Friday, 28 December 2007

If The Label Sticks, Wear It!

clipped from
Not sure that any of those who responded to my earlier post on evangelism, liberals and conservatives were quite making this point, but many people do seem to have an almost seething resentment of labels.

Certainly a young friend of mine recently insisted that his mates just didn’t like labels and would prefer not to be labeled by others or to apply them to themselves. Guess that makes them anti-labelists!

Whatever the pros and cons of labels I’m not sure we can or indeed should live without them. I do however sympathise with my friend to a certain extent. Labels can be used in ways that are very unhelpful.

It’s not good to fly labels like colours behind which we ride into battle against others with different labels.

It’s not good to use labels to limit, tie down and dismiss others.

It’s not good to use labels flatten difference, obscure the peculiar and oversimplify reality.

Antipathy towards labeling is part of the postmodern turn. According to Zygmunt Baumann’s excellent Modernity and Ambilvelance a certain approach to labeling is deeply characteristic of modernity's obsession with classifying all of reality and its deep unease with the ambivalent. The postmodern critique is to be welcomed, reality is not susceptible to neat, Dewi-decimal-type classification and we do violence to reality, including the reality of people and their bodies, when we insist on fitting everything into our predetermined categories. But we needn’t use labels in such a way and I reckon we can’t and shouldn’t live without labels at all.

We need labels to denote collectives who share common characteristics, commitments, convictions and associations.

They also come in handy to locate people.

And those who would deny our need for labels are surely also in denial of the inescapable and indeed immensely valuable corporate dimension of human identity.

So I vote for labels, I thank God for labels, labels help give clarity to my identity. As long that is you don’t use my labels for the negative purposes outlined above and as long you recognise that labels are not fixed but fluid and living, with meanings on the move, then I really don’t mind, go ahead, label me.


Paul Ede said...

This is a really interesting post! It helped me make the connection between name and authority, and the way that this connection is views differently in Jewish, Modern Western and Post-modern culture.

Something I find interesting is that post-moderns decry labels but when we describe our music we are always looking for longer and more stupid sounding ways of classifying our music. We do like labels, as long as get to label ourselves, and remain in control.

Post-modernity rightly critiques the Modern focus on classification and boxes (positive), but I also believe that post-moderns are so naturally anti-authority that this culture needs to be critiqued by the Hebraic world-view, which saw naming and authority as helpful, but relational rather than abstract.

God names Adam and therefore (out of relationship) gives him an identity and shows Adam that God as his creator, must have a measure of influence in his life. Adam the goes on the name the animals out of benevolent relationship.

Also, God has the decency to label himself (Yahweh) in order to help us distinguish who he is as an authority to trust amongst all the other Gods. I think we need to be honest and label ourselves as Christians in an open and transparent way, because otherwise, if we hide behind a smokescreen of "I don't want to be labelled", how can we really allow people to know us as Yahweh clearly wants us to know him, face to face.

Kids in Glasgow schemes hate sharing their names, because they recognise that authority will then be able to hold them to account. This is a metaphor of the negative side of post-moderns allergy to labels.

Post-modern philosophy recognises the link between labels and power, and therefore rejects "labels" as a means to impose regimes of truth. But what they don't realise is that the Christian meta-narrative posits a relational authority that names people from a place of genuine knowing and loving authority.

I see two things at work...pre-fall Adam's labelling was benevolent and sin-free. But post-fall, his labelling can be distorted by a will-to-power.

I also think that refusing to be labelled can be just as much of a will-to-power. The will not to be accountable, or knowable by the Other (god, or fellow man) in a Jewish sense.

The deeper issue, then, is not whether or not to use labels, but what our attitude to relational authority is. Are we prepared to be held accountable by the Christian community and the world outside to what we believe?

Should Christians use labels? I think we should and must. Not only because it is impossible to exercise the gift of discernment without them (and therefore "grow up" in Christ - Romans 8), but also because the world does need to rediscover the Christian discourse of loving authority from relationship. We also need to label ourselves and take the time to do so, so that people can engage with us from a basis of transparency which will in turn generate the relational trust which is required to help people begin to trust God.

But, we shouldn't use labels (or indeed avoid using labels) as a means to assert our will-to-power apart from God.

tim f said...

Hi Glen

Stumbled across your blog a few days ago.

Will post more comments on this later as it's an area I'm interested in, but for now:

We've just had Christmas - how many times does God get labelled in that Isaiah passage alone? If he's got a problem with that, we'd better stop reading it at Christmas. If labels don't limit a limitless God, I don't think I've any right to assume they limit me.

btw I voted disagree in the current poll. I don't underestimate the capacity of Christians to resist change and conform to stereotypes.

tim f said...

Some more thoughts:

"And those who would deny our need for labels are surely also in denial of the inescapable and indeed immensely valuable corporate dimension of human identity."

This for me is the central point.

Without an agreed set of constraints which define, even if only loosely and contestably, the world we live in, there is no possibility for rational argument or agreement as a collective on moral issues. We are reduced to making decisions on the basis of an aggregate of preferences.

Consequently we live in a world without convictions, because it is impossible to make secure judgements about the relative value of particular social goods. This includes the impossibility of making judgements about our own value (to God; to others; to society as a whole), and leads to a culture of a lack of self-respect which expresses itself in the abuse of our minds and bodies through all kinds of means. When it comes to how we act towards others, we have no rational means for even knowing whether our actions are doing good or harm.

Of course we have other means for gauging value, knowing whether our actions towards others are doing good or harm, etc - eg instinctive empathy. And the fact that God's love is the same to all of us gives us provides an overarching framework within which moral argument is possible. But this argument is still merely the aggregation of individual perceptions of God's love. At any rate, if we think we're called to think rationally as well as acting instinctively and emotionally, then this is inadequate.

imo, our dilemma is twofold:

1) We have labels, but they have lost the richness of meaning they once had. In a world comprised of smaller communities with replicated functions extending across both geographies and generations, labels described the value of a person to society, succintly bundling together all the social relations a particular vocation envelops. So a local carpenter is known as one who builds the table we talk around at dinner, and as one who created the setting our children learn at, to give two examples. Alienation in the workplace & the drive for ever-more efficient markets by subcontracting out every aspect of the work an organisation does (this applies to our personal lives as well as private companies), together with the fragmentation of communities and rampant globalisation have changed vocations from rich practices into mere functions at the same time as weakening the ties between us.

Hopefully in the building of communities we create practices which build and reinforce matrices of social relations which are replicated over time and allow us to define ourselves within the kind of contexts where labels can affirm in this way.

2) We know that our language (and hence our labels) is (are) rooted in the oppressive hierarchies which characterise our world.

But the way we challenge this is by forming new identities, and creating new means of expression, not by rejecting them entirely.

I apologise for not being able to communicate all this in plain English (usually a good barometer for whether an argument has merit), but that in itself is strong evidence for my premise!!!

Glen Marshall said...

Tim, great to hear from you - interesting observations. It would great if you could chip in again in the future and if you are ever in Manchester ....