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Entry 1495, on 2013-02-12 at 20:19:10 (Rating 3, Skepticism)
I have mentioned in past blog entries that I don't like labels. For example, about 5 years ago I said I didn't want to be labelled as an atheist because that was too negative (being labelled based on what I don't believe rather than what I do) but I do have to admit that in many ways I'm quite proud of that label because being an atheist is the ultimate form of individualism and free thought.
Although I often say I don't like them I do use labels more than I should. I often accuse my opponents in various debates of having a particular agenda by labelling them with a derogatory tag of some sort - "right wing nut job" and "crazy creationist" being my two current favourites. So although I am going to reject the use of labels in general here I do recognise that they are hard to avoid completely.
In case you hadn't already guessed, this blog entry came about as a result of listening to a skeptical podcast, in this particular case on the subject of racism, which posited that the tag of "racist" was counter-productive and often wrong.
My preferred action is to label actions rather than people. In my experience even right wing nut jobs and crazy creationists sometimes get things right and are often quite reasonable away from their particular area of delusion. So calling someone a nutter is probably unfair and inaccurate. Calling an idea nutty, on the other hand, is often justified.
So when I reject an opponent's opinion because they are a right wing nut job it is probably no more helpful to the discussion at hand than them rejecting my comments because I'm a "loony left liberal" or whatever other insult du jour is currently fashionable with the nutty right (see how easy it is).
The fact is that almost everyone exhibits some level of almost every possible foible. Although I am very liberal politically there are areas where I might be seen as quite the opposite (some of my opinions on race-based politics for example would seem horrific to some liberals). So being accused of being a member of the loony left in those situations would be totally inappropriate.
Research has shown that we are all racist, sexist, and almost everything else you care to name to some extent. When US police practice firearm skills in simulated situations they are more likely to shoot the black dummy than the white one. And interestingly black cops are just as likely to do this as white!
And another research study showed that given identical resumes people will more often choose the person identified with a male name rather than a female. And yes, the women do it as much as men!
These points aren't simple though. The fact is that black people are more likely to be involved in crime than white so is a preference for shooting the black guy really racism or just following the odds? And women do tend to take maternity leave and (according to some reports) take more time off so is preferring a man really sexism?
I suspect that when measured by these criteria everyone would be a racist, sexist and just about every other kind of -ist going. So in many ways those labels are irrelevant because it is a matter of degree when a person ceases being a normal, biased human and enters the realm of being something we should all abhor!
Nothing is ever simple but again I think they key is to label the act rather than the person. If a cop shoots a suspected black criminal unnecessarily that might have been a racist act (and then again it might not) but that doesn't automatically make the person a racist.
So the next time someone sends me an article "proving" global warming isn't real because the temperature hasn't increased since 1998 I will label the article "a completely debunked, tired old argument" rater than labelling the person a "delusional climate change denier". And I can easily back up the criticism of the article with facts where labelling the person would be more difficult to validate.
And the next time an opponent in an evolution debate tells me there are no transitional fossils I will not call them a "superstitious nutty creationist". Instead I will call the alleged point a "ridiculous and delusional fabrication" because there are many transitional fossils making the claim that they don't exist easy to refute.
It would be nice if my opponents also followed these rules but somehow I don't think they will. There is a difference between us. In most cases (I'm not arrogant enough to claim all) I am right and they are wrong. If you are wrong it's hard to put a negative label on a point your opposition (me in this case) has made but it's still easy to blame the person by labelling them. If the person making the point has been discredited (in the person's mind anyway) then there's no need to try to refute their point. After all if I am just an "intractable Darwinist" then my evidence can be ignored. No need to explain those pesky fossils then, is there?
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