Friday, September 07, 2012

Owning Our Labels

20080825 Michelle Obama Speaks at 2008 Democratic National ConventionOK. So we're knee-deep in Political Convention season, which itself is naturally knee-deep in presidential election season. This (naturally) leads to a higher proportion of politically-relevant blog posts than usual. Some of these are unapologetically partisan, but it seems to me that most of the posts I read fall more in the category of attempting to eschew labels altogether to define a position that is neither left nor right. While I've certainly written a few of this type of post, myself, I'm going to attempt something a bit more original this time around.

Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw recently wrote a post reflecting on the "debate" episode of The West Wing back in 2005. Specifically, he praised that episode for demonstrating how a real dialogue might occur between politicians of differing opinions, removing the "name-calling, accusations of dishonesty, (etc)..." that ends up in people talking past each other so often.

I also enjoyed that episode, if perhaps for a slightly different reason. When I wrote about that episode all those years ago, I quoted a bit from Matt Santos (the Democratic candidate in that fictional campaign) wherein he proclaimed that, rather than "run away from" the label of being called a "liberal," he would "pick up that label and wear it as a badge of honor."

There is, of course, a real danger in labeling other people. Lisa Sharon Harper rightly argues that people who label others as "left" or "right" tend to assume that the person so labeled will believe or behave in a certain way on a whole host of issues, and real people tend to be far more complicated than those labels would have us believe. Harper demonstrates her point by including a surprisingly large list of actions by historical figures who we have tended to think of as falling on one side or the other, but who nonetheless behaved contrary to those assumptions. I am therefore by no means surprised when some of us (myself included) bristle at being labeled in these ways.

But I've gotta say, I really love how the fictional Santos owns his label, and wish that more of us could do so as we engage each other in our debates in the real world. That's not to say that we should lose our complexity (even if such a thing were possible!), but rather to say that owning appropriate labels helps us to engage each other in real dialogue. We can say, in essence, "yes, you and I may disagree on this matter. Here is why I believe as I do. While you may still disagree with me, I at least want to you to understand that this where I'm coming from, and if you have a reason why you think my position is the wrong one, I can at least be sure you're responding to my actual position, rather than some straw man that resembles me only in caricature. In return, help me to understand you and your positions, so that I may treat you fairly, as well."

I'm under no illusions that most people who are "unapologetically partisan" are in fact engaging in such honest dialogue, of course. Even so, I think that the only way we can have such dialogue is if we at least own whatever we are, with whatever labels may apply to that. If we're having honest dialogue, we also take the time to clarify where the label may not work for us, but I think that we don't necessarily do ourselves any favors by attempting to avoid labels entirely.

Of course, I'm not always sure what I am, so there's that, too....

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