Friday, April 30, 2010

On "Calling a Spade a Spade," or another perspective on "Embracing Labels"

My friend Carson recently wrote a blog post on Embracing Labels. This is not exactly a response, but more of my take on the issue of labels themselves. I think Carson and I have some pretty fundamental thought differences that these views may highlight. I encourage you to read his blog post here for another perspective:

A label is a construct, at its' very best, of a concept for the purpose of communication. With this in mind, labels are indeed helpful in furthering understanding, but my question is whether they are more harmful than beneficial. I say that they are, though tragically, language and what it does are inescapable parts of the human condition.

For example, one may label me as a Postmodern thinker, for a couple of reasons. I am skeptical and suspicious of structures of power, I feel that one must construct their own meaning that stands apart from the predominant culture around them, and I believe that scientific and logical objectivity is about as possibly as emotional and spiritual objectivity. In other words, I am a radical affirmer of human subjectivity, and my stance toward absolute truth claims is always suspicion. This encompasses postmodernism decently well, enough to where that label could apply to me.

However, in even applying that label to myself as tentatively as I just did, I do not fit it. Additionally, I am educated in the science of Psychology, and am continuing my education in that field. I think extremely logically and systematically. I see numbers everywhere. Perhaps most importantly however, I believe that a person can come to perfect (but not exhaustive) truth regarding the world, God, and humanity. I am very not like the label of Postmodernism in these ways.

So what then is the purpose of labeling me a Postmodern thinker? Is it to communicate some of my beliefs in an efficient manner, or is it for the purpose of pigeon-holing? What if I have other beliefs that contradict my postmodern beliefs, but when someone hears that I am Postmodern, they assume that I deny the existence of absolute truth altogether, like some radical postmodern thinkers do? Is that label still a helpful and functional representation of who I am?

Some may say I merely need another label. Perhaps psychologist fits better because of my scientific orientation toward research and systematic understanding of the human mind. But then one must take into account how little faith I place in the science of psychology as a stand alone discipline, and how I believe it should be looked at as more of an art than a science. I hold this type of skepticism even toward the most physical sciences, with massive amounts of empirical proof employed in the carrying out of.

So, how about multiple labels then? Perhaps I am a psychological, intellectual, postmodern, scientific, artistic, Christian. At one point does this become a complete defeating of the purpose of labels?

I believe the inherent complexity of any person is a cause for the rejection of labels. "Calling a Spade a Spade" is only helpful if that is the spade's identity. So, in order for labels to continue to be helpful, we must cease to use them in the manner we do. That is, I can tell you I'm a Christian because I align with God as expressed in Christ, and I believe things a lot of Christians do. But for that to be my identity simply ignores a good deal of my skepticism toward the religion itself, toward the metanarrative that many Christians present, and any other leanings I may have that are contradictory to Christianity as it is presented in our culture. In other words, I must self-define what a Christian is for it to be helpful, which defeats the purpose of the label, which is communication.

Finally, we come to the point. Labels are constructs, and they're helpful in specific cultures in which they are constructed, so long as a person isn't merely a "Postmodern" or an "Evangelical" or a "Muslim." To define people this way is to depersonalize them and control them, a goal inherent in the way in which this type of language is used. Hence, I believe labels should not be embraced, but they should be hesitantly tolerated.

Now, I understand that I've already used hundreds of labels in writing this. Every word is a signifier, and though language comprehension builds our understanding of the world, it is still a construct. However, it can only be constructed because there are some things that make us human. There is an essence to the universe that flows through every person, and binds us together, giving us the ability to communicate, to encode for the purpose of transmission of our thoughts from one person to another.

I call it God, and I think He is far, far more complex than we give Him credit for, to the point that systematic theology, if not taken with a grain of salt, creates merely an idol for us to worship. The same goes for man, and for the nature of the universe. Labels are helpful in encoding information for transmission, but that is it. To use them for anything else, to believe we have a person figured out because they fit a label in our mind, and indeed to separate people into groups is, whether the person believes it or not, a power play, an attempt at controlling the world and the people around them.

Surely, some of this we do naturally and is perhaps not a bad thing in light of the broken nature of reality. But is it the ideal? Certainly not. I think utilizing labels intelligently and with restraint is a necessary evil because of our disconnected state.

But keep in mind, with the using of these labels is the danger that we will fall into the very thing the Postmodern Philosopher would warn us against, that we would use this control, these power plays to marginalize based upon arbitrary systematic inclusions and exclusions that do more harm than good to all involved.

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