People use names and labels to try to understand and categorize the world around them. This applies to individuals, as well as groups. While we have some control over our individual appellations, even those get modified by people around us to some extent. Sometimes it is endearing, but often enough it is mocking.
It is a rare thing that a single person gets to decide what a group of people are called. Either the name or the meaning of the name gets used and understood in ways that slip beyond the power of an individual or even the group. That is how language is. The way people use language changes as it is used, in the context of events, and according to the indefinable influences.
The concept of how we label ourselves and others has been of particular interest to me since I began “homeschooling” my children some 30 years ago, because I have always disliked the term “homeschooler.” I judge it a sloppy, misrepresentative way of referring to me teaching my own children. However, I had little choice as conversations went on around me. It was the term that everyone understood enough to know what the basic topic of discussion was. No matter how many times I used other words to describe this aspect of parenting, everyone else continued to call it “homeschooling.”
It is a good example of how different people can use the same label and imply different things. I have heard some people say “homeschool” with such sneering condescension that one would think they are referring to the Bubonic Plague. Others say it casually, just as a reference point and without much deeper thought. Yet others say it with force and positive conviction. It seems obvious from this that they all mean different things by using the word. I still try not to use it unless I have to.
Every once in a while I hear someone declaring that we should just call groups “what they want to be called.” I find this curious, as you could suppose based on what I’ve already said. This assumes a consensus that doesn’t exist in reality. It also sometimes requires conceding to word usage that might be either distasteful or deemed so misleading as to be unacceptable.
Admittedly, some of the labels people give each other are vague, careless, and/or mean-spirited. That is part of how some people engage in the battle of ideas. They may be trying to use words to manipulate people. Telling them it is stupid or inconsiderate will not likely change their tactics if they are getting the reactions they want. They may not care exactly what words mean, because whoever yells the loudest wins, in their estimation. We may choose to debate their weak presentation, but this is probably best done by addressing actual claims rather than quibbling much about exact labels.
Even within groups that ostensibly agree on certain principles, there are subcategories and name calling that often lead to tension. I think I was probably “libertarian” before I had any real idea of what the label meant. The exact label did not matter when it came to evaluating truth. I have since come to understand that even that label has changed over the years.
Sometimes a label will emerge as a group tries to discuss another group they disagree with. Too many times you have to be relatively devoted to the discussion to know what these labels are supposed to mean. Those who know the labels can get into the habit of using them in a way that excludes the average man-on-the-street from the conversation. In libertarian circles, I hear the labels “neo-con” and “statist,” and I have never heard anyone refer to themselves as being in those groups. As such, they are not really useful labels in trying to have a mutually beneficial discussion with someone who doesn’t agree with or understand the libertarian point-of-view. Especially because they are used in a derogatory way by many libertarians.
There are some labels that groups seem happy with for themselves that I cannot or will not use. Some of these muddy communication and hinder understanding. They tend to put the issues in boxes that ignore other perspectives or solutions. For some groups, I will not use their common labels for themselves because it is an assault of my conscience. Sometimes, though, the labels just abuse words that I refuse to concede to the group.
Labels are used carelessly on the TV news. They are used like cursing by detractors. They are used carelessly by people who have not grasped the issues well enough to communicate clearly. They are used when people want to subdue others with their own superiority. That is why I try to skip over labels of people or groups. If I am talking to an individual, I want to think of them as a person, not a member of a group. If I am discussing issues, I want to get to the core of what is important, not waste time about labels that few people have really thought about in depth.
Labels and names of groups change over time. They are shallow snippets of potential ideas that are easily misunderstood or willingly abused. I doubt there will ever be a name of anything important that we all agree on. I’m not going to spend a lot of time arguing about them, but will use language as best I can to actually communicate.