Monday, November 24, 2008

Musings on Labels

I've given thought lately to our use of labels in society and how this affects our perceptions of things, mainly other people.

Most of our labels have a moral message hard-coded into them. When somebody uses a term like "racial prejudice", "hate crime", "homophobic" or "anti-Semitism" it's pretty clear how they feel about the word they're using. It's a shortcut of sorts and sends a pretty clear message about the person described by the term.

But some terms don't behave in this way. "Ethnic cleansing" or "purification" must be understood ironically from the point of view of those doing the "cleansing". We don't agree with the concept embodied by the neutered term, but the harsher, more correct term - "genocide" - carries a more appropriate, powerful punch that not all may find comfortable.

My favorite labels are the more ambiguous ones: "Democrat or Republican" doesn't usually provoke strong reactions, but the more vicious "liberal or conservative" labels or anything that ends in "-winger" vary in meaning considerably depending on where you stand and how eager you are to demonize an entire political opposition. Use of these labels almost single-handedly guarantees that other political stripes won't exist, as everybody in our country must be part of an imaginary two-sided "culture war" that nobody can opt out of.

"Culture war." That's another one. The more you use it, the less you need to think about the issues and the easier it is to sound like you know what you're talking about when you call talk radio hosts.

Somebody who crosses the border without filing, jumping through all of the hoops and waiting a decade to help their family find breakfast each morning is an "illegal immigrant" or even an "alien", but somebody who gets paid to fly across the entire world and smash up a country is considered a hero fighting for our freedom (keep in mind that I'm using different language for purposes of analyzing our perception, not necessarily making moral judgments about each and every soldier or illegal migrant worker).

Furthermore, a cheater on a test isn't considered an "illegal student". People who speed and don't pay attention aren't "illegal drivers" even though they're putting lives at risk and aren't contributing to society like the "aliens" we vilify.

So - my question. Do labels come from meaning or do we create meaning from our labels?

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