What label are you attached to?

Can I ask you to do a little thought experiment with me?  Think of a title, a label or a word you call yourself: Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, Patriot, Humanist, Skeptic, Agnostic, Hindu, Muslim, Vegetarian, Pacifist, Marxist…

Now, imagine that someone were able to clearly show you that your understanding of that word was largely inaccurate. Are there any self-labels that, after this enlightenment, you would go out of your way to not surrender?  Are there labels that you’d want to keep and would far rather redefine — even if radically — than to discard and find a new label?  Have you ever done that? What type of a label was it?

If so, what is that all about?

HT: to Blogography for the image



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

23 responses to “What label are you attached to?

  1. I’ve found it hard to answer your question, because I haven’t really tried to define myself in terms of labels… at least not in my adult life. High school was a little different, of course, but even then it was not too strong because I didn’t fit into one of the well defined cliques.

    The biggest label I struggle with today is “right,” as in correct, not Republican. 😉 But as time goes on, I am getting more comfortable with being wrong.

  2. I used to really love the label “open minded” when I was into that new age stuff. After I deconverted, I was really attached to the label Atheist. I had to have it on my Facebook, Twitter, etc. I remember fighting really hard to preserve those two labels, especially the latter, whenever I’d debate Christian Apologists.

    Now I am an Agnostic. I am reluctant to call myself an atheist- yet I consider the atheistic world view to be the most plausible. Despite that, I don’t hold to any such labels anymore.

  3. What a wild coincidence, I just wrote about this on my blog too (although in a more personal and rambling context). I am a former vegetarian and it’s funny that so many folks at the time would also call themselves vegetarian when they still ate animal products, even if it was rarely. I made a decision at some point and dropped the label right away.

    I like the term Secular very much, mostly because it sounds neutral but alternately it ticks off the right wingers so I love that too.

  4. Well, I tend to go with Sympathetic Atheist Leaning Agnostic. One appellation is so limited, heck, even multiples are.

    I still have Christian friends look at me funny when I just say “atheist”. They are much more comfortable with agnostic.

    I actually have been told that I didn’t understand what atheist meant, and I usually just shrug, since I know what it means to me.

    Of course I borrowed sympathetic from you. 🙂

  5. I choose labels that describe my positions, not pick out labels that I would like to identify with. Of course if someone demonstrated that I was misapplying a label I would drop it at once. Why would anyone not want to do that?

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with what Doug B wrote. Well said.

  7. @ The Wise Fool :
    “Wrong” is my most familiar happy playground.

    @ andy scicluna :
    It is awkward trying to label ourselves for believers. In this sense, I think “Atheist” is an epiphonomena — see my post and picture about it here if you are interested.

    @ amelie :
    What a fun ‘coincidence’ — are you sure it is not the Divine speaking through us? 🙂
    I used the “Vegetarian” label in an odd way too. I hope to write about it in a coming post exactly in this context. It would be fun to see you write a post about it.

    @ Mike :
    Glad that title helped. Have you ever had a label that you did not want to give up when you found it was inaccurate?

  8. @ Doug B
    So, you have never had a label that you kept changing the definition of, just to preserve the label, until you perhaps either discarded it or realized what you had done?

    I have. I hope to write about it later. Amelie (commentor above) gave us one such example.

  9. @ Mike,
    [seems our comments are out of sync and crossing]
    Well, Mike, if you agree, maybe you could take another stab at the actual question of the post. Not “what label do you use”, but

    Are there labels that you’d want to keep and would far rather redefine — even if radically — than to discard and find a new label?

    If you haven’t, cool. Just curious.

  10. When my son was six, he watched one of the Harry Potter movies and came home insisting we call him Fred. We never bothered to ask why. It’s tough arguing with a six-year-old, tougher than teaching college students, I’ve found, because undergrads tend to bite less. So we called him Fred. A week later, he was so pleased by the outcome (he’d manipulated his family into calling him Fred? this must be magic!) that he decided he should be called George. We told him no. We kind of said “sorry–you’re only allowed one name change when you’re six. Try again next year.” most of his family still calls him Fred.

    Labels, like metaphors, are mental constructs to help us to classify abstractions. The difference between a label and a classification that a label doesn’t require community buy-in while a classifying topic does (dictionaries wouldn’t work, for example, if we couldn’t agree what a “dog” was). I can call myself a poet until I’m cold and blue but if nobody else does, I may have created for myself a nice label, but am I really one? Same if I decide to call myself a Christian, or Oregonian, or yogurt, or Liberal, but unless a community accepts my label, that’s all it ever will be

    As to what I call myself? For me, it doesn’t matter as much as the what my social groups call me. One week I’m a librarian. then I’m a dad. then I’m unemployed. Then I’m a linguist. Then a scholar. I guess I’m saying, it ultimately doesn’t matter what I label myself, but how I’m labeled by others. What do you want on your tombstone?

    Can I give up a label? Sure. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a word, and words of tend to have a certain fluidity when they’re not heard by a group.

    Just my two bits.

  11. @bjanecarp
    But have you ever called yourself by something that you eventually gave up on. And perhaps one that on the way to its demise you redefined the meaning to yourself a few times trying to vainly preserve it from death?

    That is my question in this post.

    Your story of your son was fun.
    Discussing linguistics with you will be fun.

