To label something is to name it, to give it an identity. Usually, if a label sticks, it implies that the opposite of the label is not true for the person or entity that has been labeled. This is a way to create “us” versus “them” thinking. “You are this. I am that. We are different. You are to blame. I am not. I don’t like you.” While assigning labels is effective in repositioning opponents in a negative light, I find it operates from a lower level of consciousness. And it rarely leads to common understanding but rather divides and creates animosity. Having said that, politicians have been using labels for all of recorded history to reposition their opponents in a negative light. Following are some recent examples of this:
- Liberals calling conservatives reactionaries, Neanderthals, obstructionists neocons and hawks.
- Conservatives calling liberals doves, bleeding hearts, “flaming” liberals, “nanny-state” liberals, left-wing ideologues, libs, Kool-Aid drinkers, socialists, communists and Pinko commies.
- Conservatives have also tried to characterize liberals as people who do not believe in the Constitution, a claim that is largely unsubstantiated.
- Many politicians have used the term “flip flopper” against their opponents.
- Several politicians have called their opponents “extremists.”
- Conservatives use the “Obamacare” label to diminish the credibility of the Affordable Care Act.
- Its opponents have transformed “Tea Party,” coined as a positive label by its advocates, into a negative label. “Liberal,” historically possessing very positive connotations, has also been transformed into a negative label by its opponents. That is why many liberals now choose to use the term “progressive” instead.
- Interestingly, both conservatives and liberals have labeled the other as lacking in intelligence. Conservatives also label liberals as naïve, while liberals label conservatives as lacking in compassion. In response, George W. Bush labeled himself a “compassionate conservative.”
- The term “activist judges” has been used to describe judges who seem to reinterpret laws to fit their own views of the world. People who disagree with the judges’ rulings most often use this label.
- “Politically correct” was a positive label that was redefined as a negative label by conservatives.
So, what does one make of all of this negative labeling? While it tends to work in that it diminishes perceptions of the labeled parties, it does not lead to mutual understanding, compromise or shared progress. Also, people are tiring of this name-calling, propaganda and mudslinging. Most importantly, assigning negative labels dysfunctionally assigns blame to the “other” allowing us to abdicate responsibility for developing a solution. In the end, it is not productive.
Interestingly, applying positive labels to negative things is a related phenomenon. Consider the following. The MX-Missile was renamed “The Peacekeeper.” But this is a topic for another blog article.
While I have used negative political labels as examples, labeling is generally applicable to marketing communications. While I am not a fan of labeling, I have to admit that it works, at least as a shorter-term tactic.