Labels and Logic


At the beginning of a high school biology class, my teacher had us do a “get to know you” exercise.  As far as these activities go, this one was pretty standard.  My partner, however, made it a little more interesting when she asked if I was “conservative” or “liberal.”  Uh, what now?  I had no idea what she was talking about. Not wanting to appear uncool and reveal ignorance, I just picked one.  It doesn’t really matter, right?

I can laugh now at that poor naive high school student who thought labels didn’t matter.  They shouldn’t, but they do.  Luckily in high school, in response to whatever I said, my partner shrugged and we moved on.  Sadly, the next encounter with political labels didn’t go so well when I engaged in an email dialogue with a loving family member years later.

Interacting with my family via email taught me that within these two words lies a rich reservoir of meaning.  It answers the question of values and priorities.  It can give a sense of pride and earn fellowship from other like-minded individuals. To hear one word from the vantage point of another, however, conjures up a mixture of assumptions and negative biases.  This can create problems when trying to talk through issues.

With so much information out there, I thought to take this question concerning conservatives vs. liberals to my friends on social media.  I’m lucky to have a diverse group of friends.  Here’s the beginning of our conversation, with some Mom Talks Politics mixed in.

The terms liberal and conservative have greatly changed over the years and “it’s all a mishmash of confused ideologies that are frequently inconsistent … such that Americans cannot even agree….” And not just that, there are additional layers that these terms address. “…Some only use the terms to refer to fiscal and economic issues … [while others focus on] moral or human issues.”  It can get confusing depending on what we’re talking about.

There is the problem of labeling too. “…Generalizations can be kind of ugly in the current political climate.”  “The reality is that life is not black and white, it’s a spectrum and things don’t fit neatly into two boxes.”  Yep. Still, while we might wish to do away with labels altogether, that’s not necessarily the problem.  The differences are going to exist no matter what we do (or don’t) call them.  A rose is still a rose even without a name at all.  A label will eventually surface as we get tired of describing “that one flower with lots of petals and sharp thorns”.

Here’s the real problem with labels as they are currently used in today’s political environment.  We start to see them based on “only two sides, one totally evil and the other absolutely good.”  It turns into an over-simplified string of logic that; if I am on one side and you are on the other, well, I am right (good) and therefore you must be wrong (evil). “This [idea]… [is] a political ploy” which has been used by politicians for years.  We play right into the hands of the age-old good vs. evil problem.

In our world of politics, no matter how many bad apples, it’s never been good versus evil.  It’s just not that simple and our society is already catching on.  Have you noticed a shift in our storytelling?  Remakes of familiar stories seem to sprinkle in a little more spectrum and complexity of good and evil, right and wrong.  These new versions of classic tales are a better reflection of how we need to frame our thinking.

Along with labels, we may “discovered that [we] have a bias [for or] against” a certain ideology.  We aren’t able to do away with these either.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Biases are based on our differences, which gives our society the variety that makes it rich and colorful.  “We need diversity. Two heads (or three, or four, or 350 million) are always better than one. A variety of voices constructively working together for a collective outcome that incorporates all of the above is truly the best we can hope for.”

Conclusion, when we talk about labels, like conservative or liberal, we need to have a greater appreciation that labels are only a starting point.  The pitfalls and problems begin when we equate them with good and evil, using them to hurt others and further polarize our society.

This is just the beginning of the conversation.




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