November 21, 2007

Reflections on Anti-Labelism

"Once you label me, you negate me." --  Soren Kierkegaard

If you have engaged in theological dialogue and debate at all, you have no doubt encountered the person who says, "I don't like labels." You might also, if you're anything like me, immediately view that person as suspect. Frequently it's the case that such a person wants to hide or evade some point of argumentation from Scripture or history. If their view was correctly identified (labeled), their error might be discovered and successfully refuted, so they dodge labeling altogether, even while hypocritically using labels themselves. For that reason, I sometimes label those who say they don't like labels as "anti-labelites." This type of person is like a slippery, postmodern eel that doesn't want to be pinned down on any point.

However, not everyone who objects to labels is that type. One might have legitimate concerns and cautions about labels since they can be used to smear people and/or their beliefs.

For instance, consider the label "catabaptist." Credobaptists in the past have been labeled as "catabaptists," as if they were averse to baptism. Actually, they simply do not consider the water sprinkling of an infant as "baptism." Disagree with credobaptists if you will, but it is blatantly unfair to call them "catabaptists," or even "anabaptists" [re-baptizers]. The "anabaptist" label begs the question, or assumes that sprinkling an infant constitutes a legitimate baptism. Remember, my point here concerns accuracy and fairness in labeling, and not whether or not paedobaptism is true or false. What I said above just serves to illustrate the point of unfair labeling. One should not expect a credobaptist to call themselves an "anabaptist" or a "catabaptist." It both assumes the legitimacy of paedobaptism and serves to smear the credo, as if they are averse to baptism.

Many more examples could be used to illustrate the point of unfair labeling.

One should be careful when using labels to describe those who differ. We should be concerned about historical accuracy and with using objective descriptions. I think it is good to strive to use descriptive labels that even our opponents can accept. I am not saying that we should be slaves to their label preferences either. Sometimes they may prefer a label that is actually misleading and/or deceptive. We can and should avoid those. I think we can strive for objectivity in labeling if both parties acknowledge their bias and seek to understand one another. Or, even if our opponent does not wish to acknowledge their bias, we should make an effort to so understand their position that we can accurately and objectively define or label it in such a way that, if they were reasonable, they themselves could accept the terms. If we refuse to be objective in this way, but rather use smear terms and labels, then it is no surprise that more anti-labelites are produced. We become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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