Perhaps Tallyrand was right when he (purportedly) said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts; we sure aren’t using it in order to communicate with each other these days.
In order to use language to exchange ideas, rather than to evade the chore of thinking, we’d have to stop the increasing tendency to substitute labeling for communicating. There are two major problems with that substitution: it allows us to avoid responding to the merits of an argument, and the labels themselves are all too often devoid of any meaningful content.
As many of you know, I alternate columns in the IBJ with Peter Rusthoven–I write one week, he the next. Generally, we do not take issue with each other, but a few weeks ago, I wrote a column that criticized the GOPs repeated efforts to derail “Obamacare,” including the House of Representatives’ forty (meaningless/posturing) votes. Rusthoven disagreed with that column, as he has a perfect right to do. But opened his “response” by pointing out that I am (in his lexicon, at least) a liberal. The implication was clear: we need not spend any time on the merits of her arguments, because we’ve placed her in this particular box and we have all made up our minds about the content of that box.
It may not be fair to pick on Peter for this behavior, because he is far from the only person who engages in it–on either side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we all classify others to some extent; it’s human and it’s often efficient. The problem is, if we are going to affix a label that actually assists us in understanding where another person is coming from, we need to agree on the meaning of that label. And these days, we don’t.
Labels have lost their descriptive utility–they’ve become insults. Epithets. This is especially true of political labels.
A couple of years back, I proposed a quiz:
- Established the Environmental Protection Agency
- Pardoned a powerful person who had committed a felony
- Changed the rules governing welfare to restrict benefits and add work requirements
- Defended the right of gays to serve in the military
- Imposed wage and price controls during an inflationary spiral