By Mary Coen
We have all heard that ” Democrats are socialists”, that ” Democrats are pro-abortion”, that “Democrats are “tax-and-spenders”, are “for open borders”, are ” pro-entitlements” and more. Labeling is such a commonly used tactic, especially in a campaign year, that we take it for granted. Indeed, we may even indulge in it ourselves. But should we?
Labeling by definition is ” the act of assigning to a category, (especially inaccurately or restrictively). The human brain instinctively acts to categorize; we need a way to sort incoming information or we would not be able to make sense of our world. But like so many positive behaviors, labeling can run smack into a number of risky ones: mis-labeling, inaccuracy, terminology that becomes slanted or even reversed over time, and even outright lying.
An obvious case of mis-labeling is calling anyone “pro-abortion”, as if allowing the choice is the same as being enthusiastically in favor of the activity, as one might be in favor of, say, going on vacation or eating chocolate. What proponents of the right to have an abortion should be called, accurately, is pro-choice. One can easily be both pro-choice and pro-life and in fact many are. What the opponents of the right of women to control their own bodies should be accurately and only labeled is anti-choice. We need to keep in mind that the anti-choice movement consciously chose to call themselves pro-life precisely to infer that their opponents were therefore against life–a gross mis-labeling. We can only hope to mitigate some of that damage by making a concerted effort to deny their self-promotion as the pro-lifers by always referring to them as anti-choice.
Probably the most overused label assigned to Democrats currently is “socialist”. It is meant to install fear in the heart of every ” God-fearing, patriotic American” (“patriotic” being another problematic label). But it is highly misleading in that there are so many different definitions of socialistic systems that one label cannot possibly include them all. The word “socialism” was initially meant to describe a set of behaviors in the social sector, not in the governmental one. It described a system of sharing–and not just goods: most religions have some sort of socialistic behavior as a basic tenet, as in sharing/helping one’s neighbor. But the word has been so co-opted and attached to political objectives that to label someone today as simply a “socialist” is bound to be inaccurate. It is so broad as to become meaningless without further definition. The closest accurate label for most of the Democrats on the campaign trail today is a “modern socialist democrat”–one who is in favor of a capitalistic economy in making money, and in favor of socialism in government spending, i.e. sharing. It’s going to be tough to get a correct label to be used on this one.
One of the craziest labels recently thrown at Democrats and meant to be derogatory is that of being ” pro-entitlements”. The preferred dictionary definition of “entitlement” is ” having a right to something”. Whether the right was earned by working and paying into, or conferred by citizenship, or simply by membership in the human race, the right itself is fact. Arguments can certainly be made about the conditions of eligibility, but the right itself is a given. Farther down in the dictionary is a definition of the phrase ” feelings of entitlement” meaning the belief that one is “inherently deserving of special treatment or privilege”. Apparently, this meaning has been substituted for the original one, provoking a flashpoint of disdain for those receiving their rightful benefits.
So what about the labeling of Democrats as pro-open borders? What do you call an exaggeration so broad as to be generally untrue? There are probably some people, somewhere, likely Democrats, who think that completely open borders are a good idea as policy, but the history of recent Democratic administrations does not support that. Nor do the current party leaders. What Democrats have argued for is policy reform and humane treatment. Immigration is a complex subject in need of much discussion and nuanced policy, but labeling all Democrats as in favor of wide-open borders is clearly a lie.
Another derogatory label given to Democrats, “tax-and-spenders”, comes across as a bit of a puzzle as Republicans are just as involved in taxing and spending money as the rest of us. We just differ on whom and how much to tax, and where to spend.
So what are we to do about mis-labeling in all its forms? What indeed can we do? We still need the clarity that sorting information brings and a common way of talking about that sorting. The truth is that we cannot control the labeling of others, correct or not. We can take it lying down, or shouting back, or even calmly trying to explain but we shouldn’t expect much success in changing minds or behaviors. But we can be aware that our judgments in labeling others are subject to the same risks, consciously or not. What we can do is, when a label comes up in any communication, ask “What do you mean by that?” That would take time; it would require listening as well as explaining; and it might risk our sounding naive to have asked in the first place. But we just might be able to avoid some giant pitfalls of misunderstanding.