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The problem with labels

LiveMint logoLiveMint 20-07-2017 Sidin Vadukut

Labels are powerful things. And by labels I mean terms such as millennial, liberal, socialist and so on. You may have seen these on social media, perhaps, where labels are a huge crowd-pleaser. One reason why such labels draw so much power, and danger, is that they simultaneously mean very specific things, but also extremely vague things.

Imagine if I were to introduce you to a friend and tell you that she is a “conservative”. If you are of a “liberal” disposition, the picture I have drawn in your mind is probably one with very sharp contours: The term conservative will instantly remind you of Donald Trump or Theresa May or Narendra Modi or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or that uncle in your family WhatsApp group you desperately want to dispatch in some moderately painful way.

But assemble two dozen people who call themselves “conservatives” in a room, ask them to draw up a list of common conservative ideas they all believe in, and odds are that this list, if at all one emerges, will be very short indeed. Thus, to the liberal all conservatives are one, but to the conservative every conservative appears different. (And vice versa.)

One problem with this duality of labels is that they have a tendency to contaminate conversations even before they have taken place. Surely, many readers have prepared to engage with people of a different political persuasion by pre-emptively having half of the conversation in their heads beforehand. Only for them to reach the café, walk up to the adversary and open the discussion with, “So why do you hate human rights and women and Muslims?”

Best of luck with that.

Labels are problematic not just on social media or in politics. They pose problems for historians too.

Consider, for instance, the term “Dark Ages” once commonly used to describe the history and condition of medieval Europe between the decline of Rome and the Renaissance. For centuries, this was seen as a period of superstition, chaos and cultural reversal. Indeed the usage has become so ingrained in popular culture that perpetrators of brutality are often decried as being “medieval” or belonging to the “dark ages”. Yet most historians no longer use this term to describe the period. Thanks to the pioneering work of many scholars such as Peter Brown, there is greater cognizance today of the many illuminations of a period that is now called “Late Antiquity”.

Dark Ages. Late Antiquity. What tremendous rebranding.

Then there are the labels that historians themselves have to bear. Consider the term “Marxist historians”. This could mean many things. A historian who is a Marxist. A historian who uses the Marxist method but is not a Marxist. A historian who uses some other method but is a Marxist herself. All of which is ultimately irrelevant because when the term is used as a label, it usually means a historian whose work is so biased as to be useless. Which is also not really true. It is entirely possible to embrace a historian’s work without embracing their conclusions.

Thus, labels pervert your engagement with other people and their ideas. But if only that were the extent of the problem. Labels can also paralyse one’s own thoughts and actions.

Let us go back to our original line of thought: the general use of labels in political discussion. One label that is used so much these days is “fascist”. Now, the exact definition of this word is perhaps material for another column. But I don’t think any reader will disagree when I say the world is used to excess. Indeed, this is not even a recent phenomenon.

George Orwell, in his famous essay Politics And The English Language, said: “Many political words are … abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” When did Orwell write this? In April 1946, merely months after the fall of the Nazi regime. So quickly had this label attained misuse.

I have seen all kinds of people called fascist, from people who block other people on Twitter to Winston Churchill himself. It is used with so much alacrity that it has all but lost its original gravity, its original encapsulation of a certain remorseless, enthusiastic, systematic, murderous, embrace of tyranny.

This usage raises, perhaps, another deeper problem.

Consider the person who condemns his own government as fascist. What next? How does one react to this situation? How do you react to a “fascist state”? After all, the original fascism fell not to resistance, but to invasion.

Surely labelling, say, the Indian state as fascist is somewhat self-defeating? Because, even if the state in question behaves tyrannically, labelling can only oversimplify the issue. Indeed it can lead one to think that the enemy is a fierce thing that can only be defeated in Delhi. But this is to absolve ourselves of the informed citizen’s perennial duty to resist tyranny in a hundred small ways. To uphold a free press, we must support it in principle, in courts and with our wallets. The rest is hot air. To uphold free speech, we must tolerate it ourselves regardless of the agony. And so on. Thus to resist tyranny is, at least to some extent, to persist with civility in the face of great hostility.

This includes using labels with restraint. To go back to Orwell, writing in 1944 on the definitions of fascism: “All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com.

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