Note (27/12/2022): I've changed my mind about some of what's in the below piece. Namely, I now think it's possible to make a lot more sense of why seemingly different positions fall into the broad categories of left and right. I will write a piece explaining this in the future.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

When we are born, we are given a name. We walk through life with a strong attachment to it, as if something about those syllables revealed who we really are.

We pick up many more names on the way.

I could be said to be a millennial, a male, an atheist, a critical rationalist, a sentientist, a writer, a bodhisattva, a yogi, a consequentialist, an environmentalist, a libertarian and a vegan.

Do any of these words capture the essence of what I am?

The labels that we apply to ourselves and others are ultimately conventions. They are a means for communicating information about ourselves — typically beliefs we hold or behaviours we engage in.

They are a means to an end, yet we forget this and start to value the labels above the ends they were trying to accomplish.

To identify with a label, to truly feel that it is a part of what you are is to make a mistake. In this piece, I would like to talk about the price we all pay for it.

This piece will focus on labels that intend to communicate the beliefs and behaviours of a person.

Words like Buddhist, Marxist, capitalist, feminist, Epicurean and empiricist describe a person’s view of the world (and presumably the behaviours which follow).

What is the problem here?

These labels are imprecise, distract us from our real differences and make discussion unnecessarily personal.

What’s in a name?

A label can mean many things at once. They often change over time with culture and ideas. They are often interpreted in different ways by different groups of people.

Take the word atheist. There are many layers of meaning to this word. Many criticise atheists for arrogance in claiming to know there is no god, yet most atheists do not make this claim.

The problem is the way the word is being used. Over time and between groups of people, its meaning differs:

  1. A person who claims to know there is no god
  2. A person who does not believe in the existence of a god

It is much easier to argue against definition 1 than definition 2.

There was a time when in most of our minds, the word atheist referred to the former; in many circles, it still does. It is strange, isn’t it? Does anyone actually believe that Richard Dawkins et al. have claimed absolute certainty?

Like all language, the meanings of the labels we pin to ourselves are subject to change. When we identify with one, we entangle ourselves with these changes as well as others’ misunderstanding of them.

If you state your position up front, you are free from this entanglement.

“I see no reason or evidence for the existence of a god.”

A recurring theme of this piece will be that our conversation should always be at the level of ideas, and not identity. Discussion should be a collaborative effort to refine our ideas and understand the truth.

A clear example of labels being imprecise and confusing is the left-right spectrum of politics. We tend to imagine we can take the full sweep of political views that people have and arrange them on a line from far-left to far-right.

But what do the terms left and right even mean?

Left-wing can mean in the interests of the lower classes, socially progressive, espousing secular as opposed to religious values, and in favour of big government and increased market regulation. These values aren’t necessarily related, yet all fall under the umbrella of left-wing.

Can right-wing be the opposite of all of these?

Take two quintessential figures considered to be on the far-right:

“Hitler advocated nationalism, socialism, militarism, authoritarianism and anti-Semitism...

Milton Friedman advocated internationalism, capitalism, pacifism, civil liberties, and was himself a Jew.” [1]

Note (20/4/2023): Hitler did *not* advocate for socialism. This is propaganda that I believed from reading Steven Pinker. Hitler needed the support of the people, socialist movements were rising at the time, so he appealed to the masses. Watch this video by Second Thought to learn more.

The left-right dichotomy is a perfect example of problems in our use of labels:

  1. They mean many things at once
  2. These meanings change between time and contexts
  3. Interpretations differ between groups of people

Many prefer the labels conservative and progressive — but are these any better?

What are people trying to conserve? Where are people progressing?

Wouldn’t it be better if we all simply stated our views and explained why we held them?

Look, a distraction!

Whatever the truth is, it in principle has nothing to do with the person voicing it, the labels they identify with or the groups they belong to. A focus on either of these is nothing but a distraction — and we have a name for this kind — an ad hominem.

An ad hominem attack is when the character of the person is attacked in lieu of their position.

