I’ve put this off twice now, so I suppose it’s time to actually discuss it. As I stated in my very first post here, labels are a shorthand, to allow us to quickly get across concepts and ideas that may otherwise take a lot longer to make clear. They are at their heart a distillation of the idea behind a concept into a single word or set of words. As they are shorthand, however they are also imprecise and their meaning depends on the experiences and opinions of the ones using it and the ones hearing it, which is why using them improperly can lead to issues.
Let’s start off with a simple example: secretary vs administrative assistant. On the surface, they’re both job titles with basically the same duties. The latter however sounds a lot more important, while the former carries connotations for most of society that suggest it’s an easy and not-very-important job.
For another example, take the term fag. Used in normal company it’s considered very offensive, and demeaning of gay people. For someone who hangs out on the chans however, it’s basically lost all meaning in that regard, and people tend to just throw it around carelessly. For example, calling someone a newfag on /m/ just means they’re a newbie, but if you said that among a random group of people, they’d be offended and misinterpret your meaning completely.
The most dangerous aspect of labels is that you can use them to organize and compartmentalize things and people. This can easily lead to dismissal of ideas, or attacking people because of it
One hot-button example of this in the US is the Islam religion. A small sect of extremists causes issues, but they claim the muslim label with the same right that Joe down the street claims it as a worshipper of Islam. Then you take your average person that doesn’t care to educate themselves on issues – all they care to know is “Muslims are ‘tacking mah ‘MURRICA” They automatically put anyone who has taken that label in the same box – that of extremist religious zeaolot. If they happen to know anyone that doesn’t fit their mental image, they just write it off as an exception and continue dumping everyone in the Box of Evil.
To put it more plainly, labels encourage you to stop thinking. For a lot of people, the shorthand that they represent becomes the entirety of their meaning. To be honest, it’s the “stop thinking” part that makes the whole aspect dangerous.
For example, take the possibility of a particle physicist who also believes in Intelligent Design. He may be extremely smart. He may have discovered what appears to be evidence of some major discovery, such as a stable wormhole. However, because he believes in ID, people put him in their mental “religious kook” box and ignore whatever he may have come up with.
It happens all the time if you look for it. Conservative. Liberal. Muslim. Creationist. Libertarian. GEEWUNNER. Furry. Feminist. All labels that people may take up for perfectly valid reasons, but also labels that can carry misunderstanding and drama, when used among some crowds, due to each side thinking it means something different.
I guess what it comes down to is be careful how you use them. Educate yourself on what they actually mean, not what a “news” program after ratings declares them to be. Think, and learn.