Chronicle of Belief: Part 1 – Labeling

I thought I’d take some time to draw out a sketch of my own beliefs or worldview. There is far too much to condense into a single entry so I shall instead space it out over a number of broader topics. Before I begin I wish to stress that all of these posts will be an attempt to put into words my current belief and are subject to change via rational arguments. This is an important difference between people similar to myself (whatever label they wish to use) and those who follow dogma blindly (which is only a subset of people with supernatural/divine belief systems), in so far as I am perfectly willing to modify and refine my personal beliefs as I learn new information and mature as an individual.

One issue over which my opinion has been rather fluid as of late is that of labels. Often times I avoid the use of labels, arguing that they provide others with opportunity to make unfounded assumptions and put into practice pre-conceived notions. As we come to learn new labels we inevitably begin a process of shaping our opinion of that group of people. This opinion is formed through a number of means, chiefly our personal meetings with these people, stories or memes that circulate through society, media image and place in popular culture. As a quick demonstration of what I mean please conjure into your mind thoughts and feelings associated with the following ‘labels’: fundamentalist, emo, atheist, nerd and bogan. These images in your mind both consciously and subconsciously shape your interaction with any individual who self-identifies as or you identify as belonging to these groups. In sociology this is referred to as “Labeling Theory” and is described as follows:

“The theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.”

This theory attempts to describe not only how the behaviour of an indivudal can be interpreted differently by an observer based on the subjects label but how self-identifying with a label can actually modify or cause behaviour. For example somebody who self-identifies as a “hippie” might be more likely to act in resistance to an authority figure based upon his label, rather than his belief. With regards to the observer modifying their understanding of actions by a label carrier based upon preconceived notion, this is known in psychology as attributional bias. The specific type of attributional bias concerning judging the actions of an individual based not on the situation but on an associative understanding (i.e. label) is “Fundamental Attribution Error”. This bias can describe a tendency to over-value actions of an individual based on their group’s perceived preferences or “rules” and under-estimate the actions of an individual based on their attitude or situation. For example an individual who hears about a Catholic priest sexually abusing a child may have a tendency to causally link that to the nature of his group (catholic priests) rather than a personal explanation (genetics, brain disorder, offenders own childhood abuse).

These problems associated with labeling are very real and active in society. There is however a flip-side which occasionally warms me to the notion of labels. Being able to associate ones self with a group can have many positive cultural and psychological benefits. There is a certain comfort and security that comes from knowing you are around others who share a similar belief to you. Labels are a banner under which interested individuals can rally under and speak with a unified voice. A label can increase awareness and identification of an under-represented or misunderstood minority. They can also act as useful shortcuts, easy ways of communicating to others a great deal about your own beliefs without having to enter a lengthy explanation. As well as creating social confusion I believe labels can sometimes prevent it by quickly informing an individual on how they are expected to or would wish to act around someone.

I think the advantage of being able to unify a minority and provide comfort speaks louder to me personally than worries over being misrepresented. It all comes to the specific labels and how well defined they are. Text-book examples of ill-defined and misunderstood labels are skeptic, agnostic and atheist. While the label skeptic is misunderstood broadly, atheist and agnostic are more often misunderstood in their details. A more in-depth discussion of the trouble with these labels will be coming up in a future post. For now I wish to conclude with the following thought. Whilst labels are often useful and positive when individuals self-identify, they are rarely so when others group people without their consent. Nobody likes being misrepresented and few things can hurt more than being denied a friendship, opportunity or experience based solely on how somebody else has defined you.

4 Responses to “Chronicle of Belief: Part 1 – Labeling”

  1. Excellent post. Well Said.

  2. This is a great thought provoking entry. It reminds us of how powerful language is, and how a single word of description can bring to mind a whole plethora of images, feelings and beliefs. Its good to be reminded of such things. Keep up the good work!

  3. The label “Skeptic” often leaves me a little uneasy. I can understand how people might misunderstand it. When somebody says “I’m skeptical about that”, what they usually mean is “I don’t believe you.”

    So people get the impression that skepticism is all about putting down ideas just out of hand.

    I enjoy and join in with the skeptic movement, but I usually just call myself a “critical thinker”.

    • I completely agree.

      I also don’t really care for the label “skeptic” for the same reasons as you. In a future post I’ll be explaining why I do and don’t associate myself with certain labels. As can be seen throughout this blog however I do tend to refer to myself as a “skeptic” and am affiliated with skeptical organisations like “Perth skeptics”, “young Australian skeptics”, “skeptics guide to the universe”. This is more from convenience, like what I wrote about in this blog entry with regards to labels being able to unify people and explain a lot with a little. “Skeptic” is the banner that many critical thinkers and rationalists rally beneath so that’s where I’ll stay for now.

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