Thursday, May 23, 2013

On the Value of (and Danger in) Labels

People have labels and systems for everything. That's where the entire Latin name system came from with living things: seeking to organize everything into neat little compartments. I suspect that's some of where the various Christian denominations come from, seeking to use the label to say "This is what I believe."

Labels can be useful as shorthand descriptors of particular specifics of a thing. For example, you can know that a reformed Baptist will disagree with a reformed Presbyterian over baptism and church government. Method of salvation will be the same. Other things—like opinions on alcohol, music, and dancing—might or might not be, so the label doesn't do you any good on those topics. But if you swap the "reformed Baptist" for fundamentalist Baptist", you can know one side's opinion on alcohol, music, and dancing. But you'd have to know the reformed Presbyterian personally to know his or her own opinion on those topics, because those topics aren't part of the definition of "reformed Presbyterian" label.

However, just as labels can be valuable, they can also be dangerous.

Danger #1: Labels are easily misunderstood or incorrectly defined.

Case in point: Calvinist (which is a misnomer anyway, but that's beside the point). Many folks, when they hear the term "Calvinist", get the wrong idea. They think that "Calvinist" means a person believes that God selects those He wants to save and then drags them kicking and screaming into heaven.

*rolls eyes* <-- The reaction you'll get from a lot of Calvinists when you make that accusation. Though you might get a sigh.

If you ask a Calvinist, "Free will or election?" the actual answer is "Both." Verses like Acts 13:48 specifically refer to God ordaining who chooses God. Even John 3, when you read the full context surrounding John 3:16, says that those of the world spurn the light of Christ and don't come to it. And then verses like Ephesians 2:1, that says "And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins." As anyone who's read A Secret Garden knows, "quick" means "alive", and so God's the one who makes us alive when we're dead in sin.

Note that this is a brief explanation of where the Calvinist view on free will "vs." election stems from, to make my point about misunderstood labels.

So the Calvinist view is that God acts first, enabling those whom He elects to choose Him. From our end, we want to choose God and do so, so we choose freely. But that's not the image that comes to most folks' heads when the label is used.

Another example of labels that tend to do more harm than good is the T.U.L.I.P acronym—which actually wasn't designed by Calvin. A lot of Calvinists hate it because it oversimplifies things and is probably misunderstood more often than it's understood. There are other acronyms that some use, but they all have the same root problems of being readily misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Which brings us to the other major problem with labels:

Danger #2: Labels are easily misinterpreted as definitions.

What do I mean by that?

Let's say someone has dyscalculia (essentially, dyslexia with numbers). Dyscalculia is a math disability. It can be a problem with numerical comprehension, but not necessarily. It can just be a problem with getting everything in the right order.

But if you treat the label as a definition—"Oh, she has dyscalculia; she can't learn that"—you might limit someone who comprehends the concepts just fine. She might just need to know various methods to double-check her work.

I know that personally, because I have dyscalculia. I was never officially diagnosed, but I self-corrected all through school. I've even taught math. I use several check-work methods, one of which is that any in-head-only problem gets worked three times. The answer I get two out of three times is the right one. (My family makes fun of me. "It took you that long to figure that out?!" I've tried explaining, "No, it took me that long to do the problem thrice," but I don't think they believe me.)

Another label that often gets misdefined is introvert. Many people conflate introverted with shy. (Result: I have to explain what introverted means just about every time I use it, because I'm comfortable with people. But I need my alone time to recharge, or I get stressed. It helps that I'm good at finding pockets of "alone" time in a crowd.)

Which brings us to the third major problem with labels:

Danger #3: Labels can be used as excuses.

This is where people who say "I don't like that word" (like "introverted", etc.) are coming from. Someone gets labeled "introverted", thinks that means they dislike people (no, it just means they get their energy from alone time), and then use that label "Oh, I'm just an introvert" to explain away being anti-social.

It's fine to dislike parties. It's fine to dislike crowds. But that's not what "introverted" means. It's a descriptor. Yeah, a lot of introverts don't care for parties and crowds, but that's not part of the definition of "introvert". If you dislike parties and crowds, it's because you don't like parties and crowds. Not because you're an introvert.

Same goes for learning disabilities. "Oh, I have dyscalculia. That's why I suck at math."

No, you suck at math because either nobody's taught you properly or you're not bothering to make provision for your dyscalculia. I made good grades in math until college. (Calculus.) That was the first time a teacher ever even commented that something was odd about how I handled numbers. (I dismissed his question at the time and didn't think much of it until later, when an employer told me "Is there such thing as dyslexia with numbers? If so, you have it.")

The only value of labels: shorthand descriptors.

Labels are summaries.

If you use them as any more than that, you're only shooting yourself in the foot.

What are your thoughts on labels?


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