Why labels and symbols don’t change things; and what they are effective at

January 17, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog

Following up yesterday’s post, when I talk to people about something they judge, like torture, the topic that motivated yesterday’s post, some of them point out that once you decide something is torture or right or wrong, you can do something about it.

People like labeling things because labels mean so much. If you don’t call a behavior torture, they think, people don’t know what it means. Once you call it torture, they continue, you attach meaning to it and you can do something about it.

I agree it attaches meaning, but when you use a word or a phrase or a symbol as shorthand for something, you don’t know what meaning anyone else attaches to it.

One person hears torture and thinks “illegal violation of Geneva Convention, will provoke retaliation, and an abuse of power.” Someone else may think “finally getting tough on criminals, doing everything possible to save lives, and a tough but necessary action given the situation.”

Same label. Virtually opposite meanings. Motivating different behaviors.

The American flag means different things to different people. It looks to me like Americans who burn it consider themselves more patriotic than the people who want to amend the Constitution to criminalize burning it. And vice versa! Both groups consider themselves more patriotic and the others dangerous to their way of life, which, by the way, is peaceful and harmonious, or would be if not for the others.

Same label. Virtually opposite meanings. Motivating different behaviors.

Other examples abound. Symbols and labels can conjure meaning, but different meaning to different people. If you want to convey deliberate meaning with subtlety and consistency, you have to communicate with subtlety and consistency, which simple symbols and labels don’t give you.

What do you make of something that means different things to different people? It seems to me the best way to think of them is as having no meaning. The meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder (which I covered when defining meaning).

What labels and symbols do effectively

Since labels and symbols evoke meaning, but differently for different people, they do one thing effectively. They polarize and motivate people. People who attach one set of meaning to them will react one way people who attach other sets of meaning will react differently, and so on for all interpretations people have for them.

People who react the most clearly and visibly will find each other easiest, people who react the least won’t form much community, and you’ll get an overall polarized community.

You can see why politicians, the media, and demagogues like symbols and labels so much.

I hope you also see why I encourage understanding them and how they work and not allowing other people using them to sweep you up with their rhetoric and confuse agreeing with them with being right. Reactivity like that is the opposite of leadership and thinking and acting for yourself.

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