In the two decades (!) that I’ve been on the Internet, I have been branded racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist, a rape apologist, a fundie and a Nice GuyTM. Oddly enough, I have also been called a faggot, a socialist, a terror apologist, and, of course, a troll.
I can’t comment on which, if any, of these labels fit me. However, I’m troubled by the need that people on the net have to label everything.
The TVTropes site has grown in popularity over the past few years to the point where previously unknown terms like Mary Sue have become common knowledge. The site is incredibly addictive (for God’s sake don’t go there, you’ll be there for hours!) because everything is defined in terms of other tropes. The concept of TVTropes – that every aspect of fiction in the broadest sense can be neatly categorized – has spilled over onto the rest of the Internet, to the point where TVTropes is possibly as influential a site as Wikipedia.
The act of naming has a power that has been acknowledged for as long as we have had language; in Genesis, Adam claims his dominion over the animals by giving them names. One of the first actions that oppressed groups make in consciousness-raising is to reclaim or repurpose the name they’ve been given: whether it’s claiming a new name like African-American or turning around an existing name like queer, the message is the same: you will not define what I call myself.
So what exactly is wrong with labeling? Labeling is simply efficient. It’s an easy way of categorizing stuff, to get on to the serious points you’re trying to make. In fact, it’s precisely this ease that makes it dangerous.
When you label something or someone, it becomes a way of dismissing arguments. When someone can be labelled a “Nice GuyTM” or a “RadFem” you can more easily ignore the subtleties of their arguments. It also becomes more easy to throw an ad hominem argument.
This can have real-world consequences. When former senator Ted Stevens (he of “the Internet is a series of tubes” fame) died, the typical response was to reduce him to his silliest statements and his criminal activities, and I went along with this. I was chastened when someone pointed out that Stevens was one of the sponsors of the Title IX legislation. God forbid someone have a complicated legacy! On the other side of the political spectrum, there’s Barack Obama; not only has he been given every negative political label imaginable, both his defenders and detractors have in turn been labeled as socialists, fascists, etc. This not only limits these people, it also prevents subtle arguments (try, for example, criticizing Obama from a progressive perspective.)
The solution is not to eliminate all labels, but to question them. In some forms of mathematics there is the idea that some proofs are not “true” but “useful.” The late author/provocateur Robert Anton Wilson (who was labelled a LOT of different things in his lifetime) said that nothing could be proven as true, but rather observed as behaving in a particular way.
This should apply to people and their arguments. If someone is expressing views in line with those of a Nice GuyTM, then it’s fine to call them on it. However, to say that this person IS a Nice GuyTM (or worse, “just” a Nice GuyTM) is intellectually dangerous. By labeling someone based on a few sentences in a comment box, you are essentially saying that this person is not worth the time to actively engage them. In today’s complex world, that’s a luxury we probably can’t afford.