Labels For The Intellectually Lazy

In a class discussion the other day, a student noted that she had taken one of those “where do you stand?” tests on the Internet, and had emerged dead-center–neither Left nor Right. She wondered what was wrong with her; evidently, her fatal flaw is that she actually thinks for herself.

These Internet “tests,” of course, are bogus; the questions lack nuance, and tend to reflect the “either/or” bipolarism of contemporary American politics.

I’m old enough to remember when the most common complaint about the parties was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between them.” I also remember a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.

I’m also old enough to remember when issues we now consider “left” were held by many on the right: lots of limited-government Republicans used to be pro-choice and pro-gay-rights, for example, asserting that–as Barry Goldwater put it–government didn’t belong in your boardroom or your bedroom.

The tendency to apply labels that allow us to dismiss, rather than engage, positions with which we disagree is hardly new; in 2003, I wrote

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Intellectual honesty has not improved since 2003. Far from it.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but when I became politically active, the major differences in political philosophy involved “how” rather than “what.” In other words, there was general recognition of the problems America faced, but different approaches to solving those problems. Today, the bulk of the Republican Party disagrees about the very existence of certain problems–think climate change.

Disputing evidence, however, is neither Left nor Right. It’s delusional.

For that matter, a number of America’s current challenges simply do not lend themselves to classic Left/Right classifications. Climate change is one. Globalization is another. The likelihood that automation will displace millions of workers, and the increasingly undemocratic structure of our electoral system are still others. Proposed solutions to these challenges may or may not fall on the familiar left/right spectrum, but any genuine debate about those solutions must be grounded in acknowledgment of their existence and complexity.

Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.

Yelling “snowflake” or “fascist” at those with whom you disagree may make you feel better, but it’s not only lazy–it’s no substitute for an evidence-based explanation of why you disagree.

Name calling is also unlikely to change anyone’s opinion  –although, given the rancor of today’s political tribalism, and the unwillingness of today’s zealots even to consider contrary positions, probably nothing is.


  1. Certainly everyone who uses the internet realizes that those “test yourself” quizzes are really there to gather information about you so as to “sort” you into one category or another. That information is then sold to business entities and political entities so that you can be targeted on various platforms with ads or propaganda. Thus, the general public is constantly steered via the internet into the political tribalism and divisiveness where we find ourselves today.
    The companies that gather this information and the platforms that buy it do so for the advertisement money, not out of some ideology as many believe. It’s always the money.
    The internet platform that I have most often seen that applies to me is Facebook. What started out as a novel and fun way to stay in touch with friends and family has turned into a monster of propaganda. Recently I deleted as much of my FB page as possible and logged out. I urge other to do the same.

  2. “…a popular libertarian illustration of the political spectrum as a circle, not a straight line–the accurate message being that, at the far left and far right, the extremes meet, with their only disagreement being whose agenda government should impose on the rest of us.”

    The circle spectrum also illustrates the message that the political situation does not and cannot end…except in annihilation of a government. Your student’s surprise comes as no surprise if we would look truthfully and deeply into ourselves, we would probably find the same result. A former Republican friend, most have put themselves in the category of “former” regarding our friendship, while helping me with a heavy garden chore suddenly blurted out that he was surprised I am a liberal because I support the death penalty in some cases. We had never discussed politics per se, but had discussed individual issues such as lack of infrastructure repair in our area. Even today; our political alliances are not totally black and white but a vast spectrum of shades of gray. Our biggest issue today on both sides is health care; many have forgotten it contains protective measures written by Republicans under George W. but voted down by Democrats and that prior to release, President Obama announced there are areas which need to be “worked on” and more clearly defined.

    I label myself as humanitarian with areas I need to work on in these chaotic, troubling, and now at a terrifying level, of times to rein in my labeling all Republicans as the enemy. Though they are not at the forefront on the political level; those who recognize but ignore current dangerous conditions need to come out from the shadows and act to save the nation rather than their far-right public persona.

