriots are happy to rely upon sound-bites and not look any further. I hope I’m not in that camp.

    Perhaps the best/only path is for everyone to try to listen a bit more closely to claims, to dig a bit deeper for the supporting facts of claims, to call-out false claims, and to do so in a civil manner.

    The alternative doesn’t seem to be working.

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