The pitfall of labels

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hello my name is

Labels can be useful. Labelling bottles in the pantry, for example, is extremely important*. Unlike condiments, however, labeling people, or in particular, giving their views a label is not always as helpful.

Putting labels on views can be a useful shorthand, giving a good idea of where someone sits on that particular issue. Where it becomes unhelpful, however, is if we assume that someone identifying under that label necessarily accepts or endorses everything we think that label to be. This is just as true for when we want to label some thing. e.g. saying Christianity has a ‘masculine feel’ – what is meant by that is open to misunderstanding; or by saying something is ‘biblical’ – that could cover any number of hermeneutical assumptions about what that actually means. This penchant for assumption can be particularly hazardous if the person identifies with a view we disagree with.

Don Carson and Tim Keller recently wrote:

Controversy customarily generates its share of purple prose. It is very easy to read everything an opponent says as negatively as possible—in malam partem, as the Latins say, “in a bad sense,” while taking what our friends say in bonam partem, “in a good sense.”

I think that was rather the case in the issue dealt with in this recent post. People bring their assumptions with them, and hearing a certain word can trigger a response to something the speaker did not actually mean. It’s very easy to assume what they meant, but we need to be open to actually understanding what is meant.

We need to remember that while labels are a helpful ‘ballpark’ indicator, we need to ask questions about details and specifics, especially when some view lie on a spectrum, in order to respond to what someone is actually saying.

*My wife brews her own vanilla essence in used maple syrup bottles. Trust me, you will want to check the label is still on it before pouring that on pancakes.

« « A reply to Rachel Held Evans (a guest post from my wife!)| Two posts on online disagreement » »

2 Responses to The pitfall of labels

  1. [...] merely serves to deepen divisions and incarcerate us in cliques. I note with interest that Findo has been thinking on similar lines this weekend and we have both found this article by Carson and [...]

  2. Etelvina says:

    thanks for such an excellent post. it is completely useful. keep this pace.

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