    “Admittedly, the resurgence of white nationalism on the one hand and calls for massive economic redistribution on the other fall on the familiar left/right spectrum–but even then, partisan labeling and name-calling are no substitute for considered analysis.”

  3. in driving,i may judge (label)your style as offensive,defensive..and why driving laws are made that way..o.k. ill label ya a f,,,,,, moron..when you delibertly cut off me,or someone regard for a safe highway,or someones need to be safe..fatal flaws may determine your lifes expectancy..
    labels, I have a few my associates use to discribe me,(i didnt say friends) my talks at times will spout in real time,so,your a bigot? and they are..but im not on some social media,im standing in front of that person.. I do judge,and label, but im far left,and lived,and seen the reasons why,people are now classified by the net,and others.that talk show,nothing like fox and trump talking heads putting on the propaganda mouth piece..or maddow discussing why her show is far,left?..turn them off,and hit the streets,walk with those that get the labels,and walk a mile with em..a close friend died a few years back, working class organic farmer, had his land paid for,his land never had any chemicles used on it, he had people from europe come and buy from him personally..had cattle that got top dollar,and grew his own alfalfa,.i worked this farm for two summers to get out of my truck, i knew him persoanally..he was constantly listening to those right wing fanaticals,mainly teabaggers,then he sold it all,for cash,and became a hermit in my one room attic,and listen to them all day and night on right wing talk shows. his small arsonal was his pride and joy..he died (massive stroke)lonely,and broke. his brother died three days later,after flying in to his brothers funeral..both,the same label,and both left farming and their land to protect what they thought was a plot to take their guns away and style of,now give me a label for the rightnwing peopaganda on the radio that drives people to do this?.though we were on diffrent spectrums,we had a common bond of being just working class,and we expected little more.our lively discussion on right and left,were at the ends ..i still resect this man for what he did accomplish,not for how he thought..i have a label for,the rightnwing talk shows callled
    “decsions made for you today” …josf goebbels would be proud….

  4. Theresa,
    I agree! I’ve done the same. Some of the stuff that ends up on the page that is uninvited is ridiculous. And then others that are sent by relatives and such, are so nonsensical, it’s like a rabbit hole. There is an endless supply of clandestine surveillance disguised as harmless nincompoopery.

    how are you this morning?
    I think you hit on something quite interesting, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” the only problem with that, how long is it before the enemy of the enemy focuses on you?

    Of course, in civil society, debate shouldn’t be considered warfare, the interchange of ideas should not be considered off-limits and beyond the pale. But that would be in a perfect society, which in the history of mankind, has never ever ever happened, it has never been perfected beyond weaponization! Instead of debating being a vehicle to find common ground, it ends up being used as a bludgeon or a verbal evisceration of the “other” opponent to murder their point of view.

    Everybody likes to drink water, everyone likes to breathe fresh air, everyone would prefer to eat food that is not contaminated, everyone would like to congregate and associate with their friends, family, and those who are educationally, politically and or spiritually connected. And it these things are supposed to be a guaranteed civil and human right.

    All of mankind are free moral agents, free to make their own decisions, free to follow a path of righteousness or a path of debauchery, free to be enlightened or free to be deceived, free to be willfully ignorant or free to be willfully cognizant. Free to love? Free to hate! Free to promote peace, or free to promote war. Our conscience tells us what the proper paths should be, but some have a conscience that is so damaged, so scarred over, they purposefully choose the opposite path a conscience would dictate.

    Why so many people would seem to cast their lot in with an individual who is at best conscienceless and at worse, insane! Why? Why?

    Why would some people claim to be spiritually enlightened, compassionate, and as Becky said, listen to good preachers, and portend righteousness? Well, it’s like JoAnn alluded to, some prefer to be led by the nose, it’s easier than making up your own mind, especially if you like to see people you don’t agree with squirm! That gives them a certain amount of plausible deniability, just as the 2nd world war gave those living near concentration camps a way to deny they had anything to do with what was happening. But they did, and when it came time to pay the piper, they were not happy about it, their claims of plausible deniability were tossed in the trash bin as they had to bury and re-bury the dead.

