Monday, January 14, 2013

Of Kierkegaard, Seinfeld, and Political Gimmickery

Yes, Kierkegaard really did say "Once you label me, you negate me." Dick Van Patten might have said it too I guess, but Kierkegaard said it first, no doubt about it. The meaning of the quote is not all that difficult to comprehend: labeling a person as means of defining who they are strips them of their individuality.

But is it true? If I use the word "liberal" with reference to some politician--if I label them a liberal--is that unfair as a matter of course? Is it similarly less than helpful to do so? The answers to these questions depend on my purpose with such a label. If I am using it as a means of dismissing whatever that politician says or does, then my labeling is indeed unhelpful and unfair, for it indicates that I am not actually considering what is being said or done, but rather am purposefully ignoring such.

And truth be told, people do this all of the time. Private citizens do it, media people do it, and politicians do it: "he's a liberal, so of course he's lying," "she's a conservative, so whatever she says is only about establishing a theocracy," and so on. Such specifics lead, themselves, to over-arching generalizations: "liberals don't understand the economy," "conservatives think all government is bad," "Democrats want to punish success," "Republicans hate poor people." And this creates a body of such generalizations, with regard to each political label, that establishes a set of core assumptions about that label for those who oppose it; even when they know some of these generalizations are extreme or hyperbole, the general ideas creep in and informs predispositions.

The end result: cheap rhetoric replaces critical thought, more often than not. So there is a great deal of truth in Kierkegaard's words, such labeling does tend to lead to negations of the individual.

But this is not the only way labels are used. They also serve as a means of simple categorization, for purposes of understanding with regard to day-to-day existence. For instance, if I use my re-gifted Label Baby Junior and apply labels to all things in my home, those labels negate nothing. My footstool is labeled "footstool" because it really is a footstool. My eldest child is labeled "eldest child" because she really is my eldest child. The idea contained in such labels is that of a Platonic Form--for lack of a better way to say it--insofar as there is a theoretical set-defining concept for each label. Sometimes these forms represent sets of one, like "my eldest child," and sometimes they represent sets with many members, like "chair." Both labels can be taken as legitimate and informative, both are Aristotelian categories (though not Kantian ones).

When it comes to the rest of the world outside of my home, such labeling remains useful. In that respect, labeling someone a "liberal" or a "conservative" is entirely legitimate; it negates no one but serves as means to categorize a particular individual for purposes of general understanding and reasoning. In such cases, the individual is likely to accept the label, even use it for purposes of self-identification, both to express an ideological point of view and membership in groups, both theoretical and real.

Some time ago, I created a Facebook Group, the "No Groups Group." I did so with tongue firmly in cheek; the group's description was "this group is for people who don't want to join any groups." I think it peaked at around three hundred members; not bad for a group that didn't exist in a philosophical sense. And I'm sure most who joined did so as a joke, for the idea of a group made up of people who are not members of any groups is as flawed as the idea of the set of all things not in any set: both are logically untenable, mathematically impossible.


Which brings us back to labels and today's grand unveiling of The Problem Solvers, a collection of politicians from both sides of the aisle who are supposedly going to lead the way in solving the problems that face us. The org behind all of this is No Labels, a self-described political movement:
No Labels is a growing citizens’ movement of Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to promoting a new politics of problem solving. We are unlike any organization in America. The most powerful interest groups in our nation’s capital work to push our leaders and our political parties apart. No Labels is working to bring them together to forge solutions to our nation’s problems. We welcome people left, right and everything in between as long as they are willing to collaborate with one another to seek a shared success for America. This new attitude is what No Labels is all about.
The name itself--No Labels--seems to be a consequence of a general acceptance of Kierkegaard's point:
Too often, it’s not the quality of a leader’s ideas that matters, but the label – Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative – that he or she wears.
Despite the moniker of "citizen's movement," No Labels was founded by a group of political insiders. True enough, it has attracted a great deal of support from the general citizenry, but then so does every other successful political org; the point is, No Labels isn't actually what it purports to be. It's current national leaders are Joe Manchin (a Democrat and current Representative from West Virginia) and Jon Hunstman (a Republican and the the former Governor of Utah). If the idea is to get away from labels as a basis of evaluating solutions, it would seem that the best place to start would not be among people whose careers are very much a product of the successful marketing of such labels.

And the new group within No Labels--The Problem Solvers--is itself just another phony label. Who says these folks are or will be "problem solvers"? And what is the basis of that assumption, that they're willing to sit down and have drinks with each other once or twice a week? Naming this group seems to be a violation of No Labels' own first principles, philosophically speaking, because we're being asked to consider as valid the ideas that spring from a group not because of the quality of such, but because of the label, first and foremost: Problem Solvers. Their ideas are worth considering for no other apparent reason (much like ideas from "bi-partisan" committees, right?).

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with No Labels, don't get me wrong. People are and should be free to associate in such orgs, to work for what they believe are solutions for what they see are problems. But there's also nothing intrinsically right--or noble--about No Labels, either. In fact, I'd argue that the premise of the org's existence leads inescapably to the idea that "compromise" is a realistic solution to each and every perceived problem. But it's compromise--by and large--that brought us to where we are today. It's compromise that just recently "solved" the problem of the Fiscal Cliff via a bill to raise taxes some and spend even more.

In my opinion, membership in No Labels is itself evidence that one is using labels as a substitute for critical thinking, is using labels to negate, not understand. The movement, as a movement, is contrived in the same way that the "less divisive political rhetoric" movement is wholly contrived. The latter never went anywhere, neither will the former. In the meantime, No Labels represents yet another wasteful social media trend; its happy-go-lucky, good-time-charlie nature is appealing and those given to "joining" will do so, no doubt.

Cheers, all.

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