Label Me, I'll Label You
The fact is, words have rich, full-bodied value. We attach meaning to them without even thinking about it. We make judgments based on words we didn't even consciously hear. And that, my friends, is why labels are so important to politicians, strategists and media types.
About this time four years ago, a friend of a friend posted something about the Obama/Romney election on Facebook that I (unwisely) decided to respond to. (I don't remember every word she wrote, so I'm paraphrasing, except the part in bold, where my recall is perfect.) Here it is:
She: I know one thing about this election: you just can't vote for the party that supports corporations and big banks over small businesses and does nothing to help the poor, children or minorities.
Me: I realize you've heard conservatives described that way in the media, but the conservatives I know don't care about corporations or big banks, except insomuch as they care for employees who depend on them and the jobs they provide. And I know a lot of conservatives who give generously to the poor, with their tax money, with cash donations and with their time. A lot of them are foster parents or have adopted children. I also see kindness and fairness toward all kinds of minorities from my conservative friends. Just keep in mind that everything the media says about conservatives is not necessarily true.
She: Well, if you had ever gone to college you would have taken a political science class and learned that conservatives favor corporations over small businesses, rich people over poor people and white people over minorities.
Me: Actually, I did go to college. I have a degree in journalism, which taught me to investigate and question authority. Did you know that most political science professors are liberal? That most political science textbooks were written by people with liberal beliefs?
She: If you have a degree in journalism then you should understand what I'm talking about. The definitions of conservative and liberal are right there in the textbooks.
Me: I don't like the idea of a liberal professor defining what it means to be conservative anymore than I'm sure you like the idea of a conservative professor defining what it means to be liberal.
I think that's when I gave up. She seemed truly puzzled that I didn't accept the textbook definitions of political ideology, as if I was denying that 1+1=2. And while her condescending, prejudiced attitude surprised and frustrated me, I also found it very educational. Some people buy into labels with all their hearts, minds and souls. You can't reason them out of it.She: I don't understand how you can deny what's right there in black and white.
But what about me? What about you?
Today I'm going to talk about labels -- what they mean, what they imply, how they are used by the media and how people respond to them.
Left vs. Right
(left wing vs. right wing, far left vs. far right, ultra right vs. ultra left, etc.)
The labeling of political parties as "left" and right" originated in revolutionary France, where members of parliament sitting on the right supported the monarchy and those sitting on the left supported a French republic. Perhaps those origins explain why people still perpetuate the fallacy that those on the left support progress and change while those on the right want things to stay the way they are. (If that's true, why do conservatives support changing welfare laws? The education system? Revamping social security? Medicare? Fixing our immigration laws? Abolishing the IRS?) In truth, the labels "left" and "right" are best understood by issue association rather than with broad generalities. I find the descriptions and charts listed on Diffen to be fairly helpful, if still a little simplistic.
So how does the media handle these terms? Very differently, as it turns out. Sharyl Attkisson addresses this in her 2015 book Stonewalled, describing numerous times when her journalistic peers used the words "far-right" or "right-wing" to describe conservative analysts, think tanks or politicians, but failed to used "far-left" or "left-wing" to describe liberals -- in the same article -- instead using more generic labels such as "women's rights advocates" or an "independent consumer group." The Media Research Center has been studying this issue for decades. They found, for example, that the conservative Heritage Foundation was labeled as right-leaning in 59 percent of major American newspapers, while the liberal Brookings Institution was labeled as left-leaning only 1 percent of the time.
Conservative vs. Liberal
The original definition of conservative is closely associated with tradition, caution, restraint or reserve, while the original definition of liberal involves freedom, openness and unfettered laws or behavior. But again, to understand these labels today, you have to consider their political meaning over their literal meaning. Yes, usually liberals have more "liberal" views -- but not on every issue. For example, it could be said that liberals are much more conservative in their interpretation of the second amendment, seeing it in an extremely limited, restrained way (ie, muskets). Conversely, conservatives are very liberal in their interpretation of the second amendment. To them, it should be unrestrained and interpreted with a "liberal" dose of freedom.
But what does it really mean NOW to be conservative or liberal? As my Facebook discussion shows, it depends on whom you ask. That conversation was not my first foray into repudiating a liberal's preconceived ideas of what is or is not important to conservatives. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher made us take a "test" meant to tell us whether we were liberal or conservative. When my test results designated me as a moderate, I raised my hand in protest. "I'm a conservative," I told my teacher, pointing out the error in his test, which pushed me into the moderate category based on a single issue: whether or not I supported interracial marriage. My teacher insisted that his test was accurate, that conservatives don't support interracial marriage. I could not convince him otherwise.
(Bigot, Intolerant, Xenophobic, Hateful, etc.)
