Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pros and Cons of Labels [Megan]

 According to a recent advertisement released by Planned Parenthood (P.P.), there is a rising desire that the term "pro-choice" be stricken as the label given to the position of individuals who advocate abortion rights.

Most people "just don't want to be labeled," they claim.

They may very well be onto something, but I think they take it too far. 

Inherently, labels as used by individuals come with pros and cons.

Some labels are automatically associated with stereotypical meanings, which can be further exacerbated by any number of factors that influence individuals — culture, education, circumstances, media, etc.

When labels are thrown out haphazardly, they oftentimes unfairly corral others into groups according to the audience's perception. On the face of things, a label alone associated with a single person drops all of its baggage on that individual. By definition, "liberal" means "open to new behavior or opinions, and willing to discard traditional values," while "conservative" means "holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation." Neither definition explicitly mentions politics or religion. But when you hear one or the other, those definitions are probably not all that come to mind, if they come to mind at all.

To be a responsible communicator, it is necessary to have at least some understanding of your audience's context — whether it's an individual or a packed room. An awareness of the audience allows the communicator to define terms carefully so that the meaning of the message is clear. Words — even labels — must be carefully chosen so that a clear message can be received. Irresponsibility in that area can shut your listeners off — and have them labeling you — so that your message, and your meaning, fall on deaf ears.

That being said, it is important to make the following distinction:  to try and understand another's view is not the same as to agree with it.

Entering into another's context allows the communicator to treat others with respect, to treat their views fairly, and to clearly convey ideas that might be contrary. It allows the conversation to continue. A lack of finesse in this area results in communicators who attack straw men — they tear down views that their listener doesn't even hold. As a result, the communicator, and his/her view, loses credibility in the eyes of the audience.


The "let's do away with labels" mentality, if logically followed, would have disastrous results.

As I recently read a Helen Keller biography to my daughter, she was gripped by the telling of Keller's first "word." Anne Sullivan, Keller's live-in teacher and caretaker, had been working for some time using the sign language alphabet to try and teach Keller about the world around her. Washing the dishes one day, Sullivan signed "w-a-t-e-r" into Keller's hand. Keller did not respond. Later that day, at the pump outside the house, Keller placed her hands in the water and realization dawned. She frantically began signing "water" for Sullivan, showing that she understood, that she associated the label with the clear liquid spewing forth from the pump.

Keller's realization that the world around her could be named is what began her learning, and learn she did. Hers is an amazing story.

One has to accept that in order for any meaningful interaction to be had, labels are necessary. If words lose their meanings, we're in real trouble. Language is one of the key things that separates human beings from animals — the ability to communicate, to learn at advanced rates. We think about the world around us propositionally and form meaningful thoughts, thoughts that can be tested and proved either true or false.

To do away with that meaning altogether is to, as C.S. Lewis suggested in The Abolition of Man, "evolve" ourselves right back to the very Nature from whence we supposedly came.
Labels, names for things or ideas, give us a jumping-off point in dialogue with others. In meaningful conversation, they bring the other person into the general vicinity of the talker's view. Once some general boundaries are established, specifics can be sought out. Truth can be uncovered. Meaning can be had. Progress can be made.

In the case of P.P.'s new propaganda, the claim is that "pro-life" and "pro-choice" don't accurately portray how most people feel about abortion. And that a large group of individuals do not identify with either label.

P.P. is aiming for moral neutrality — and, in doing so, is taking the firm position that everyone else should as well. But with or without the labels, moral neutrality is a myth. The debate over abortion rests on one point that has nothing to do with what one feels about it — the moral status of the unborn. Either an individual believes the unborn are human beings deserving protection under law, or they are not and may be killed by the act of abortion if a woman chooses to have one.

It may be that the call for abolishing "pro-choice" comes from the fact that many identify themselves as "personally pro-life," while others label them pro-choice. They're both, the claim goes, so essentially they're neither. But — because the real question is "What is the unborn?" — they can't have their cake and eat it too.

The label "pro-choice" may be changed, shifted, or thrown out, but whatever rises up in its place will have the same meaning. Call it what you wish, but even those who consider themselves "personally pro-life," but who believe other women should have the legal right to abortion are functionally squarely within the stance/label/lack-of-label they claim not to be, one which holds that other women ought to have the choice if and when they need to terminate a pregnancy.

So, though humanity's ability to name things and communicate meaning with one another involves great responsibility and, at times, not just a little nuance, P.P.'s latest rhetoric is insidious at best. My hope is that those who hear it, no matter how nice it might sound, read between the lines and seek out the meaning behind the words — the [overstated] assumption that "what [most Americans] want" is for women to have the safe and legal option to intentionally kill human fetuses (see Christopher Kaczor's definition of "abortion" in The Ethics of Abortion, page 8).

 There are only so many "attractive" ways to put that.

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