Labels for Humans

labelsIt strikes me as rather odd that at times we often deploy very generic labels to describe others, and by doing so belittle and greatly distort who they actually are.

Take for example the religious labels we use … “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Hindu”, etc… or the sub-categories we sometimes break these down into, such as “Catholic”, “Evangelical”, etc… what does such a label mean, what does it communicate, and what is the actual reality?

Take for example the word “Muslim” … “I’m a Muslim“, some might say, or “They are Muslims” and qualify that with “We can’t trust them, we need to exclude them …” or similar, and so it then causes me to wonder what the word “Muslim” means, what information is being communicated?

First Point: You often can’t really define such terms

Often such labels are so meaningless that they can’t actually function as a way of telling you much. Islam, like all popular beliefs, is of course a vastly complex and extremely diverse set of conflicting beliefs and if you attempt to gain an understanding, then you will soon discover that you simply cannot handle it generically.

  • All Muslims pray 5 times a day … except most don’t actually do that, they simply aspire to that ideal, oh and there are also variations of Islam that do not accept that you should pray 5 time a day – quranists for example.
  • For all Muslims Mohammed is the last and final prophet … except the Ahmadi Muslims also have a later more modern prophet
  • Muslims are hostile to gay people and oppose gay rights … except of course there are plenty of gay Muslims
  • etc…

… and so it is all rather slippery, because when you try to nail down a precise definition of what the word means, you soon find you can’t do so with any real precision and so it remains not only generic and very fuzzy and vague, but also imprecise.

Remember, I’m simply using the word “Muslim” as an example, this is not specifically about Islam, you will find the same is true with other similar labels.

Second Point: such words are often used in a very fluid manner

You might encounter somebody who declares themselves to be Muslim, and so you dig into that by asking them to define what that means. They would then explain by describing various ideals and yet as the conversation proceeds you soon discover that such labels can be used in a very fluid manner.

  • Me: How many Muslims are there?
  • Friend: Oh there are about 1.6 billion Muslims
  • Me: And you are a Sunni Muslim is that correct?
  • Friend: Yes that is correct.
  • Me: So what about others such as the Shia or the Ahmadi?
  • Friend: Oh they are heretics and are not real Muslims at all

… and so you then come to the realisation that the word is sometimes used to describe every possible variation of Islam when there is a need to have the largest possible number to impress others with, but a few sentences later, vast swaths of Muslims are excluded as “not real Muslims”, and that leaves you wondering how that bit of wonderful double-think all works and how, in a manner similar to schrodinger’s cat, so many can be both “Muslim” and also “not Muslim” at the exact same time.

I’m not suggesting that this is specific to Islam, but rather that this is an inherent flaw that kicks in when you start trying to deploy such generic labels. Here is the same conversation  …

  • Me: How many Christians are there?
  • Friend: Oh there are about 2.2 billion Christians
  • Me: And you are a Baptist is that correct?
  • Friend: Yes that is correct.
  • Me: So what about others such as the Catholics or the Methodists?
  • Friend: Oh they are not real Christians at all

Third Point: Such labels exclude rather a lot

We deploy words such as “Muslim” or “Christian” as if that told the entire story and encapsulated a human life, and by doing so we forget rather a lot. I object because we are dehumanising and obliterating so much of what being human is really all about when we use such labels as both exclusive and final for a vast collection of humans.

There are plenty of other labels that can add so much more, for example …

Political labels: Communist, Liberal, Conservative, etc…

Professional labels: Doctor, Writer, Nurse, Teacher, Taxi Driver, etc…

Interests: Blogger, Chess player, Book Reader, Football fan, etc…

Culture: American, Indian, French, Nigerian, Chinese, etc…

… and on and on, and yet I suspect no matter how hard we try we could still perhaps not truly describe one full human life because that is something that transcends not just our beliefs and interests, but also our origins, our destination, and our individual and quite unique hopes and dreams.

Can we truly define an entire human life with just one religious label? If we can’t then we should stop using it like that.

Trump might indeed wish to exclude Muslims, but what if he was a tad more honest and suggested that what he was really saying was that he wished to exclude “doctors”, “nurses”, “teachers”, and “students” because they are foreign and simply have a different religious belief for cultural reasons that is different than his, because that is basically what he is proposing and is getting support for.

Fourth Point: labels are not binary

Humans hold different aspects of specific beliefs with different degrees of confidence. For example, Catholicism is officially opposed to all forms of contraception. Would that then imply that anybody who happily embraces the label of “Catholic” adheres to that and all the other vast assortment of official rules?

No, not at all, most “good” (whatever that means) Catholics happily ignore the contraception ban and yet would still consider themselves to be “Catholic”.

In reality, humans tend to pick the bits they are comfortable with, and discard and ignore the bits they don’t like or agree with, and yet still feel that they fully embrace a label. It works like that for most things. So even when somebody happily accepts a specific label it does not really tell you very much about them as an individual, because you have no idea what specific bits of this category they embrace and put into practise, and what other bits are happily discarded and ignored. Nor does it tell you how confident they feel about what the label describes or what degree of commitment they have for it or even why.

There is no simplicity here, it is all (frighteningly for some) quite complex, and vastly diverse.

Fifth and Final Point: labels divide

Labels often instill a “them vs us” mode of thinking, but in reality there is only “us”.

Labels are of course a useful tool to rapidly communicate generic concepts and are perhaps in many ways akin to a piece of rope in the sense that you can either use it in some useful manner, for example to climb, or use it destructively and hang yourself with it, and so the final point is that by labelling “them” as Muslim, we need to also be aware that we are at risk of both isolating and also de-humanising fellow humans who are us and carry the same hopes, dreams and aspirations, so considerable care needs to be taken when such labels are in play and we need to be wary and exercise considerable caution.

Bottom line: Criticise ideas, don’t attack people.

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