Whenever we stereotype an individual, we assign a label to them and criticise what we perceive that label to represent. When we do these in place of an actual argument, we commit an ad hominem attack.

“Communists just don’t want to work.”

“Capitalists don’t care about the poor.”

Attacking a group and their apparent intentions is not an argument against their position.

This works the other way around as well. Just as it doesn’t make sense to attack a label when advancing an argument, nor does it make sense to appeal to one. The labels we assign ourselves are an attempt to communicate our positions — they cannot be used to defend them.

This distraction also has a name; an argument from authority.

When you defend a position based on who is voicing it, you are guilty of this crime.

“As a scientist...”

Science is the best means we know of coming to truth about the physical world, but starting a sentence this way adds nothing of value. A statement is never true or false by virtue of who said it.

“If you’re reasoning honestly about facts; the colour of your skin is irrelevant, the religion of your parents is irrelevant, whether you are gay or straight is irrelevant.”

Sam Harris[2]

The labels we pin to ourselves and others have nothing to do with what is true of the world. To focus on the identity of those professing a view is necessarily to be distracted.

If a thief stands on the podium and gives a reasoned argument as to why stealing is wrong — calling him out isn’t a rebuttal. If an individual expresses a view that you disagree with, it is a complete non-sequitur to look into their past.

When a person’s actions are not in line with their words, it is not enough to dismiss them. The truth of a proposition has nothing to do with the person expressing it. To respond otherwise is to be guilty of an ad hominem.

Labels make this worse.

A person makes the case for taking serious action on the problem of climate change.

“Didn’t you environmentalists used to say the earth was cooling?”

Not only will people criticise a person in place of an argument, this criticism extends to anyone who has shared their position. Refusing to identify with a label, and instead simply making your case, means that others will have to engage with the ideas themselves.

Bad arguments may have a more sinister effect than we realise. When playing the identity game, we are often merely getting people to say they hold a view rather than actually change their mind.

“If you don’t believe X, you are a bad person.”
“That position makes you right-wing.”
“Supporting a UBI makes you a communist”

None of these are arguments, but they are worse than this. They are a subtle means of coercing another into professing a point of view. In place of offering an explanation, what drives them to change their position is a fear of being associated with a label or stereotype.

The problem here is simple: How can a person honestly believe a proposition if they don’t understand it?

Explanation is the lever by which minds are actually changed.

Leveraging guilt only leads others to conceal their views, and if people keep their views concealed, they can no longer be criticised.

This is what David Deutsch calls bad philosophy.

“Bad philosophy closes off the growth of new knowledge. It doesn’t only say that so and so is true, but that it is wrong to think otherwise.” [3]

David Deutsch

Bad philosophy is the use of coercion in lieu of explanation. Traditional examples include the labels heretic or blasphemer applied to those not conforming to religion — and physical violence to those holding them. Modern examples include the overuse of labels like fascist or communist in place of dismantling bad ideas.

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable

George Orwell

When we enter conversation, we should do so with the intent to understand what is really true. The way to arrive at a common understanding is to explain why we believe what we believe.

To make things crystal clear:

  • Explanation: This is the case because of X, Y or Z
  • Coercion: If you don’t believe this there is something wrong with you

If we aim to explain our position, then there is no need to appeal to a label. If we intend to explain why another position is incoherent, then there is no need to tie it to an identity.

No offence

Why is it that the topics of religion and politics have been off the table to this day? It is because people take them personally.

Our identification with these labels changes the tone of the conversation completely from a to b:

  • a. That statement is incorrect because of these reasons
  • b. There is something wrong with you as a person

This is both unproductive and unnecessary. A conversation need not be a fight. There is no need to transform a conversation about what is true in the world into one about who we are as people.

The spirit of these conversations on both sides should be something like:

“I believe this is the case for these reasons, if you feel this is not right, please let me know.”

Our insistence on identifying with our ideas and pinning ourselves to labels makes conversation unnecessarily personal and painful.

