The Great Label Debate
I was asked to weigh in on this, so here goes. For those of you who don’t know what the great label debate is, well, you’re lucky. Basically: freethinkers, atheists, humanists, brights, a-theists, apatheists, non-theists, skeptics and anyone else even remotely involved with the above mentioned movements and those who fit into one of the above categories but steadfastly refuse any label, will know that what label you apply to yourself matters greatly
Not only does it matter to you, because obviously you wouldn’t have applied a label to yourself had you not felt compelled to let other people know what you think or believe, but it also seems to matters to others. And thus is born the great label debate because as it turns out, it doesn’t really matter what label you apply to yourself, there will always be someone, perhaps lots of someones, who will tell you that you are using the wrong label and if you just used the label they chose for themselves the world would be a better place, or at least we could brand ourselves better.
I came upon the great label debate at the very first public talk I gave on behalf of the Humanists of Florida Association. I gave my talk and someone complained that I should have pointed out that I was an atheist. The person who complained seemed to think I was embarrassed to label myself an atheist. I wasn’t embarrassed, because having been raised an agnostic and having realized I was an atheist in my teens, my atheism was simply never a big deal. It wasn’t something I was ashamed of, I just hadn’t used that label to describe myself because, well, I was representing a Humanist organization, and I thought Humanist was the more appropriate label for the setting.
Anyway, because I had no idea that there was a great label debate, the next talk I gave I pointed out that in addition to being a Humanist I was also an atheist. Again, I added that only because I had been told at my first talk, that I shouldn’t omit that bit of information that I had thought irrelevant, but that clearly wasn’t to some people. Guess what happened. Someone came up and told me that my self-labeling as an atheist was redundant and unnecessary and I should just use the word Humanist. At that point I realized, when it comes to labels, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t because there is no way to make everyone happy with my self-chosen label(s). So, I might as well ignore the debate entirely and just label myself as I feel appropriate in any given moment, which I have since then.
My feeling is that people choose whatever label they choose for very personal reasons or as they feel the situation may call for it. I myself am comfortable with a wide range of labels from atheist, agnostic, ignostic, apatheist, humanist, bright, non-theist, non-religious and more. Which I choose is governed by my mood and the situation I find myself in. And when someone launches into a debate about which label is best, I simply tune it out. I have no interest in the great label debate.
However, there is a valid point made by Sam Harris, that perhaps we should eschew labels altogether. (see his essay on labels here: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/sam_harris/2007/10/the_problem_with_atheism.html)
I understand his reasoning, labeling yourself as not something that doesn’t exist is kind of silly, which is why, paradoxically enough, we are now seeing people label themselves as a-unicornists or a-tooth fairyists to show, through their use of a label, that they agree with Sam Harris, that we don’t actually need a label and that the term atheist is a ridiculous construct. And yes, the mind boggles with this development in the great label debate.
The point is that we humans, love labels. We love using labels to make a statement about our beliefs, even if our belief is that we don’t need a label. So, the use of labels isn’t going to go away. And people are never going to agree on which label to use because, the choice of a label is such a personal thing to do. We humans clearly want to align ourselves with others, we just want to do so on our own terms voluntarily and we will resist any effort to get us to conform. Which is why the great label debate is so incredibly stupid, pointless and unresolvable.
Which brings us to my next point which is that yes, we do indeed to need the label Humanism/humanist. I realize that many humanists don’t like the idea of a label because labels are often used to divide us rather than encouraging us to find common ground. And I agree with that sentiment, because, shocker, I’m a Humanist. However, the use of the label Humanism/humanist signals exactly our desire is to find common ground with our fellow humans. So, for me, it’s a great label, because it distinguishes me as someone who aligns myself with the welfare of the entire human family and not just a subset.
The other reason why I think the label Humanism/humanist is so good is because people who are humanists who don’t yet know the term are often adrift without a label of their own. And without that label they are basically homeless and alone. And that doesn’t feel very good. So desparate are they to share their viewpoint with a single word, Humanists who don’t yet know that there is already a label to describe their personal philosophy will often coin a new label for them. And yes, this does add to the choices we have in great label debate. Regardless, my experience as a humanist teacher is that people are so relieved to find that they have a philosophic home and that this home comes with a readymade label that fits them so well that they are overjoyed and elated. Why would we want to take that away from them by saying, NO LABELS ALLOWED!
Labels act as a place to hang your philosophic hat. We all need this, including clearly those who claim we don’t need labels. For Humanists, we really need our label. We need to have a way to distinguish ourselves from people who don’t share our progressive, compassionate, ethical, responsible, reality based mindset. We need to feel that we are part of a larger group that shares our beliefs and our values. We need to feel like we aren’t the only one who has common sense. So, yes, I think there is a great value in labels and I think that everyone has the right to self-label in a way that is significant for them. In short, I am pro-label and anti-the great label debate.
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