Labels as a Way of Life – July 31, 2011

I recently got into an online tiff in the comments section of a friend’s Facebook posting. Another commenter had mentioned the demotion of Pluto as a planet,1 and I responded that I think we can get hung up and waste intellectual energy on labels. A flurry of responses greeted this observation. One person pointed out that, without labels—terms for things that we can all agree upon—communication is impossible. Another quoted Plato on the necessity of having experts assign the names for things. At that point, I yielded the floor in disgrace. Now, I’d like to continue the thought in the form of an exploration.2

Clearly, people care whether Pluto is a planet or not. The new definition of “dwarf planet” seems to hinge on the fact that Pluto has not cleared out small objects and debris in the neighborhood around its orbit, as more massive bodies tend to do.3 To the extent that this new definition helps us understand something about the mechanics of planetary systems—and perhaps will help us interpret what we’re going to see happening around other stars—I applaud it. To the extent that people are unhappy because they grew up in a solar system of nine planets, learned mnemonics to remember all their names in order, and treasure each planetary discovery as a human achievement, then the label is a time waster.

Labels can indeed be useful. In the biblical creation story—or at least one of the creation stories4—God parades the animals he has made and lets Adam name them: cow, horse, sheep, goat. It’s very handy to be able to walk into a stable, point to a stall, and not have to tell the stable boy: “Bring me that animal with four legs, but with rounded hooves and no horns, for I want to go riding today.”

Things become less clear when you reach back up the evolutionary tree and delve into cladistics, or the grouping of animals based on their common heritage. For a long time, we all knew what a mammal was: warm-blooded, covered with hair, bearing live young, not poisonous, not scaly, not feathered. However, a traveling science exhibit called “Extreme Mammals”5 shows all the possible variations in mammals; some of them are hard to fit into the basic definition. Of course, there are also marsupials, who fit all the criteria of mammals but bear young that are hardly viable unless tended in a pouch, and the platypus which looks a lot like a mammal but lays eggs and has poison spurs. And current thinking now supposes dinosaurs to be as warm-blooded as birds. On the other hand, whales and dolphins are not noticeably hairy.

You can still use the term “mammal” in general, non-specific conversation. But at some point, trying to classify everything you see as either mammalian or not becomes a time waster. You either end up with a hopelessly complex label, full of subclauses and exceptions, or with a handful of animals that just don’t fit all the criteria. The newer classification systems build trees of descent from common ancestors, originally by comparing physical features, now by comparing genetic material. The old kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species organization is rapidly becoming obsolete. Today we know animals by how many genes they have in common and what SNPs they share.6

Moving beyond the rigors of scientific definition, labels become even more problematic. The Zen warn us to be wary of labels, because they lead us to think we know all about something and so keep us from really looking at it.7

In my youth, I tended to drink too much. It didn’t really bother me—of course, it never does—but I noticed that I was beginning to read and remember the definitions in self-help guides about what constitutes an alcoholic and how he or she acts. I would read about some contributing behavior, such as taking a drink in the morning to ward off a hangover, and think, “Well, I don’t do that, so I guess I’m not an alcoholic.” Avoiding putting a label on what I was doing, which would force me to take some kind of action, seemed important at the time. So long as I could wiggle around the terms of the definition, I could keep on drinking. Only when I put aside worrying about whether or not I fit the label “alcoholic,” could I then begin to examine my behavior directly and take action.

Labels have always dominated our political discourse. One adopts a party affiliation, the label “Republican” or “Democrat,” as shorthand for a selection of views and definitions. One feels more at home in one camp or the other. But, like taking a suit off the rack and wearing it, there are usually places where the label doesn’t fit. It tugs against or sags across what we really believe.

Most Republicans, for example, believe more or less in personal responsibility, libertarian rights,8 self-reliance, fiscal conservatism, shareholder capitalism, and free market economics. Although a lot of Republicans are strongly believing Christians, and some are dogmatic in their views on gays and abortion, among other things, I’m not one of them. And I don’t know any Republicans who would—according to the label used by some Democrats—abolish all social programs and safety nets in favor of some kind of extreme social Darwinism that would increase the position and power of the rich.

On the other hand, I can intuit—although I don’t know for certain, because I don’t vote that way—that most Democrats believe in fairness and personal equality, the power of community and social cohesion, group rights based on affinities like union membership or racial identity, the need for states and institutions to support those who can’t take care of themselves, and the wisdom of disinterested government employees and public servants in regulating the activities of people driven solely by self-interest. Although many Democrats strongly believe in the overall power of the state and in organizing principles like Marxism and socialism, and some are dogmatic in their animosity toward wealth and property, among other things, I know that not all of them so believe. And I don’t know any Democrats who would follow the example of the Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge in moving academics and city dwellers out to the countryside so they can learn peasant values at the point of a gun.

