That Time I Got Labelled

I was in a pretty heated conversation online. Stirred up emotions on the internet — who’d have guessed, right?!

This time, it was about an aspect of what my opposing debaters viewed as a core element of their doctrine (I won’t name it because that’s a distraction to my point). When you’re in a conversation about something one party sees as core, and the other does not, there are few productive options for conversation to proceed.

In this particular instance, it turned to labelling — I got called a liberal, in the sense of theological liberal.

This is a useful example to parse out, because it’s about ideas more than it is about core, unchangeable aspects of my personhood, yet its principles go deep!

I felt like it was intended as an insult (and I still think it probably was). But it did two things to me, which I think are entirely remarkable:

  1. It gave me an option to leave the conversation on the presumption that we shared no common ground (and in the moment, I relished that possibility)
  2. It gave me the idea that I have a tribe out there somewhere.

This exercise in labelling simultaneously othered me, in a way which I was very (gleefully) tempted to internalise, and suggested that there is a tribe I could affiliate with out there, elsewhere.

In two different ways, a label spoke to my identity.

Labels do (at least) two jobs, every time out:

  • They provide us with a place to belong.
  • And they infer we don’t belong here.

A label I adopt, embrace and own is very different than a label which is pushed on me. It might even be the same label — it usually takes on a different tone when it comes from outside the self than it does from within the self.

Of course, that works differently if the label bears a weight of shame as I internalise it — it is a horrendous thing we do to ourselves to internalise a label we feel shame about, and not confront ourselves with some necessary options:

  • if I haven’t earned the label, ignore it,
  • change what I do/say/think that might have earned me the label,
  • change how I view the label!

We also need to consider how we project labels. All throughout history, labels have been used to announce “other!” Many examples of ways in which people refer to themselves are rooted in others’ perceptions — often these words embody prejudice.

In fact, many of the everyday labels we use are co-opted and re-purposed by the people who’ve been their intended target.

This in itself is a subversive act of redemption.

Facing all the complications and terrible history, some have asked why we don’t get rid of labels entirely. Well, this post goes some way to answer that — labels give shape to affiliation and community. They help us build a shared understanding of the world around us.

But I believe that they also need to be held loosely, used with intentionality and awareness.

Labels can do some beautiful work of identifying and connecting. But they can be even more efficient at identifying and isolating.

When we use labels without sufficient consideration, we can send messages we don’t intend. Our human nature tends to presuppose a label comes with stigma and separation.

If that’s not what we mean, then we need to keep our welcome candid, vocal and on-record, consistently.