It is not necessary

Rather than identify yourself with a label, you could simply state:

  1. What precisely is it you believe
  2. Why it is you have that view

This way, the conversation is focused on the specific belief, rather than a perception of a label — it is clearer and prevents needless ad hominem.

For example:

  1. “I am a feminist”
  2. “I believe men and women are of equal moral value”

With the first statement, the person will find themselves in the position of having to defend themselves from other people’s perceptions of what a feminist is.

If the other person has a negative view of the word, the rest of what is said will be tinged with that negativity — they will be harder to reach.

The second statement is much harder to argue against. Leaning on it, it is then possible to build more specific claims about politics, our culture or how we should act.

A shortcut to thinking

A heuristic is a mental shortcut that can be used in place of being able to work through a problem entirely. It can also be called a rule of thumb.

An approach to problem-solving that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect; not following or derived from any theory.

For better or worse, labels are a form of them.

Imagine you needed urgent medical attention. A passerby offers to help you and starts to examine you. You hesitate for a moment until the words “Don’t worry, I’m a doctor” pass through their lips.

Given that the person is a qualified doctor, it is reasonable to believe there is a higher chance they will be able to help you.

In the absence of the time or capacity to reach a complete understanding, it makes sense to lean on heuristics. When you don’t know the territory well, it helps to rely on a rough map.

Just as a treatment isn’t effective because the person is a doctor, and that the world is not based upon the map, nothing is ever true because of a person’s identity.

Language and Politics

What’s the big deal with labels, anyway? Aren’t they just words?

Our greatest innovation as a species since its inception has been language: our ability to represent reality in symbols and syllables and transmit them to one another.

We have so hopelessly fallen in love with our invention that the syllables we have contrived now effortlessly flow through our minds. That this happens automatically as you read these words is a testament to this fact.

If using language enables us to understand the world more deeply and share this understanding with others — is it much of a leap to say that using it better will enhance our lives further? And is it much more to suggest that using it poorly will undermine our efforts?

How much suffering in the world could be avoided if we all simply communicated more clearly?

“Their opinions flip depending on how a question is worded: they say that the government spends too much on welfare but too little on assistance to the poor, and that it should use military force but not go to war

Steven Pinker[4]

The language we use in conversation makes a difference in how we see the world. How we see the world, in turn, determines how we act in it. These are the claims made in George Orwell ’s piece Politics and the English Language.

“The English Language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

George Orwell[5]

It matters how we use language. If we want to be understood by others, we should aim to speak clearly. If we wish to change minds, we should want to be understood.

Labels are an imprecise means of communicating our positions and the reasons why we hold them. They make conversation unnecessarily personal, and in the process, distract us from the real issues at hand.

As Orwell would put it, they are ugly and inaccurate.

The display of wooden plaques in the feature image for this piece is called an Ema (絵馬). They can be found in Japanese shrines and temples where Shinto and Buddhist practitioners write down their wishes to be heard by the local spirits and deities. When we identify with a label, we are also making a wish. We wish to communicate how we view the world, to influence others and to improve our circumstance.

Is identifying with these words the best way to make these wishes come true?[6]

  1. These were taken from this excellent piece from Quillette. It makes the case that we should retire the entire notion of a left-right political spectrum. This section of my essay was inspired by it. ↩︎

  2. This quote is from this excerpt from an Ask me Anything on Sam’s Making Sense Podcast. ↩︎

  3. I paraphrased Deutsch’s explanation of bad philosophy to be clearer in context; it is an excerpt from this interview. ↩︎

  4. From Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now ↩︎

  5. This is a modified excerpt from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Here Orwell makes the comparison between how we use language and an alcoholic trapped in a vicious cycle. ↩︎

  6. The purpose of this article is to make the case that it is unreasonable and unnecessary to allow your beliefs to define who you are and tie yourself to these labels. There is one use of labels I can see, however: it makes it easier to find others with similar views. ↩︎