This is the second in a series on freedom and the ability to deal comfortably with complexity. Part one is here.
In a couple of recent comment threads (here and here) Kevin Wilmeth lamented dependence on labels and the human craving to identify with groups. At the risk of misinterpreting him, I’ll paraphrase: Labels are limiting because they can never express all the variations that fall within their scope; and our need to identify as part of a group often means we give ourselves permission to stop thinking as soon as we’ve concluded, “I’m an X” or “So and so is a Y.”
“He’s a libertarian.” “She’s a Catholic.” “He’s a liberal.” “She’s a socialist.” “She’s a cheerleader.” “He’s a politician.” “He’s a Saints fan.”
“I’m a Christian.” “I’m a Republican.” “I’m a bridge player.” “I’m a gourmet.” “You’re a moron.”
All those statements are extreme simplifications of a complex reality.
How much do those labels tell us? Well, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. And sometimes they totally mislead us, obviously.
So I’m here to say that I resoundingly agree with Kevin.
And just as resoundingly disagree.
A personal story: When I was in high school, back in the stone ages, the word “libertarian” had never been spoken. At least not within my hearing. Everybody was either a Republican or a Democrat. Except me. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know what I was.
In civics class, I was sneeringly referred to as a “communist.” But friends in the older, “new left” crowd I hung out with on weekends or while cutting school were shocked one day to discover that I was actually a “right-wing bigot” because I opposed a law telling apartment owners whom they could rent to.
On yet another hand, when everybody took a political position quiz in the aforementioned civics class, I came out — gods forbid! — “middle of the road.”
You can guess why: Because half my answers fit the label “left” and half fit the label “right” on the traditional linear scale. So there I was, officially and horrifyingly “middle of the road,” when I and everybody else knew that I was one of the least “middle” people in the whole school. (Nobody had ever heard of the Nolan chart then, either. That blessed device wouldn’t exist for a few more years.)
Not only that, but because of that alleged schizoid right-left dichotomy in my thinking, those who knew me better considered me muddled, inconsistent, and probably a believer in the dreaded “situational ethics.” Which, again, I knew I was not. But I couldn’t answer because had no plain word or words to express what I was.
This caused me lots of grief. (And such left-right thinking is still causing grief for Mark Twain (or at least his critics) a century after the poor man died.)
So Kevin’s right. All those darned, limiting, wrong-headed labels caused my already-insecure teenage self a lot of confusion.
And Kevin’s wrong. Gloriously so.
One day when I was 18 and counter-girling at a fast-food joint whose existance I would rather forget, a lightning bolt struck me — though I didn’t know it at the time. A co-worker, a girl whose name, looks, and personality, I now remember not at all, told me I should read “… this book. It’s about what happens when all the artists and intellectuals go on strike.”
Had she said, “… when all the industrialists go on strike” (which is closer to the mark), I might not have read it. But because the concept was unique, and because the idea of the world falling apart without My Kind appealed to my vanity as an Artiste, I got a copy of Atlas Shrugged.
Now, almost every freedomista of my generation will tell you some story about how Ayn Rand gave them this eye-opening, life-changing gift. (And almost every freedomista of later generations will respond, WTF! How could that boring book do anything but put you to sleep?”) I’m not that different.
But Atlas did more than open my eyes to the fact that my nascent, non-conforming worldview made sense and was consistent with central principles I’d never articulated. The book led me to labels. For myself. That fit. And that made it easier to interact with the world — and for that matter, interact with my own psyche.
First, the label was “Objectivist.” (Living far from the New York circle of Ayn Rand, I didn’t know until much later that we mere peasants were not “allowed” to call ourselves Objectivists, but only “students of Objectivism.”)
Within a year or three, I recognized that the Objectivist label didn’t truly apply. At that point, I found a truer one, which served me well for decades: “libertarian.”
The label told me that what I already thought and believed had a center, a core, a focus — and that the focus was individual liberty. The label helped me develop other, more consistent positions on all manner of issues. It enabled me to meet people and find groups who shared my views. It enabled me to speak more clearly and coherently to people of other political positions. They might say, “You libertarians are all whack jobs.” But at least they got a quick picture of which kind of whack job I was. And I tell you, after my early experiences that was a relief.
I can honestly say that those two labels, Objectivist, then libertarian, completely changed and focused my life for the better.
They didn’t limit me. I didn’t stop thinking because I had arrived at, “I am an X.” On the contrary, knowing that I was “an X” rather than wondering, “Am I an A or a Z?” helped me to think more clearly, helped me to grow as a person.
The labels gave me an excellent starting point. A platform from which to launch myself.
Millions of people could tell you similar stories. Not just about political labels, but about discovering all kinds of philosophical, psychological, and physical truths about themselves by learning the right definition — a coherent label — for something that had previously caused them terrible grief, confusion, or doubt.
So Kevin’s wrong. Labels can be a blessing.
But Kevin’s also right again.
Today, I rarely ever call myself a libertarian. I use the word only when I need to define my political self to an unknown audience or to people I know haven’t moved very far beyond the old right-left way of thinking. Libertarian is an easy label. It gives other people a quick way of evaluating me, and that’s fine. We can move on from there.
But to people who are politically “in the know,” the label libertarian has now lost most of its meaning. It’s become diluted by being applied to all kinds of opportunists and political thinkers who are, at most, sort of right-wingish compromisers. That’s not me. So I’ve moved on to other terms.
And like Kevin (whom I hope I’m not misinterpreting; sorry, Kevin, if I am), I’d generally rather avoid definining my views with any one label. You may have caught me using the term “freedomista.” Well, gotta say something, and that word is general enough to encompass a lot of viewpoints. It works for now, though I wince a bit every time I write it.
But to sum up after this long ramble, I don’t think labels are a problem. I think we all need labels to give us quick general pictures — snapshots — of reality. Human beings are natural-born categorizers and that trait is actually an excellent survival skill. (If every cave person had to stop, consider, and define every large, four-legged, long-toothed beastie on its own unique terms, there would have been a lot fewer cave persons surviving to breed — us. Much better that Og and Oggette could just think, “Big cat! Run!”)
The problem isn’t labels. Or stereotypes. Or generalities. The problem is being unable to move past them.
To be free, you’ve got to be able to move beyond. And grant others the respect and freedom to transcend their own labels or the ones you’ve given them.
And that leads me to what will probably be the next, and maybe the last, in this series of rants: “The simplicity beyond complexity.”