The Specificity of Ideological Labels

It’s become hip to scoff at ideological labels. You’ll sometimes hear the ultra-woke deny all ‘isms’. I agree with the spirit. “Think for yourself!” “Why put yourself in a box?” “Attachment to labels is tribalism!” These are all fine points.

Except for the fact that there are really only two ways to avoid ideological labels:

  1. Have no positions; or
  2. Refuse to name your positions.

(1) isn’t as bad as it seems. You probably should withhold opinion on matters into which you have not put significant analysis or research. (This is assuming you want to hold your opinions because you’re justified in thinking them to be more likely correct than alternatives, and not simply for sport.) But (1) is not the reason for the anti-label imperative. The same people who tell you to avoid labels will also tell you to think through the issues and come up with your own answer. So they would not agree with (1).

(I hope it’s obvious by now that I have no concrete examples of who these ‘people’ are who supposedly argue against labels. I hope you know who I’m talking about. If not, alas, this post is not so serious.)

(2) is, of course, silly. Naming things is necessary for reference and communication, activities I highly recommend.

So, what’s up?

I think the problem isn’t with labels in general, but with labels that are insufficiently specific. Unspecific labels have a tendency to conceal the substance of positions. My favorite example of this is ‘capitalism’. As Roderick Long has helpfully noted in a clip short enough that some people might actually watch it, ‘capitalism’ sometimes means ‘free market’; sometimes ‘means of production owned by capitalists instead of workers’; sometimes ‘this economic system we have in the contemporary west’. These meanings are rarely disambiguated, not just in communication, but also in thought. In this way, words like ‘capitalism’ lure us into the illusion of substantive thought. In fact, we don’t really know what we’re actually talking about when we use these words. What’s more, we’re also tricked into thinking that a whole bunch of disparate views automatically go together. This association is often even more dubious than the views themselves (‘capitalism’ case in point).

This is probably more obvious with words like ‘right-wing’, ‘progressive’, ‘pragmatist’, etc. But the truth is, all ideological labels are like this to some extent. So maybe you think you’re on-board with what I’m saying because you avoid such a vague label as ‘progressive’—but you call yourself a ‘democratic socialist’. Well, does ‘democratic socialist’ pin down a unique set of political positions, such that I would know your views on any number of specific policy questions based on your adoption of the label? Of course not. You don’t even have those specific views (nor, in most cases, should you!).

So, am I advocating View Specificity Maximalism? That wouldn’t be very practical. What I do advocate can be better thought of as a practice than as a position. Do not fear labels; wear them unabashedly. But always be in the process of questioning whether you can further specify them. This will allow you to hold (and name) your views and avoid falling into the tribalism/intellectual laziness we’ve come to associate with ideological labels. It’ll keep you fresh.

Here’s a specific (ha ha) example of how this process helps. I used to identify as ‘libertarian’, then as ‘libertarian anarchist’. This came with the usual associations. I have since specified my political views. I now most nearly identify as a ‘legal polycentrist’. This wasn’t exactly a change in view; it was a specification. It was more like realizing I hadn’t had a substantive view, but instead a vague bundle of associations I was attached to keeping together under a phrase. By de-bundling, I got a more specific (and substantive) position.

Now consider the question of how to feel about ‘regulation’. As a libertarian anarchist, it seemed almost trivial to be anti-regulation. Regulation is what the state does to interfere in the peoples’ lives, and being a libertarian anarchist is all about being against that. Wherever there was evidence of regulation working, I had to hope there was contrary evidence somewhere. But when I adopted legal polycentrism, I also realized that position on regulation was not so automatic. Market regulation, like any service, can be (and is) provided on a decentralized basis. The same sort of realization happened with questions about violence, violations of consent, etc. A relatively vague position like libertarian anarchism is more or less stuck with prohibitions on coercion, along with the other positions associated under the label. This makes questions about criminal punishment and even third-party self-defense really philosophically tough to handle. Specification showed me I could be for decentralization without being dogmatically anti-coercion. There’s no compelling reason the two must go together. Seeing this made it easier for me to loosen my previously dogmatic stance against coercion.

The point here isn’t my specific political views, which you should probably disagree with—I’m sure I will, once I specify them further. The important case I’m making is that labels (rather covertly) draw the intellectual map for us. They decide, without us noticing it, what sorts of positions are supposed to go together. This is why engaging the specification process is essential to being able to truly think for yourself.

If your mind works anything like mine, you see a problematic regress. How far is this specification process supposed to go? How far can it go? Is it vague bundles all the way down? Or are there supposed to be ‘atomic’ positions we can land at once we’ve precisified enough? The latter option seems intuitively unlikely; but then, does that mean we’re stuck not ever really thinking about substantive matters, but rather discussing vague bundles we don’t really know the meanings of?

Until next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *