Failed Empire

Chronicling the collapse of a failed society

labels obstruct meaningful debate

One of the reasons that political dialogue – and indeed, dialogue of any kind – is so absurdly counterproductive in this country has to do with our obsession with labels. Rather than discussing ideas, we have a tendency to become bogged down with arbitrary labels and titles: liberal, conservative, right wing, left wing, socialist, libertarian, and ad nauseam.

Labels do serve a practical purpose, and they have a place in any discussion. Without labels, it would be hard to discuss abstract notions – such as freedom and creative expression – with any degree of effectiveness. But when our fixation with labels becomes the focal point of our discussion, then we run into problems.

Such is the case in the political arena. Our national dialogue – molded and prodded by the corporate-owned mainstream media – revolves around labels. The big issues lying at the core of these labels are hardly ever mentioned; instead, we hear endless stories about “liberal” candidates” trailing “conservative” candidates, or about the latest opinion poll showing more Americans consider themselves “Republican” than “Democrat.” But the issues themselves are never addressed.

It’s hard to say how this obsession with labels first emerged. What we can say is that it obviously works in the favor of corporations whose goal is to limit meaningful cultural exchange in the hopes of maintaining the status quo – or, as has been the case for the last 30 years, of shifting the political spectrum in the United States further and further to the right. I would argue that being preoccupied with labels is a natural human tendency; we depend heavily on language – which, after all, is nothing but labels – and so it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing a bit too heavily on the words themselves, rather than the ideas they represent. And the corporate-owned media has opportunistically – and cleverly – exploited this innate human tendency.

There are two major problems that arise as a result of this fixation on labels. The first is that people tend to become highly polarized, when the world is seen in such black-and-white terms. If there is only “liberal” and “conservative,” then by default I am one side and you must be on the other. And even though, for example, the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” bear similar meanings (being side by side on the larger political spectrum), Americans associate themselves with one group and then passionately attack the other. People fail to consider the broader picture, and so a meaningful dialogue is never commenced.

The second problem is that not everyone has the same definitions in mind. Some words have different definitions depending on the circle in which they are used. For example, the word “socialism” has been redefined in a large segment of the United States to be synonymous with “fascism.” Traditionally, and in the majority of the world, socialism has a much more positive meaning: namely, something that is owned and/or controlled by the people of a society, rather than an elite few.

So it is not surprising, then, that much of the American public is so hysterically opposed to “socialized medicine”; when they use the term “socialized,” they are in fact referring to a fascistic system controlled not by the people, but by a brutal dictator. (Interestingly enough, our current privately-controlled health care system is , in practice, the very thing they fear: a fascistic system whereby access to health care is administered by a ruthless and uncompromising dictator – i.e., insurance companies. But that’s for another post.) People on the left have the traditional definition of “socialized” in mind, so it is often difficult for us to fathom the rabid fear that is so apparent on the right. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that prevents the very possibility of a meaningful exchange; how can two people discuss something while essentially speaking different languages?

We see evidence of this misunderstanding when conservatives routinely complain about the price-gouging they experience at the hands of ruthless insurance companies, but then fight so fervently against any attempt at reforming the current system. As disappointed as I was in Obama’s health care reform bill, there were a few bright spots which would help ordinary Americans: no denial of coverage for preexisting conditions, and caps on extortionate insurance rates. These two features alone will benefit millions of self-professed conservative Americans, but they are opposed to Obama’s bill solely on the basis of a misunderstanding, grounded in an unhealthy fixation on labels.

Until we are able to move beyond these petty labels to address the underlying issues, political discourse in America will continue to flounder, allowing the corporate elite to drive us further and further to the right.

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One response to “labels obstruct meaningful debate

  1. Pingback: health care reform revisited « Failed Empire

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