There was a time, when I was young, that individuals could appreciate and find common cause with those across the aisle. Certainly an Adlai Stevenson, Everett Dirksen, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan had friends and admirers in the opposing camp. That doesn’t seem possible these days. The extremes in each party are pulling the center of mass away from the center on each side. Some people cannot say the word “Republican” without thinking “Nazi” and “evangelical crazy” and wanting to spit. Some people—I try not to be one of them—cannot say “Democrat” without thinking “socialist” and “Stalin apologist” and wanting to run screaming.

Of course, the plurality of voters in this country are wholeheartedly neither. They stand in the middle, and for them the labels don’t fit well at all. They’ll vote for a Republican or Democrat depending on what the candidate says and whether it makes sense. And, of course, when the party in power begins to act as if that vote was a mandate to pursue all of its pet policies, reasonable or not, we get a sudden turnover. Johnson and the Great Society beget a Nixon. Nixon and self-interest beget a Carter. Carter and international apologetics beget a Reagan. And so on, with repercussions, right down to today.9

It’s only the inherent power of our two-party system, and the infrastructure that supports it, which keep us from devolving into the tiny, fragmented political parties of Europe. “We’re not socialists but social democrats!” And then, to get anything done, they have to form coalitions that vote with bartered uniformity in their parliaments.

Political labels also have a tremendous power to cloud our vision of what a proposal actually is and how it will help or hurt the country. The current debate over debt limits, spending trends, tax rates, default, and the federal deficit—which I hope will be resolved by the time you read this—is an obvious example of such obfuscation.

Labels help us communicate, indeed, but they also can keep us from seeing what, exactly, is going on. Calling Pluto a “planet” blinded us all to the subtlety of its relationship with its environment. Calling someone by a political label can keep you from seeing the subtlety and humanity of his or her political thinking. Use labels for communication but, as the Zen advise, be wary of them.

1. The International Astronomical Union so ruled in August 2006. See, for example, the article at

2. Anymore, the only way I can think about a subject is to write about it. The act of writing makes me put my thoughts in order, examine and challenge my arguments, take them to a logical conclusion, and check my facts and references. In fact, writing a book is simply the exploration of a large, inviting, but vaguely known territory. Writers are explorers of strange landscapes.

3. I guess this is why biggish, spherical rocks like Ceres are not planets, even though they orbit the Sun as do Earth and Mars.

4. As we learned in Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version, the creation story is told at least twice and with different details.

5. I saw it last year at the California Academy of Sciences, but I believe it’s going around the country.

6. SNPs are “single nucleotide polymorphisms,” representing one altered base in the genetic code. Sometimes that base change leads to an altered protein; often it does not. Sometimes the new protein works in a slightly different way from the original; often it does not. So SNPs are more sensitive as relationship-defining criteria than are physical characteristics. Because the rate of change in genetic material is fairly constant, you can track animals, diseases, and human populations through time with SNPs.

7. It was in this sense that I objected to the agonies about labeling Pluto as a planet. If you have a handy definition like that, it may keep you from seeing what’s really going on. In truth, at the time I was thinking, “Planet, shmanet, Pluto’s an interesting object regardless of what you call it.” Now, having looked into the actual IAU redefinition, I think the label “dwarf planet” actually helps us see something interesting about Pluto and other small bodies.

8. What do I mean by “libertarian rights”? It seems to me that “rights” today has developed two meanings. One responds to the progressive’s sense of “things that must be provided by law,” such as public education, child protective and abortion services, and—soon—health care. The other responds to the libertarian’s sense of “things that must not be curtailed by law,” such as freedom of speech and assembly, security of home and person, and—now under challenge—gun ownership. The line between them isn’t always clear. The right of two gay people to form a binding spiritual union with the same official standing as the union of two straight people seems, to me, to fall on the libertarian side. And the ability to choose abortion seems like a libertarian matter—although not the expectation that it will be provided at public expense.

9. I’d like to believe that we could distill the ideas of the middle-of-the-road, independent voter and come up with the platform for a third party. But what would happen, I think, is we’d get a hundred different possible mixes and matches: “More state support, please, but strengthen the family … Stronger borders, please, but spend more on immigrant education …” and so on.