The LIBEL of LABELS (Part 2 of 3)

name callingIn Part 1 I talked about the bad habit even followers of Jesus get into, the hell-inspired practice of name calling. I offer here a further list of the harmful effects of labeling one another.

It’s particularly libelous when we mislabel someone, intentionally or not.

Those who were afraid of the work of MLK or Dorothy Day labeled them “Communists.” They weren’t. They just cared about the poor and marginalized in ways that threatened those who obviously cared less. There are a number of people who, in order to discredit President Obama, call him a Muslim. He isn’t. Someone cares about the environment and they’re derogatorily labeled a “tree hugger.” Anyone who believes that marriage should only be between a man and woman is automatically “homophobic.” A person against abortion is anti-feminist and chauvinistic. These assumptions may or may not be true, but must be judged on an individual basis rather than painted with the broad brush of prejudice.

Labels limit the labeled.

As a teenager my son was the sloppiest human being I had ever met. (He’s not anymore. His wife talked some sense into him.) Entering his room in those days required HASMAT gear. On the floor were items piled atop other items that hadn’t seen the light of day for months. Under their respective mounds the bed, closet, and dresser were all indecipherable as distinct entities. But the worst of it was when the organic and inorganic heaps poured out into, and gradually down, the hallway outside his room! It was like an alien invasion was propagating throughout our house. That’s when I would step in (literally) and at least shovel the debris out of my sight and back into the landfill loosely called his bedroom.

One particular day in a temper tantrum I shouted, “You are the sloppiest person I’ve ever met! You are a total slob!” I admit that it felt good for about two seconds, but once the steam I had blown off dissipated I realized that I had just defined him. I had given my son a definition, a label to live down to. Though I wasn’t entirely over my fury, before the label sunk in to his vulnerable psyche I realized I had to backpedal. “OK, I’m sorry for calling you a name. That’s not your identity, it’s not who you are. The way you keep your room is outrageous and it has to stop. You keep this room like a pigpen, but you’re not a ‘slob’! You’re bigger than that. So get it together!” I’m sure I said some other choice words that I’d rather not cop to or remember at this time. But the point is, labels limit people.

Labels aren’t large enough to explain a person. Each divine image bearing human is bigger than any one label can contain. It makes me feel big to keep someone else small – at least bigger than they are! It’s belittling when we put someone in a small file folder where we can keep them from breaking out of our definitions – literally belittling.

The most common manufacturers of labels are the twins, fear and anger.

When we’re afraid of or angry at someone or some group of someones the easiest thing to do is to put a label on them. Conspiracy theorists are quite adept at this tactic. (If I weren’t in the middle of letting all labelers have it I would’ve called them “Conspiracy Kooks,” but that would be using the tactic I’m critiquing. So I won’t.) Anyway, people obsessed with conspiracies under every rock, people are everywhere out to get them, are expert at labeling their conspirators (real or imagined). So if you’re in the hunt for name to call a group about which you’re suspicious, I’m sure there’s a “” that will give you some good ideas.

It seems to me that particularly since 9/11 Americans in general are more satiated by fear and anger than ever before (at least in my lifetime). Maybe it was as bad or worse after Pearl Harbor, but I wasn’t there to observe the shift. I get it. It’s a dangerous world out there. Terrorists terrorize. That’s what they do. And since we’ve been attacked, our country has been more cynical, terrified, and pissed off about a lot more than terrorism. Fear and anger seem to have leached into our psychic aquifer. We’re more apprehensive and suspicious than we ever used to be. One way you can gauge this is by the skill we’ve developed to insultingly classify people with labels.

You might’ve noticed that instead of two parts, this has now morphed into three. Next time I’ll talk about how Labels make it easier to abuse people and how Labels are incendiary.

Until then, I challenge us all to go on a name-calling fast. 

3 Replies to “The LIBEL of LABELS (Part 2 of 3)”

  1. You are a voice of reason in turbulent times, sir. We live in a storm of labels. They stick to us sometimes like sap from a tree – and sometimes they don’t even fit.

    I am remembering when I was a substitute teacher at the Juvenile Justice school (formerly known as “reform school”) and a young black kid decided to call me a racist. I was surprised at how that label got under my skin. We both got out of control and hostile. I actually closed my eyes when we got nose to nose and invited him to take a swing! My personal integrity is really a sensitive issue with me, and he found my Achilles heel!

    Of course the Sgt came bursting in to discipline the lad. He almost got a $500 ticket and expulsion from school over it. And there was a real measure of justice about that. But I kept feeling bad about losing my temper too. When I did that, we both were in the wrong.

    When the security detail came to interview me, they were almost begging me to press charges. I felt pressured. They could have totally railroaded this kid. And yet really his only crime was labeling me a racist.

    I opted not to press the charges. Next day, they let him back in my class. I approached the kid in front of the whole class with a written note and apologized for losing my temper. I did not apologize for making racist remarks. I had not done that. That had merely been his manipulative ploy. But by this time he was apologizing to me too. But it had occurred to me that for once in their lives, these minority kids would witness a white man publically apologize to a black kid.

    I normally have a high BS tolerance – a modern designation for the more biblical idea of patience. Not with every blooming thing, but with a lot of stuff. But this kid’s label of me set me off on that occasion. It did damage.

    I make a regular practice of avoiding using labels or calling people names by which they don’t want to be called. Of course some people’s name actually is Baily or Butt etc. Always makes me wince a little. But I avoid that kind of thing for pretty much the exact reasons you outline. It is mostly a settled thing with me, and when I do it from time to time – it surprises me to hear it come out of my mouth.

    That said, I am also mindful that Jesus uses labels for opponents in some instances, and he is not making nice! Hypocrites is a label that really only means ACTOR – you know like Tom Hanks is a professional and Academy Award Winning hypocrite. But it’s Jesus’s use of the label that spoils the term for such use because he labels people hypocrites who pretend to be authentically God’s people when really they are not. Likewise he calls some of the same people broods of vipers and rebels.

    The very fact that Jesus labels these people tells me that he is right to do so. There are times and places where it is appropriate before God and Heaven. But label using is like pointing a loaded gun. Be sure you are ready to shoot it and be very cautious, otherwise you will really do MAJOR harm!

    Well, I am starting to hijack your post. (I am sorry about that. I guess I tend to view blogging as a form of conversation.)

    Glad to see you back in the blog-O-sphere! Was starting to miss you…



  2. It is a form of conversation and I’m always happy to hear your perspective! Yeah, when Jesus labels someone it’s the Manufacturer’s label. When I do it, it feels like I’m gluing my own label over his.


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