The dichotomy of labels

The usefulness of labels is determined by the context and the kind of thing they are attempting to describe. If we limit ourselves to the purview of the non-deterministic disciplines such as sociology, philosophy or polity, I think the following hypothesis holds true in a lot of cases:

Labels are useful for naming discrete states—helping in a clear separation of the ideologies or groups. However, when employed to describe significant points on a continuum with two diametrically opposite extremes, labels can be misleading.

An example that illustrates the point about the discrete states is feminism. You are either a feminist or you aren't based on whether you believe in the equality of the sexes or not. There is no scope for being a partial feminist. These represent discrete states. While this fight for equality can be for various causes, the labelling of this movement as the feminist movement plays an important role in attracting attention to it. It also helps people identify with the premise and subsequently support or reject it.

One's economic or political leaning, on the other hand, can be represented by a continuum. The left and the right are extremes but one can be centre-left or centre-right to different degrees. In such cases, labels do more harm than good.

The main reason is that the extremes often represent the most radical ideologies. Radical ideas when combined with rhetoric make it very easy to subscribe to them—particularly for people who don't think for themselves. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, one's opinions are mostly acquired. A political extremist's position on one subject can easily be determined by that on something else because they live with the pressure of justifying everything that makes them align to the left or the right. It is a perfect example of confirmation bias.

The labels describing the extremes become so widespread that the continuum stops being a continuum to the people subscribing to them. They start getting treated as discrete states. The realisation that there are points in between is completely lost. A simple heuristic to validate this is the lack of popularity of positions like centre-left or centre-right vis a vis the traditional left or right.

Labels prevent people from being nuanced. One can only think independently and analyse issues on their merits when the pressure of attaching oneself to a label is removed. The people who are able to do it lie at various points on the continuum on different issues. The average of their positions can give an impression that they are moderates but such characterisation will be inferential and not descriptive.

The image we have of ourselves and the impact it has on our lives is also a good example representing the problem with labels. Our being is a continuum in the sense that we hold the ability to be contrasting things at different points in time. But we resist doing anything that clashes with the labels that we have chosen to attach ourselves to—either through our own limited thinking or because society has made us believe so over time. More than our inability to do something, I believe that it is the pressure to conform to the label that prevents us from leading a fuller life. Think about the labels that you identify with and I am sure you'll find examples of how you prevented yourself from trying something orthogonal to it.

The crux is that when dealing with continuums, be mindful of labels. They can be important for understanding the choices but independent thinking is needed to ensure that you don't fall into the trap of conformism.


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