On Labeling, or Of “*ssholes” and “liberals”

“You can’t label me” – A certain category of epistemologically and sociologically naive teen

This comes out of the myriad debates out the term “liberal,” listening to the Rationally Speaking podcast on the philosophical definitions around “asshole,” and a key line in Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West.   This also seems completely random at a cursory glance but I assure you there are ties that link this together.   Before we begin, however, I should lay out two caveats: the first caveat is that I am not claiming anything remotely novel or innovative, and the second is that this is concerned with the fact that despite the fact most of what I am talking about should be obvious, they don’t seem to be in everyday discussions using “natural language.”

Let’s begin with the assertion by Steve Bruce: “typologies are neither true nor false; they are just more or less useful.”  Now, we can wrangle with meta-ethical and meta-epistemological concerns about use, but let’s assume a few things to avoid that particular debate: One) “useful” is not an absolute term; for us, it is thus a contextual term. Two) In a pluralistic society and where the lines of clear technocratic benefit are “blurry,” we must have a pluralistic notion use that can have specific domain   of validity.  Three) Usefulness is not a truth claim in the definitional sense, but avoids that particular question by focusing on use in an applied sense.    So by focusing on use in this way, we can see a few things.

A typology gives us terms with rules.  Those rules, even for our pragmatic notion, would need to be self-consistent, be subject to symbolic representation, and have clear terms with have cognitive content.  For example, as Harry Frankfurt did for the term “bullshit” and Aaron James’s have tried to do for the term “asshole,”  we see that natural language concepts do have clear cognitive context.  Even if the rules are generally not articulated, and there are common use exceptions, we still have a quite clearly specific general meaning for the terms “bullshit” and “asshole.”  We can thus create a typological map: “assholes,” “jerks,” “nice guys,” “bitches,” etc. as a model for a heuristic and thus set up a formal operation.   This does not bring us to any ontological truth of the asshole-being; it does not lead us to any universal telos of assholeness; one does not have a meta-linguistic criterion for category of the Platonic asshole.

It does, however, give us an perhaps useful way of understanding the cognitive content and a structure to place these things into.  Bruce’s example was the the typology was “church/sect/denomination/cult.”  While this typology is obviously religious, it is contextually applicable to most “ideological” institutions.  Bruce lays out the rules which operate on a double axis spectrum: unique claim to truth –> pluralistic claim to truth ( church –> denomination, sect –> cult ) and perception of general social respectability —> perception of general social deviance  (church –> sect, denomination –> cult).  Now, this does not get into a whole array of both incidental and necessary facts about any given ideological institution; however, it does show us a set of orientations and gives us a set of operations to deal with those institutions that are self-coherent.

So in our current conceptions of political discourse in the US can show up.   One of the most frustrating things about political labels is that they almost always lead to “no true Scotsman” fallacies because the typologies themselves are actually contested.  We will take the case of the much maligned concept of “liberal.”

This brings me to where all this breaks down: either the typology is inconsistent or the typologies are contested by use the same language.  In discussing “liberal,” I often think the term “asshole” has more cognitive content.   For example, most “political liberals” (read Democrats in the US and moderate Social Democrats in Europe) will debate the application of the term.  For many “conservatives”, “liberal and left” exist on a clear spectrum between “FDR and Stalin.” For many Marxists, the “liberal” is anyone who has a set of historical ideas stemming from John Locke and are tied to set a capitalist assumptions which would apply from John Calhoun to William Jefferson Clinton, but would exclude all the Marxists and most anarchists which would have DEFINITELY been included in the “conservative” typology.  Both of which are probably different from the typology liberals use themselves.  So the typology around liberal is “contested.”

It is, however, by all rubrics we can generate from the political typologies at hand: the term liberal is increasingly non-cognitive as it refers to increasingly contradicting positions: universal human rights vs. particularistic notions of cultural identity and appropriation, “market regulation” and “imposition of markets” and “socialization,”  stand-point epistemology and defense of universal application of science, etc.   This also means the term may have little coherent cognitive content. In fact, it merely becomes emotive.    When Marxists complain about liberals and when conservatives complain about liberals often those who identify as liberals have a hard time understanding the various typological rubrics being applied to them. Furthermore, those doing the accusation may be equally confused as what element of liberalism is actually the problem and may favor other elements of liberalism implicitly.

In short, in some respects, it is easier to know what I mean by “asshole” than “liberal.”

Another dangerous I will bring out that is not explicitly about liberalism.  I previously belonged to a “sectarian” Marxist group that has a both a teleological and typological reading of historical categories.  In retrospect, this Marxist group had a hypostatized the “stages” of development into a universal law where the categories of the typology have a metaphysical or ontological reality that was beyond the linguistic.  In fact, it strongly resembled dispensationalism, which the head pedagogue endorsing what seemed like satirical comparisons to John the Baptist.  It was not just that once the conditions where laid, the operations were seen as objective–it was that the conditions and axioms were seen as objective and absolute.   This is a problem though because it confuses explanatory power with a metaphysical truth claim.   So in this framework “liberalism” is “fulfilled and undone” by “socialism, which itself is fulfilled and undone by communism.”  Furthermore this process was “necessary and sufficient” and the only thing that could explain that was it did not appear to be case was “regression.”  If you have studied apocalyptic eschatology at all–it is clear how related these ways of think appear to be.

Now imagine trying to meaningfully use the term “liberalism” in such a context. Since the highly divergent typologies are both incompatible and seem to have less and less coherent cognitive content, then you have hypostatized criterion imposing themselves on the term.  The term may just break from any usefulness.

This leads me to a simple observation that should be obvious:  1) one must define ones terms in the areas where typologies are contested and 2) there is high incentive NOT to define terms in these contested areas as it opens up all sorts of fault lines in ones political identity and/or general self-conception.


One thought on “On Labeling, or Of “*ssholes” and “liberals”

  1. Some nice food for thought.

    My personal preference , as a personal label, is to think of ‘liberalism’ in the twin contexts of etymology and psychology. I remain loyal to the basic and most early meaning of liberalism which still resonates to what most people mean when they say liberal-minded. Even those on the right recognize this resonance when they call liberals bleeding hearts.

    However, this usage doesn’t necessarily have much connection to the broad historical usage. The reform era following the early modern revolutionary era began to give the word a more technical meaning. That technical meaning increasingly became disconnected from the word’s etymology.

    Capitalism, at one time, may have seemed liberal-minded in comparison to feudalism, monarchy, and theocracy. It was radically challenging the corrupt and oppressive social order back then, but now it has become part of the present corrupt and oppressive social order. Even adding some so-called liberal reform to capitalism doesn’t really change what it is.

    A liberalism entirely disconnected from its own etymology seems odd to me. Then again, many words become estranged and transformed from their original meaning. Whatever is the case, I most definitely support defining one’s terms.

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