I try to balance staying aware with not getting sucked into social media debates. This week I failed. On three separate UM groups, I saw these words:
“extreme conservative evangelical”
“white male” just concerned with protecting “white male” privilege.”
Before you protest that I’m just another white male conservative angry about being called out, let me nip that protest in the bud. I recognize and admit without hesitation the fact of male privilege, of white privilege, of wealth privilege. (I also think there’s much more going on than the concerns these labels illustrate.) I recognize systemic evil. I don’t like labels of any kind. I know labels can be helpful, but often – especially now – they are not. I don’t like it when anybody of any ideological bent uses a label for the purpose of de-legitimizing somebody’s ideas without having to make their case with their own ideas.
I think it’s fair to say that it near-infuriates me when labels are used that way. Why? Here’s my story.
Probably in the neighborhood of ten or eleven years ago, I was asked to spend half a day with an annual conference study group on the issue of homosexuality. This group was tasked with presenting a resolution to their upcoming annual conference meeting. The group met several times over several months and invited various resource people to address them. I was one such “resource.” I was asked to share with them most likely because I hold traditional convictions on core matters of theology, thus I’m sometimes identified as “conservative.”
I’m also an academic. As is the case with most academics, it is very important to me to present positions as accurately, honestly and fairly as possible and to criticize positions, not the position-holders’ motives or character. I also believe very strongly that, if I’m going to teach or serve as a resource for groups trying to decide contentious matters, it is my strong responsibility to read widely and to have reasonably good working knowledge of the issues involved.
That is exactly how I prepared for the session with the annual conference group. I had my own opinions about the matter, but I was not there to make a case for my opinions. I was there to elucidate the range of issues to help the group do their work well. This is why this memory is particularly galling for me. After spending the morning attempting to do exactly what I just expressed as my aim, I ended with a published editorial, written by a physician who is very supportive of L/G/B/T rights. In other words, I used a source with whom most people in the group already agreed on the matter at hand. This author pleaded with his readers not to deploy the “naturalistic fallacy” to support advocacy for same-sex marriage, etc. What he meant by this term is actually more like the “is-ought” problem: if a phenomenon is counted as natural, then it ought to be counted as good. But, of course, we all know that not everything that we call natural can be counted as good, so this view turns out to be a very inadequate foundation for any kind of rights advocacy.
It turns out, they did exactly what the physician/author (and I) begged them not to do. When I learned of the outcome, I quizzed one of the members of the group who told me (and I have reason to accept this person as a reliable witness) that the majority of the group said, “Well, you know, Steve Rankin is just pretty conservative, so we didn’t think what he had to say counted all that much.”
There you have it. One word – “conservative” – was all that mattered to sweep away my input. It was a classic case of made-up minds in advance and all they needed was to “know” that I was “pretty conservative.” They didn’t need to listen. They just needed the label. Of course, the irony of the whole thing was that I used one of their allies to caution them against adopting a mistaken stratagem, the very one they adopted.
A label is a poor substitute for the hard work of explaining how one draws one’s conclusions. A label, even if accurate, is not an argument, not a reason to adopt a position. It’s just a label. Journalists can use labels to meet their word limits when trying to describe someone in an article. We should not use labels as shortcuts for arguments.
We United Methodists have a 100% chance of failure to resolve our deep differences if labels continue to dominate in our discussions. A 100% chance of failure.