Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Disable the Label

Today I had a conversation with a woman about politics. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in D.C. Invariably the conversation led to abortion. She is staunchly pro-choice, and pro-choice in the sense that she sees abortion as an absolute right, unwilling to even discuss the prospect that the fetus' life has value. She told me she felt the fetus wasn't a person until it was born, and she was entirely unwilling to discuss the question of life beyond her base assertion. I didn't feel there was much room for compromise in her position, or throughout the conversation.

I, on the other hand, am staunchly pro-life, because I believe that life begins at conception. This is hardly news. However, at the same time, I sincerely believe that there is great room for compromise on the issue. Obviously it is a widely polarized debate, and only the shrillest voices on either side are heard, however, I honestly feel that there is a plenty of ground for the two sides to agree on. Chiefly I think consensus can be reached in addressing the causes and effects of unwanted pregnancy through methods other than abortion (for example, I think we should improve our sex education, liberalize adoption laws, and seriously consider providing free childcare for parents below a certain income level, all three of which would address different problems associated with unwanted pregnancies). Recognizing that unwanted pregnancies are a serious problem, we have two non-exclusive sets of options to draw from: we can reduce the pregnancies (better sex education, pregnancy prevention, and/or abortion), or we can reduce the unwantedness (free childcare, better adoption programs, health care for mothers and children, etc).

This is a position I've really taken to lately, and even proposed it as a research topic in a fellowship I recently applied to. I think it has a lot of promise.

What is frustrating to me - and what is I suppose constitutes the thesis of this post (4 paragraphs in... really quality writing, Matt) - is that in response to my very middle ground views (and let's face it, trying to work to compromise on abortion is very middle ground) many people still want to label me as a conservative or Republican. This is true both of the issue ("he's conservative on abortion") and more generally ("he takes the pro-life position because he's a Republican").

Of the two, the later is obviously the more pernicious scourge, though even the first is problematic. You see both types of labeling all the time, and I'm sure I'm guilty of it too. Labels provide an easy way to summarize and categorize someone's viewpoint, and in so doing marginalize what they're really saying. For example, by labeling me "conservative on abortion" the woman was able to essentially ignore the fact that I was putting forth some very new and constructive arguments in favor of a middle ground position. She didn't want to change (or, it seemed to me, even rethink) her position on the issue, and so instead she used a convenient label to overlook what I was actually saying.

I know I do the same sort of thing when discussing theology. If someone presents to me a literal interpretation view of the Bible, it's very easy for me to say to myself, "Ah ha! They're taking a fundamentalist approach to Scripture." Then, instead of actually engaging in the new conversation, I often re-live previous discussions of the issue, and bring out old arguments that I've used time and time again. To some extent these labels can be useful, particularly if nothing new is actually being said. But we need to be very careful in using them, because if they prevent us from listening to new ideas and arguments on an issue then they're doing more harm than good.

The second type of labeling, the more insidious type, is labeling someone as something general because of a single belief or limited set of beliefs. Today I was told I was a conservative and a Republican because of my pro-life beliefs (no regard was given to the middle ground position I actually advocate). Quite simply, I am neither a Republican, nor a conservative. Talk to me about health care or welfare reform or minimum wage laws or capital punishment or taxes and you'll certainly conclude I'm not a Republican. This woman knows how I feel about most of those issues, so why would she label me a conservative for my singular belief on abortion? I think the reason is because she actually wanted to dismiss what I was saying. In labeling me "conservative on abortion" she could ignore what I was saying. But in labeling me "a conservative" she was able to dismiss my ideas as "typically conservative". She has already drawn a conclusion for herself that conservative ideas are bad ideas, and therefore can dismiss them out of hand.

The logic here is of course flawed. Because she disagreed with my position, she identified me as a conservative. Then, because I was a conservative, I was presenting a conservative idea. Because it was a conservative idea, it was a bad idea. Nevermind the fact that my idea wasn't actually conservative (or bad for that matter). The label enabled her conclusion; it led her to dismiss my idea as bad without ever actually stopping to think about the idea.

It's a frustrating feeling, being labeled something you're not. It's even more frustrating when the result of that is people ignoring or dismissing your ideas. We all do it. I'm sure it's in our nature. But we ought to do our best to root it out. Labels can be helpful. But just like any tool, when used improperly they can be terribly destructive.

It looks a lot like engine oil
And tastes like being poor and small


Jeff said...

There's a great Post article about how Rudolph the Red Faced Mayor (this is how I'm referring to Giuliani from now on) is not "moderate" in any way, shape, or form, despite his views on abortion and guns. I think it speaks to what you're saying, though from the other direction. I have a link at the bottom of my most recent post (it's long too) if you're interested.

I also remember Ben telling me about how he was at a Democratic group meeting when someone said that Dems should just write off the evangelical pro-life crowd. I can only imagine what that felt like.

empeterson said...

I get it all the time at St. Kate's. Well, not me specifically, but people. Except a lot of times people pretend to be polite and listen, but really after the other person goes away, or even while they're talking, they dismiss them completely or label them as a conservative or a liberal, or whatever. They don't even have the common decency to tell the other person they entirely disregard what they're saying. That's almost worst, because it's doing the labelling/dismissing thing, but pretending to not do it, and so there isn't even a real chance for dialogue.

That's the problem with this whole labelling thing anyway-everyone thinks that their ideas are right, that other people who disagree with them are automatically wrong, and that certain groups of people (i.e., Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, E-Free, etc) as a group, and therefore every individual in that group, holds ideas opposed to theirs. Therefore, they don't listen, don't care to listen, and the gap between people gets even bigger. There is no dialogue between them, because one or both of the people talking have a conversation in which they are trying to "win" by making the other come to see their point of view, when really neither side cares to see the others point of view. Which is really backwards, because instead of trying to get everyone to see our own point of view, we should be trying really hard to see other people's points of view because they might have something intelligent or worthwhile to say, to add to our own ideas and beliefs, as well as to the general good of society. Ok Matt, I hope that was a good enough comment for you. I actually put some effort into it.