    Not using one’s mind and going along to get along is one of the worst human traits there could possibly be, but it also is part of being free to make one’s own decisions, being a free moral agent.

    Proverbs 13:20 reads; ” the one walking with the wise will become wise,
    But the one who has dealings with the stupid will fare badly.”

    Everyone wants to fit in, everyone wants to belong, at least, most people! That seems to be an important human trait, but, should that desire to belong or fit in override common sense and decency? The answer is an emphatic NO! But then again, it’s mankind’s right to choose what direction he/she is going to go. What might seem the right way at the time, could quickly devolve into the wrong way! They found that out in Nazi Germany, and they paid for it with generations of misery. In the United States, the pain of the Civil War as long past, it’s considered ancient history now, LOL. So, will wanted all recycles, when it all starts to happen again, there will be those who will try to reinvent the wheel because of their self perceived intellect. In the end it’ll just be another bloodbath that the particular generation involved will claim to have received a valuable lesson only to be lost on future generations. And the cycle begins again!

    That’s what I mean about the same old same old, so we all do it we can do for our fellow humans, because those that we elect, those who are in charge become drunk with the power given to them and eventually use it to dominate their fellow man and women to their harm! If you can show me anywhere in history where men actually considered the health and well-being of those under their purview, allowed them to have their God-given human and civil rights, you might convince me I am wrong, but in the long string of human history, the millennia that have gone by, there has been nothing but misery and strife, war and no peace, hate without love, judgment without process, well you get the picture.

    For me, my personal moral epiphany has taken a huge burden off of my shoulders, just as Mitt Romney made his decision to follow his faith because of his conscience, so have me and my family. ) Following a Bible-trained conscience may result in persecution, but Peter comfortingly counsels: “For if someone, because of conscience toward God, bears up under grievous things and suffers unjustly, this is an agreeable thing.” (1st Peter 2:19) A Christian must “hold a good conscience” in the face of opposition. (1st Peter 3:16.)

  5. Ad hominem attacks are the last resort of a person losing an argument/debate. I get it all the time from former classmates on Facebook. Many of the male classmates wonder what happened to me…then they search my profile to say I should give back my diploma from out West – liberal educators have brainwashed me.

    Being in the “center” does not mean that “you think for yourself.”

    If I remember correctly, MLK frequently talked about the “silent majority” who nestled comfortably from the middle… “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

    I could toss out a few Paulo Freire quotes about oppression and the “cozy middle,” but I think many get the point.

    This period will be considered a time of awakening to the disinformation campaigns laid upon us for decades by one industry after another trying to prolong their profiteering ways over the rights of the people. It’s the rotten stench of decay from an economic system that has failed the people and corrupted our political system.

    Until enough people have accepted our dilemma, there won’t be changes. Those who squat in their comfortable positions within the middle side with the oppressors — not the oppressed. I would dare say that most are the privileged whites who enjoy financial success within our capitalistic system.

    There are fewer and fewer people at the top of the pyramid scheme, which means they’ll need to extract more from the bottom, middle, and top in this game of upward redistribution. The so-called “middle-class” of the 50s and 60s and 70s have become the working poor of today’s gig economy where you’re one trip to the emergency room away from financial ruin or bankruptcy.

    Here’s an excerpt from David Michaels new book tossed around at Davos this year:

    “Unwelcome news is automatically rebranded fake news. Inconvenient evidence from independent sources — say, about climate breakdown and fossil fuels, or air pollution and diesel emissions — is labelled junk science and countered with rigged studies claiming to be sound.

    But it would be wrong to see truth decay solely as the preserve of today’s populist politicians. Normalizing the production of alternative facts is a project long in the making. Consultancy firms that specialize in defending products from tobacco to industrial chemicals that harm the public and the environment have made a profession of undermining truth for decades. They hire mercenary scientists to fulfil a crucial role as accessories to their misrepresentations.”

