Understanding and Labeling

It is a shame that in many cases, the level of debate in politics (either at the dinner table or between pundits) has not developed past kindergarten.  Name-calling and pigeon-holing and high emotion leading to arguments and recrimination are far from uncommon.


This is true in other fields, such as the arts, but is quite dramatic in politics.


There is a basic reason for this phenomenon.  When exposed to something new, people generally feel somewhat adrift, rootless in a wide open field –p- a rather uncomfortable sensation.  So they generally struggle to put some sort of boundary to that unknown, break it down, and then put a name to it.   In other words, what was once a part of the general whirl and static of the everyday is now an object of distinction.


While naming is a normal (perhaps even not required) step to understanding something, it does not mean anything further has been achieved.  “I don’t know what it is, but I know what to call it.”


A label gives the appearance of understanding, and therefore can stop people from actually investigating further because the thing is (obviously) already understood – a hidden sort of circular logic that is commonly indulged.


Labels are to assist understanding, not replace or substitute for it.


If someone is arguing (for example) in favor of investing in a social safety net, he/she may be quickly labeled and denounced as a “socialist,” which puts a patina of assumed understanding on something that is obviously much more nuanced than a single word.  Again, a word, a label, gives the appearance of understanding; if something is “understood,” you no longer need to look at it, to explore it, to understand it because, well, it is “understood.”  But ask what “socialism” is or why it is a bad thing, and you may get a blank stare and no answer.  They thought they understood because they were told that “safety net=socialism=bad,” while possibly not understanding any of the terms.  Importantly, it is not that the person is willingly trying to deceive.  Ignorance is often hidden under the façade of labels.


Labels break down reality into manageable parts, but they do not impart understanding in and of themselves.  Like any form of truth (no matter how slight), they are stepping stones towards greater horizons.  It is past time to graduate from kindergarten and move up to something greater.

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