Friday, October 28, 2011

Exceptions to the "don't label people" general rule? and musing on generalities

Please, if you've got suggestions, share them.

I recently told someone that I didn't think name-calling or a focus on it was helpful. And on a one-on-one basis, I do believe that avoiding labeling is most constructive; but the more I chew on it, the more exceptions I see, or at least circumstances where IMO there shouldn't be an absolute prohibition.

One exception might be employing a quotation making the point that "X is undesirable"; since you can't always get people, particularly ones who've been dead for millennia, to come back & express their views with less hyperbole.

Another might be a situation where a group is expounding on reckless-endangerment fringe views to a crowd, particularly if they're not making it clear that these views are fringe (or dangerous). I can envision situations where I'd apply a derogatory label (e.g. deniers, confusionists, etc) to a group espousing such a view, or even to an influential individual espousing that view, although if addressing him directly I would likely not do so.

Was it wise for me to make that general "I don't think behavior Y is helpful" statement at all?
The problem with making such general statements is that there usually do turn out to be some situations in which the statement doesn't hold. But how do we go about reconciling this "failure of generality" (which argues for tolerance of seeming inconsistency) with the Clinton test (how would I feel if Clinton had done it, instead of Bush?) (which argues for intolerance of inconsistency)? And how do you balance these two opposing guidelines, when engaging in intellectually honest dialogue with someone of different views? (How do you safeguard against fooling yourself into thinking "ah, but this really is a justifiable exception" when it really isn't, given our well-documented penchant for doing exactly that?)

And how do you prevent this area from becoming a vulnerability, Achilles heel style, to actors who are motivated to just quietly amass a collection & then let fly with a barrage? (and who may be counting on their audience to only have, or lend, half an ear...)

A "safe", conflict-averse workaround to avoid the whole problem is just to stop making general statements; but the problem with this reaction is that it's unnatural, it really hems you in, communicationally speaking; you end up feeling (spontaneity-wise) like Bob or Mat, of the quadruple-amputee jokes. As social & intellectual creatures, that's no way to live.

My first (and so far, only) thought is, we bloggers need a "report an inconsistency" button, akin to the "report an error" one ( ) - to indicate that we'd like you to tell us when you (think you) spot one, so we can chew on it.


Don Pelton said...

Hm, interesting question. Here are a couple of random musings:

My first reaction is that not all labels are pejorative, but it often requires a lot of context to sort out what is pejorative from what is not, and that context includes cultural references, which are usually not shared uniformly across all demographic groups.

For instance, to say that someone is a climate-change denier seems offhand to be merely acknowledging in a benign way that that person does, in fact, deny anthropogenic climate change.

But -- uh oh -- the word "denier" carries a faint whiff of "holocaust denier" for anyone old enough or well-read enough or (for whatever reason) aware enough to be conscious of that cultural reference. Not so benign in that context.

Another problematic example of labeling is the rhetorical technique of countering an unwanted message (a criticism) by attacking the messenger.

This has been much on my mind lately because here in Nevada County we've been watching Emgold Corporation call local citizens who are concerned about re-opening the Idaho-Maryland Mine ... "fear mongers," "environmental elitists," "hypocrites," etc.

You can find Emgold CEO David Watkinson's op-ed using these calculated pejorative terms here:

"Claim-GV — environmentalism or fear mongering?" )

This is an ancient technique that often -- as in this case -- doesn't work all that well.

The context in this case is a statement made by the CEO of a company with a large financial interest in hyping its project (laughably going so far as to call hardrock mining "sustainable") and attacking all critics of it.

See how this ad hominem technique is playing to the general public here:

"Advice to Emgold: More Answers, Less Name-Calling"

Anna Haynes said...

Thank you Don. And yeah, I do have mixed feelings about the naming/shaming thing - on the one hand, given the reckless endangerment (for the forseeable future of human civilization) that they're engaged in, it seems called for - but if it only muddies the waters, maybe better not go there.

> uh oh -- the word "denier" carries a faint whiff of "holocaust denier"... Not so benign in that context.

Yet the holocaust deniers are cozying up to them anyway - googling "holocaust skeptic" brings up 12,800 hits.

We might as well go ahead & call all of them deniers since they refuse to accept a long-understood & well-supported fact. This keeps our language more clear, since it doesn't conflate the deniers with the true skeptics.
(The original skeptics must be pretty steamed at the misappropriation & tarnishing of their rightful label by the anti-science folks.)

Anna Haynes said...

Another observation though, "muddying the waters" may be an extreme understatement - since the M.O. of the climate inaction PR effort seems to be to take any offense (or sentiment, or action) against them, multiply it by a factor of 10 or more, then bounce it back.

Irking the most powerful & threatened industry on earth does have a downside.

Anna Haynes said...

(also, re the "googling" results I'd noted above, I'm presuming that 97% of the returned results aren't scare-quoted. It seems appropriate to mention this for Halloween, somehow)