  12. CRL

    I had an interesting conversation about this with my dad a few days ago, actually. He was arguing that, while I use the label atheist out of convenience, I shouldn’t, as to call oneself an atheist is to give too much credit to the idea of a personal, capital-G God, but too little credit to the idea of “goodness in the world, which I would like to give the name god.” Personally, I prefer good as is, with all its O’s intact.

    Perhaps I am too attached to the label, but, generally, I just find it more convenient to give a word rather than a verbal essay on the nature of the universe whenever asked my religion, even if it would save a few believers from insult.

  13. Earnest

    I label myself a weak-willed aimless Christian, sometimes dropping the Christian part. When I am feeling particularly grandiose I call myself a Bodhisattva.

    I had a lot of issues when younger with the surname “Doctor”. It felt presumptuous and somehow unfitting, when I first became one. Now 17 years later it still feels somehow unnatural, although a better fit as the years go by. Perhaps the more hair I lose the better I will feel about the label.

    I find that the “mentally ill” label is less socially enfranchising than the “doctor” label. Unfortunately for me in this era of “Sunshine laws” all will know all about all somewhere on the internet. So my unhappy public fusion into “mentally ill doctor” has inexorably begun. When I have been sufficiently outed by the electronic universe that my patient base fails I guess I will retire.

    I am happy that local laws do not demand I stitch a shape onto my clothing.

  14. Sabio wrote: “@ Mike :
    Glad that title helped. Have you ever had a label that you did not want to give up when you found it was inaccurate?”

    I’ve never really had any attachment to labels, the closest I could come to that was when I was a Christian. Too many who claimed that label did not represent what I believed, so I did not like accepting that label sometimes.

    Sabio also wrote: “@ Mike,
    [seems our comments are out of sync and crossing]
    Well, Mike, if you agree, maybe you could take another stab at the actual question of the post. Not “what label do you use”, but

    Are there labels that you’d want to keep and would far rather redefine — even if radically — than to discard and find a new label?

    If you haven’t, cool. Just curious.”

    I have no problem leaving a label behind if it doesn’t suit me. Redefining labels as individuals would seem to be potentially confusing to others. Some friends of mine had a pet cat and a fish. The cat was named Fish and the fish was named Cat. This caused a little confusion until it was explained.

    I guess I would prefer not to use labels at all, despite their convenience.

    I don’t know how many times someone assumed I thought a certain way just because of the label they had applied to me. Countless times I’ve had fellow Caucasians make racist comments, assuming I would agree with them. When I was a Christian, other Christians often assumed I held identical beliefs to them. As an atheist many make assumptions that I believe certain things. This is the area where labels fail.

    I think I may have rambled a bit. 😉

  15. The label I cling to the most is “Good Father.” But sometimes I wonder.

  16. Oh, and then there is “Intelligent.” My mother used to tell me that when I was very young I talked a lot. But as I got into elementary school I talked less and less. One day my grandfather came to visit and mentioned how quite I was. My mother said, “Paul doesn’t talk very much, but when he has something to say it’s worth listening to.” (Or something like that.) It seems a reputation I feel compelled to maintain. Or something like that.

  17. @ CRL:
    Interesting ! I will be curious to hear how that attachment evolves over the next 10 years.

    @ Earnest :
    Thanx for sharing the vulnerable info. Yet you sound oddly comfortable with it all in a healthy way too.

    @ Mike :
    I have had a lot of attachments to label. You sound pretty immune to such silliness. You are a lucky man!

    @ Paul:
    We won’t hold you to being intelligent on this blog — go ahead and try and be dumb! 🙂 That was interesting.

  18. DaCheese

    Used to be “agnostic”, and struggled with my residual paranoia about fire+brimstone (raised Protestant). Now I struggle to remind myself that “atheist” isn’t quite my whole philosophy. Technically, I’m “Atheist” regarding interventionist, prayer-answering deities, while I’m “agnostic” regarding hands-off, deistic conceptions of divinity. In practice, it’s a hard line to walk, as I find myself being pulled into the generally atheistic (or anti-theistic) group-think on various sites.

  19. @ DaCheese :
    Interesting. I wrote a post called “Atheism as an Epiphenom” where I tell that I am many things but because I miss the theist part, others call me an “atheist”. When I lived in Asia, I wasn’t an atheist. That is, no one wanted me to be a theist, so I wasn’t an a-theist. Instead, in Asia I would debate Shintoism, Buddhism and Hinduism while there but not with any of the fervor demanded by Christians.

    On other atheist sites, I can tell I don’t share a worldview with many of them. It is obvious to me that “Atheism” is not a whole philosophy — and barely a partial one. Being an “Atheist” doesn’t tell me anything about a person’s inner life, moral positions, political positions, community connections or any of that.

  20. Earnest

    @ Mike: you reminded me when I was a boy I had a cat named Bob and a fish named Bob. My father was also named Bob.

  21. Earnest

    @ Sabio: I agree. I have no option but to go “no mind” about the whole thing. It helps that I have had the same disability with the same employer who now wants more data about me over time. How can I be fired if I was once satisfactory and now am the same?

  22. @ Earnest:
    That does not surprise me — about “Bob”, that is. Call to have tea if you want to debrief on the work scenario — we’ll keep it off the blog.

  23. I think the label of ‘good person’ is one that hardly anyone wants to surrender and which consequently undergoes all sorts of manipulations so that it will point toward whatever a ‘good person’ is or does this week.

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