Misunderstood Labels

I had an argument with my husband while we were dating.  We were watching the news and some talking head had called a politician “liberal.”  He groaned about such an epithet being thrown around a candidate he liked.  “An epithet?  Since when has ‘liberal’ been an epithet?” I asked.

“Since always,” he answered.

Someone had left me out of the loop when I learned the word “liberal.”  I had always understood it as a fairly neutral term to describe anyone left of center politically just like “conservative” describes anyone right of center.  You might have warm and fuzzy feelings or angry bile rising depending on your own political feelings, but the terms themselves are plainly descriptive.

Apparently I was wrong.  Apparently “liberal” was still a terrible thing to call someone (there is an argument that it has become more acceptable since President Obama’s first term).  I can’t figure out why.  Is it tainted with communism or far-left extremism? Liberal, to me, always meant caring for children and older folks and generally not looking  to go to war.  Which seems pretty fine.

The same goes for the term “feminist.”  I’m sure that as soon as I learned the word I began applying it to myself.  I wasn’t a particularly political or man-hating eight year old, but I liked wearing pants and I wanted to play whatever sports I wanted to.  Because that’s all that feminism meant to me, fairness.  If boys were allowed to do something, I wanted to be allowed to do it.  Feminism is still fighting for equal treatment of men and women, girls and boys.

But many people see the label “feminist” as toxic.  I have a hard time imagining what people are afraid of, maybe roving gangs of braless, angry, mean-girls who take all the good jobs and walk around being sexy without ever letting a man touch them?  Women getting pregnant just so they can have the joy of enduring an abortion?  Rampant cosmetic surgery to make women look like men?  Because that stuff happens all the time.

I’d really like to know how these labels got such a bad rap.  Honest answers, not just the crap made up by people who are going to hate women and Democrats no matter what.  You know, nothing from Phyllis Schlafly or Rush Limbaugh.

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2 Responses to Misunderstood Labels

  1. amyclae says:

    I could not speak very well to either of these terms, but I would wager that the connection is not a coincidence between the proliferation of neutered academics (self-described as ‘feminist’ and ‘liberal’) and the subsequent decline in prestiege of those words. Those who embodied Allan Bloom’s closers of the (now) closed American mind wasted the capital they inherited. Is it no surprise that the intellectual laity holds them accountable for it? What did ‘liberal’ mean in the 60’s? The 50’s? Even the 70’s? Václav Havel, Richard Hofstatder, Edward Said, Soviet citizens who ‘spoke truth to power’ (I’d even throw in T. S. Eliot, Chesterton, Keyes). Now it means a few middle-class regents of academe’s footnote maze and guilty middle-managers.

    Seriously, read one of the few academic journals that cost thousands of dollars in yearly subscription that is self-identified as ‘feminist’ scholarship or is chiefly composed out of self-identified ‘liberals.’ If you have any doubt left as to why they’re so (despised? dislike? mocked? your word of choice) then subscribe to another one, and another one until the realization dawns.

  2. The Right is much better at pinning hateful labels on their enemies than is the Left. Conservatives have made “liberal” a bad name; it wasn’t always. The Right doesn’t always achieve the goals it seeks, however. “Christian” used to be a positive label. In many minds these days, however, it refers to narrow-minded religious nuts.

    I never know quite how to label my political views. On surveys, I have been asked to choose between “liberal” and “progressive.” I don’t think there is a commonly accepted distinction between these these two, but, from context, I gather that “progressive” is seen as the more radical. In any case, those on the American Left—one is hard pressed to identify a far left—need to articulate a philosophy and proudly wear whatever label they choose to call it. Likewise, liberal (or progressive) Christians need to wear that label proudly and not let the evangelical know-nothings define what is Christian in the public mind.

    The Left allows right-wing loonies to adopt innocuous-sounding labels: “conservative” and “pro-life,” for example. Not often enough do we talk about “reactionaries” or “reproductive totalitarians.” (I made up that last one.) The best we can do is use “Tea Party” as an epithet, but that has the disadvantage of letting the target of the label miss the fact that they are being put down.

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