This is in response to a question in the blog of the opinion page editor of the Bellingham Herald, where he asks if labels like “conservative” and “liberal” have meaning anymore:
Bush 41 said “Labels are for cans.” I think they can be useful, so long as their inherent limitations are taken into account. Some people believe what they believe, and those things are liberal or conservative things. Other people will attach to the label, and then believe the things that fit the label. And some people will have beliefs that fit one label a majority of the time, but have other beliefs that fit the other label as well. So it’s safer to say “Liberals/conservatives tend to X” than “Liberals/conservatives X.”
But, mostly, this is a tribal problem. There are many kinds of tribes, some racial, some gender-based, some ethnic, some political, some age-based, some geographical/regional, some religious, some musical, with many kinds of sub-tribes along the way to help people collect and separate themselves in any way they wish. Labels are used to push people in or out of the tribe, and the way you know you’ve crossed a tribal line is when you stop talking about “us” and start talking about “them.”
It is not uncommon for people to demonize “them,” and to make “them” responsible for all of “our” problems (or “our” most serious problems). It is, fortunately, uncommon in this country for people to use that demonization as justification to kill rooms full of people. But the step from the one to the other can be a very small one, and we would all be well advised to be cautious about using these kinds of tribal condemnations and demonizations, and to discourage their usages, not only because they can lead to atrocities, but because they are logically sloppy. Have you ever heard “Of course he said/did X, he’s a Y”? That’s the logical fallacy of reverse-construction, attributing a characteristic of a whole to its parts.
It also helps to spend time getting to know people across these tribal lines. Tribal divisions are only as real and divisive as we allow them to be. Listening to people you disagree with to try to understand them, rather than just to argue with them, is also helpful.