Yes, people who are against interracial marriage also tend to be conservative, but it doesn't follow that conservatives tend to be against interracial marriage. In fact, they don't. But liberals tend to overemphasize that connection to paint all conservatives with a negative brush, ignoring mitigating factors, such as age (older people oppose interracial marriage more than younger people. Older people also tend to be more conservative).
Is it okay if we do that to liberals? For example, most people involved in protests and riots in 2016 are expressing liberal ideas (against Trump, against police, etc.) So does that mean all liberals are rioters? Or that rioting is a defining characteristic of liberalism? Of course not.
|Truly adorable family, selling Cheerios.|
And then there was the time that MSNBC tweeted that "right-wingers" were going to hate a Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial couple. Even though MSNBC took down that tweet, dozens of conservatives took to Twitter to respond with photos tagged #myrightwingbiracialfamily.
This, by the way, is one of the more humorous pitfalls of labeling people -- when they happily adopt the label in defiance of what you think. Case in point: right now you can go on Twitter and see thousands of people who are embracing the "basket of deplorables" label attached to them by Hillary Clinton. If they are clever, they can turn it into an entirely new kind of publicity strategy to use against you, as was artfully done here:
"Racist" has been a popular label for many years. Sometimes the racism is real, as in this recent article about a New York mayor who has shared memes on Facebook suggesting Obama should be lynched! (Sickening). Sometimes the racism is a quiet giant, mostly unnoticed by those of us it doesn't affect. This New York Times article points out the Jim Crow background of laws restricting felons from voting, raising many good questions that I have never considered.
But sometimes "racist" is simply used to silence opponents. Case in point: Voter ID laws, created by white conservatives to disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters. It actually baffles me that anyone would buy into this lie (which makes me think they are NOT buying into this lie, they are simply peddling it for political gain). The facts speak for themselves on this issue. First, black voter turnout was higher than ever in the 2012 election, even in states with strict voter ID laws. Second, 75 percent of black and Hispanic voters actually support voter ID laws! Third, the liberals who demand that we change voter ID laws make no similar demands for any other ID laws. None. No one is arguing that going through airport security with an ID is more difficult for black Americans. No one is arguing that picking up a prescription with a photo ID is more difficult for Hispanics. No one says that we are systematically trying to keep minorities out of schools, nightclubs, federal buildings or banks simply because we ask for identification.
So why the controversy? Why do you have to scroll through the third, fourth and fifth page of a Google search on "voter ID laws" to find anything other than the liberal mantra that these laws are designed to keep minorities from voting?
The answer is simple: voter fraud. It's real, and it's happening right now, no matter how ardently liberals try and debunk it as a myth. (When you search for "voter fraud" on Google, "voter fraud myth" is the first and most frequent response. Hmmm. Seems they are working really hard to prove this isn't true, even though there are plenty of convictions to prove otherwise, as noted here, here, here, and here.) Thousands, if not millions, of ballots are cast every election by people who are not living, not legally allowed to vote, or are voting more than once. But sometimes, voter fraud isn't committed with the intent of getting a Democrat over a Republican. Sometimes, it's to get a favored Democrat over another, as is theorized about Hillary Clinton's win over Bernie Sanders in the California Democratic primary.
Then there's Trump: a racist according to everyone everywhere (or that's how it seems). His "birtherism" questions about Obama? Racist! His position on illegal immigration? Racist!
But sometimes the media goes too far to make SURE you think of Trump as a racist, as demonstrated in this CNN story, where they falsely added the word "racial" to Trump's comments on profiling terror suspects.
Now, I'm not here to defend Donald Trump. I don't like him, I don't like the ideas he expresses and I don't even like the way he talks about the issues on which I might actually agree with him. But is it really racist to question whether the president was born in the United States? Maybe, maybe not. Is it really racist to suggest that illegal immigration is a problem to the American economy? I don't think so. (I would be concerned about illegal immigration even if most undocumented immigrants had white skin and blue eyes, but good luck convincing a Democrat of that!)
As for Obama, our first black president, I think the best respect I can show him is to be perfectly indifferent to his race as I analyze his policies. I rarely agree with him. I am highly critical of his beliefs and his actions as president, but to "soften" that criticism because he's black would be insulting. He's an intelligent man who sought the highest office in the land, one in which forty plus white men preceded him, all of whom were criticized soundly by their political opponents. Obama is just as strong and capable as any of those men -- he's certainly strong enough to withstand my criticism and I'm not about to soften it in consideration of his race ... because his race has NOTHING TO DO WITH what I think of his politics.
Pro-choice vs. Pro-life
Why is it called "pro-choice" to believe in legalized abortion? Because abortion advocates don't want to emphasize the abortion part of abortion, but the you-get-to-choose part of abortion. But here's the thing about bad labels: they work great when you're preaching to the choir, but the ones who disagree with you are never fooled. "Pro-choice" is one of the most misapplied labels of all and here's why: because abortion advocates don't actually put "choice" at the top of their priority list.
Do they believe I should have a choice as to which school my kid goes to? No.