  6. I do tend to agree there is somewhat of circle. Communism and Fascism in terms political control meet-up, both embrace a Totalitarian one party control. What we saw in the 20th century was with Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Lenin, Mao and Stalin is absolute rule by a single person. These people were the “Party”. After Stalin and Mao, the respective Communist Parties placed some limits on a single strongman rule.

    We can add another dimension to the circle, which is Corporatism. It is inconceivable to imagine Chinese Billionaires from mainland Communist China, it does not fit with what Karl Marx had in mind.

    Perhaps a better way of looking at it is power. You can call your self a Communist or a National Socialist (Nazi) yet it becomes indistinguishable from the Royalty/Aristocracy of Europe. The party rules and that all to human urge for greed kicks in. So you can have Billionaire Chinese Communists, or in the case of Nazi’s looting Europe of art treasures for personal reasons.

    Here in the USA we have Corporatism and/or Crony Capitalism. It is difficult how to resolve within traditional economic models of Capitalism and Socialism the rewarding of certain companies with tax abatements, tax credits or outright subsidies. So Crony-Capitalism and Corporatism to the rescue.

  7. Well said, Todd, but we must start calling the situation for what it is, and at the risk of sounding anti-Sheila we can, I think, use words like fascist if we perceive fascism at work. Thus we call systems systems when the real problem is the people who implement such systems, which by themselves are mere descriptions of the evils contained within such “systems.” The use of third person grammatical expressions as a cover for such evils is in and of itself a diversion.

    We are witness to the end days of capitalism as presently practiced, an ism which without reform invites a new and likely top down ism which may be worse than the one presently practiced when we have a new form of tyranny by the majority as opposed to the current tyranny of the minority by financiers. Evidence? An historic Dow concurrently with an historic wage and wealth inequality and the uncertainties of how to manage AI displacement of human labor which is already making inroads in our economic arrangements as the Information Age takes shape.

    As a lawyer with an undergrad B.A. in economics, I’m not smart enough to discuss the details of how this transformation will fare beyond the macro stage, but I feel on solid ground to predict that such a transformation is nearing. I will leave it not to politicians but to the likes of Piketty, Stiglitz, Krugman and other such brilliant economists to fill in the blanks, exercises beyond my pay grade.

  8. Tyranny spreads through blame. That’s a lesson taught by history. When the blame gets strong enough fear and anger look for protection and it typically emerges from the leaders who are the worst offenders in the blame game. That’s a lesson taught by Trump among others.

    It’s interesting that one of the points of discussion by pundits following each Democrat debate among candidates is who can best withstand Trump’s insults and lies and the Trumputincan blame game. What does that even mean? The one best able to return the insults? The one most capable of ignoring them? The one best able to out-aggress Trump?

    That’s a very serious Democrat strategic point. What campaign style now will be most effective in gathering in those minds still not lost to the on going Trumputincan blame barrage? That question is in fact but incorrectly (IMO) sometimes translated into a downside for female candidates.

    I assume that there are campaign marketeers who have some insight that addresses that question. I know that I don’t.

  9. Yep, the silent majority, when people of goodwill decide to be uninformed. I never could understand that mentality Todd. Granted, a lot of people don’t agree with my take on things, but I’ve always put myself in the thick of the argument, and one can’t ever be afraid to engage on ideals that are morally and ethically appropriate. And, I don’t believe for 1 minute that senators were afraid of twitter attacks if they voted to impeach, that in itself is a spineless excuse, the real reason is much more obvious, they agree with the program as it stands now. They are not people of goodwill, more like, they are people who receive goods and will enrich themselves!

  10. Pete – Just checked out the article in the Atlantic, the link you provided. OMG, Dems don’t have a chance. This is some scary stuff. I don’t know how these folks sleep at night.

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