Monday, April 11, 2005

On An Op-Ed On Labels

The LA Times has a nice op-ed piece by Geoffrey Nunberg that talks about the large and broad signification that comes with labels like "Conservative" or "Liberal." Mr. Nunberg points out that we don't refer to a person's "philosophy of government" as much as we used to when we call someone a conservative or liberal.
More important still, we no longer think of liberals and conservatives merely as adherents of different "schools of political belief," in the way we might talk about devotees of supply-side and demand-side as disciples of two economic schools. Now the categories go much deeper — to lifestyle, values and even traits of character.

The shift in perceptions began with the onset of the culture wars in the 1970s, when the right began to depict liberals as elitists out of touch with "mainstream values." That was also when consumer preferences started standing in for ideological characterizations. Liberals were tarred in a kind of guilt by brand association, as Volvo-driving, brie-eating, Chardonnay-sipping snobs — the "libs," as Rush Limbaugh calls them.
This sort of identity-shorthand seems heightened, given the increasingly commonplace usage use of "red state" and "blue state." This type of distinction adds a spatial distinction to our identity, a distinction that allows us to speak of ourselves as members of ideological states, and one that create its own set of expats and diaspora. This is probably nothing new, in as much as we've always thought that city people were different from country folk. The heavy use of these labels that stand in for so much however, seems to be what's new and problematic, allowing us to name ourselves and thus draw incredible distinctions.

I wonder what the implication for public deliberation is? At some earlier point, when the labels we commonly used would refer back to some "philosophy of governance," labels might have been useful for debate; we'd know the outlines of the debate and the evidence we'd employ based on the other person's willingness to identify with FDR's party or Herbert Hoover's. With labels meaning much, much, more and signifying who we are, it seems harder to debate each other on matters of individual policies. Instead, it seems like we're just debating each other. An attack on a position is quickly broadened to become an attack on the position's holder. Suddenly, discussion is a string of ad hominems and I wonder what sort of public compromise and policy can emerge from that, given folks' identities are now at stake. It's a lot easier to concede on a single issue than it is to concede on our principles, values, and personal identity.


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