There has never been an age as wary as ours of the tricks words can play, obscuring distinctions and smoothing over the corrugations of the actual world. That wariness is implicit in the way we describe words as labels.
People tend to reserve "label" for social classifications like "fascist," "depressive" or "delinquent," always with the implication that the word is either misleading and reductive (the labels we describe as "mere") or, at best, a convenience (the ones we describe as "handy"). One way or the other, though, calling a word a label leaves us free to reject it. People say, "I don't believe in labels," but nobody ever says that "duck" is a label for a kind of waterfowl or that "I don't believe in names."
Yet as advertisers and marketers know, our mistrust of words doesn't inoculate us against them. We may think of language as an arbitrary system of classification, sewing its seams helter-skelter across the kapok of experience. But we can't help reifying the categories language carves out. The words we dismiss as labels can still exalt or disturb us, which is why we're always having to rationalize away the dissonance, like the shopper who justifies paying a 500% premium for a tote bag with a Fendi logo on the grounds you get a better grade of vinyl.
It's hard to think of any words that justify the "label" label more than "liberal" and "conservative." No one would deny their usefulness as approximate handles: "Liberals have been critical of the Patriot Act." "Conservatives are going to bat for DeLay." But it often seems as if they serve more to pigeonhole than to explain.
Certainly the categories are anything but eternal. It was only during Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term that "liberal" and "conservative" emerged out of a welter of competing terms to become the defining opposition of American politics. To Roosevelt, liberals and conservatives represented "two schools of political belief" about how active a role government should take in fixing problems "beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals."
A lot of people still see that as the core distinction. But the implications of both terms are different from what they were in Roosevelt's day. In light of recent headlines, it's quaint to recall that conservatism used to be associated with isolationism and states' rights. And nowadays both words imply positions on a welter of cultural issues that don't seem "political" in Roosevelt's sense of the term — few people justify their views on abortion, evolution or gay marriage by appealing to their philosophy of government.
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.
Those stereotypes may not be accurate (as it happens, Republicans buy more brie than Democrats), but they succeed in turning "liberal" into shorthand for a self-indulgent yuppie attitude. Nowadays, the media almost never use phrases like "working-class liberal" — working-class Americans are disqualified from being liberals not because of their political views but because they can't afford the lifestyle.
By now, people talk about liberals and conservatives almost as if they were distinct genders. "You liberals!" a talk-show host will say, in the tone of winking exasperation that recalls "You gals!" And no one sees anything odd when a right-wing commentator publishes a book with the you-just-don't-understand title of "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)."
Liberals have responded with their stereotypes of the right, as ill-dressed ignorant yahoos from the boonies. (When the Republican National Convention descended on New York last year, New York magazine offered tips to women conventioneers on where to buy coordinated skirt suits and high-end hair spray.) "Red state" and "blue state" have been turned into the names of market segments: A few months ago, Hardee's CEO defended the restaurants' 1,400-calorie Monster Thickburger as "not a burger for tree-huggers."
For some, the difference goes even deeper than that. In his recent bestseller "Don't Think of an Elephant," Berkeley linguist George Lakoff argues that liberals and conservatives are divided by two different models of the family, the "strict father" family and the "nurturant parent" family. That basic distinction, he says, shapes the differences in opinion on everything from tort reform to same-sex marriage to school vouchers to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Lakoff is an astute observer, but in locating the roots of the liberal-conservative distinction in people's basic conceptions of the family, he too is turning the words into something much deeper than "mere labels." As he tells the story, "liberal" and "conservative" go clear to the bone.
Objectively speaking, that picture is hard to defend, not just historically but in light of the way people think about ideological differences in other nations. You can identify groups in British politics that correspond to lower-case liberals and conservatives in Roosevelt's sense of the terms, even if the British don't use the words that way. But the differences don't spill over to cultural issues, and the British are puzzled at the way Americans cash in ideological affiliations in terms of consumer preferences.
And the neat dualisms of U.S. politics seem simply irrelevant to nations with no history of a two-party system. For them — and for us, when you come down to it — it makes more sense to identify people in terms of the old spectrum of left and right, which nobody takes as anything more than a seating plan.
But reifications have a way of being self-fulfilling. Nowadays, we can't identify ourselves as liberals or conservatives without making a social identification in the bargain — we imply something about what we drive, whom we're willing to date and whether we believe in spanking our children. Yet most of us are also aware of just how contingent and historically determined all those connections are.
That's a chronic modern dilemma. No one can live in a state of detachment from language. The trick, as the philosopher Richard Rorty has said, is to strive for ironic self-awareness — to talk about labels without prefacing the word with the self-deluding "mere."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times