It’s Not the Labels, It’s the Labeling

April 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

label maker

This week Dave Fitch wrote a post in response to Tony Jones’ and Doug Pagitt’s frustration with Fitch labeling them, and Emergent, as part of the protestant mainline. In the post, Fitch responds to their objections and defends his choices. Regarding the act of labeling he writes, “labeling, carefully and generously done, is an exercise in furthering the conversation.” In response to his specific labeling of Jones and Pagitt as mainliners he writes, “[l]ooking at their theological positions as articulated over the last 10-15 years, especially when we were reading/listening to them more carefully, I still think theologically they both lie comfortably in this camp” (emphasis added).

First off, allow me to admit that I have not read the book in which this labeling occurs (sorry Fitch and Holsclaw!), so I may be missing some pieces here. Even so, I submit that Jones and Pagitt are not as offended by the label as they are by being labeled. Let me explain. 

Labels are helpful, necessary even. They give us a shorthand by which we navigate the world and make sense of life. We take a complex, nuanced concept and distill it into a couple words that we then use  as a substitute for the larger concept. But who gets to determine what the label is? And who gets to say what parts of the complex, nuanced concept fall under the label and what parts don’t? And who gets to apply that label, and to whom? The answers lie not in the labels but in the act of labeling.

The act of labeling the other is an exercise in wielding power. In labeling a person or a group, the labeler is claiming the right to determine both the content of the label and its application. That’s all well and good if the labeler is labeling himself or herself, but it almost always becomes problematic when done to or on behalf of the other. Only those with power and privilege have the ability to label groups of which they are not a part and have those labels “stick.” When that kind of labeling occurs, it is often done to further consolidate and protect power and privilege. That kind of labeling is inherently violent.

Fitch seems to recognize this when he writes, “…I want to be cautious about labeling. I think there can be an inherent violence in labeling,” but that doesn’t seem to give him much pause in going on to defend his of labeling Pagitt and Jones. It seems that Fitch is complicit in this “inherent violence” when he justifies his labeling of the two on a “more careful” reading of/listening to their theological positions. We are to rest assured that, though it may not be plainly evident, and though Pagitt and Jones may openly disagree, Fitch has deeply examined their views and found them worthy of the “Protestant Mainline” label.

Now, Fitch probably has the best of intentions in labeling Pagitt and Jones the way he does. He likely just wants to give his readers a mapping of the theological landscape and some recognizable names associated with various theological positions. Such labels are fine and helpful, as long as those being labeled both self-identify with the label and are okay with being labeled by the labeler. Pagitt and Jones, it seems, aren’t okay with either.

So why have this discussion at all? I mean, in this specific instance, I (a privileged white guy) am writing a post about two privileged white guys taking offense at being (mis)labeled by another pair of privileged white guys. In the grand scheme of things, this particular kerfuffle amounts to little more than public posturing (though I’m sure that it will help the book sales of all those involved). But there are some incredibly important lessons we can learn here about labeling and “the other.”

First, as Christena Cleveland reminds us, “Good intentions alone will not suffice.” The noble notion of wanting to categorize for purposes of “furthering conversation” does not make it okay when those being categorized take offense. What is often meant as categorization is really only thinly veiled stigmatization. The act of labeling the other often quickly devolves into a wink-wink-nudge-nudge way of talking about “those people.”

Second, we need to tread lightly whenever we use labels to refer to groups to which we don’t belong. Having knowledge about the other doesn’t qualify us as the other. Just because a group self-identifies with and uses a particular label does not give those outside the group the right to apply that label. I wouldn’t call my gay friends “queer” or use the “n-word” when referring to my black friends, even if they use those labels among themselves.

Finally, whenever the other takes offense at the label we use or at our act of labeling them, it’s time to stop, apologize, and work together. It is still possible to “clarify histories [and] understand trajectories” of a group without resorting to the violent kind of labeling, but such clarification must be done with them, not for them.

I said it above, but it bears repeating again here, labels are helpful, necessary even. They give us a shorthand by which we navigate the world and make sense of life. Labels, and the act of labeling, must be employed in a way that honors the other and seeks to bring them closer, not in ways that result in further marginalization and stigmatization. So, let us continue to find helpful ways to use labels, especially of ourselves, but let us be very, very careful about the act of labeling the other.

Anderson Campbell


  • Theresa

    How about we just drop the lables on ourselves? I have a very good friend whom if anyone would meet her, they would place a label on her….hair in bun, wears dresses always and no make up. By now, most readers already have her labeled..”Oh yeah…I’ve seen “those “people. They are________.” Yet she gives herself no label. She loves the Lord and although we differ in some things ( speaking in tongue for example) it does not take away from our Christ center faith we both have. It is such a kill joy to see so many “leaders” of this group or that publicly debate SO OFTEN. Its like they thrive on it. Can’t see how that can be a witness to anyone.

  • zhoag

    Thanks for posting this man, a needed perspective. After going back and forth with Tony a bit, my feelings are mixed as to where his reaction is coming from (i.e., if it’s really about the label or more about Tony’s brand). But, I’m hoping that there can be better conversation between these guys and not just defensiveness, etc.

    • Anderson Campbell

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Zach. It’s always an honor. I think only Tony can address the source of the reaction, but he seemed to agree with the overall thrust of this post. See:

      • zhoag

        dude! honor’s all mine. thanks for the update from tony’s twitter – that’s really helpful.