Do they think I should get to choose whether or not to homeschool my kid? No.
Do they think I should get to choose whether or not to own a gun? No.
Do they think a bakery should get to choose whether or not they cater a gay couple's wedding? No
Do they think I should have a choice of whether or not to buy healthcare? No
Do they think I should even have a choice of whether or not to pay for someone else's abortion with my tax dollars? No
Choice is not their priority, abortion is. That's why this label is so ridiculous.
So what about pro-life? I suppose the same argument could be made, if those who oppose abortion are not truly putting human life first on their list of priorities. If you are opposed to abortion, but believe in executions, acts of war, maybe "pro-life" isn't the best term for your beliefs either. At least it is something to think about -- and I'm trying to be fair here, after all.
But what does the media think? According to the Washington Post's Stylebook, the terms "pro-life" and "right-to-life" should never be used except in quotes or when used by advocates:
"Use `abortion-rights advocates' for those who support freedom of choice in the matter, ‘antiabortion' for those who oppose it." -- Washington Post StylebookWow, that's not at all biased.
Not long ago, I was perusing a list of literary agents who were actively seeking writers to add to their client list. One thing that most of these agents wanted to see in new fiction was "diversity." By investigating each of these agents a little bit further, I learned that what they meant by "diversity" was one thing: they wanted gay characters.
Are gay characters diverse? Yes, I suppose they are. But when "diversity" only means one thing, that's not just ironic, that's a problem. Because diverse should mean, well, diverse. And I get it. Believe me. Producers, agents, editors, publishers, networks want to show their tolerance to the world. They want to demonstrate their open-minded, non-bigoted beliefs by embracing gay characters, highlighting them, making us all empathize with their stories. Okay. But what about other kinds of diversity?
I see progress on this in some ways. There's a new show called "Speechless" about a mother and her non-verbal son that's getting lots of press for disability advocacy. We've seen other books, shows and movies that feature cancer and Alzheimer's patients. We have blind superheroes. We have adults and children on the Autism spectrum. Other shows demonstrate the humanity of Muslim men and women.
So where are the Christians? I'm sorry, did I miss something? Because I never see a mainstream, network (or cable) show that depicts Christians in a positive light. They're always shown as uptight, judgmental, hypocritical, crooked, hateful, goofy or ridiculous. (Ned Flanders, anyone?)
In modern politics, I'm afraid "tolerance" has completely lost its meaning. Once upon a time, "tolerance" meant to put up with something -- maybe even something you disapprove of -- for a greater good. The issue of tolerance always reminds me of the case of the Nazis who wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominately Jewish community. In a landmark ruling, the courts held that they could march there because our freedom of speech laws demand that we tolerate all voices, even those we find reprehensible. We as a society must tolerate reprehensible speech in our communities, but we are also free to express our own beliefs against it without fear of persecution or prosecution.
Why? Why should we have to put up with such hatefulness? Because that's what makes America unique in this world -- our tolerance of all ideas. That tolerance is what makes it impossible for the loudest, most powerful voices to shut out dissent. And the price we pay for it is having to listen to a few hateful nutters now and again.
That's not what tolerance means any more. Along with our true freedom of speech, tolerance is quickly going by the wayside. Today, tolerance means to support a cause that is politically popular or advantageous. The problem with this definition is that it makes tolerance and intolerance indistinguishable from each other.
I don't know about you, but I would just rather people be allowed to say what they think without me freaking out about it. Imagine, for example, if two people could have this conversation:
First dude: I think gay marriage is great.
Second dude: I don't. I believe marriage is defined by God as being between one man and one woman.
First dude: But lots of Christians get divorced and remarried. That's not one man and one woman.
Second dude: You're right, man. But I don't base my beliefs on what people do, I base them on what God says.
First dude: I can't agree with that.
Second dude: Okay. Have a nice day.
First dude: You too. Oh! We still on for raquetball Thursday?
If this kind of tolerance is difficult for you, imagine that they are talking about being vegan or carnivorous instead. (I find that people don't get nearly as bent out of shape tolerating other people's nutritional values.)
Again, this brand of enforced "tolerance" can backlash in ways you would never imagine. I read a very interesting article (I apologize for the title) a few weeks ago that suggests Trump's rise to political power is entirely due to American fears that their freedom of speech is slipping away. Trump says what he wants and doesn't care what anyone thinks and people love him for unashamedly embracing that freedom. Hmm. Food for thought.
I could go on and on about labels. (Actually, I DID go on and on about labels.) But I'll stop there. I'd love to hear what labels bother you, which ones you use, which ones have been thrown at you, and definitely if you've found yourself unforgiven for any of them. (And just in case you're wondering: Yes, I do have that Metallica song stuck in my head, thank you very much.)
Next week, I'm going to do a little labeling case study to show you what this looks like in very liberal and very conservative online media outlets. Don't miss it!