Robin Koerner

Watching America

I am the 30-year-old British co-founder and publisher of Watching America, a website that reflects global opinion about the United States by translating foreign press articles.

I Recommend...


The Moderate Voice
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World on Fire by Amy Chua
Tomorrow's God by Neale Donald Walsch
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Bush at War by Bob Woodward
American Theocracyby Kevin Phillips

Crossing Borders

Ideology, Language and Labels

June 2, 2006

Labels describe where you perceive you have been, not where you are. If you give in to them, however, they sure can predict where you're going.
— America's own Dr. Phil

In the U.S., ideology has become so dominant that it is built into the language. The words "Liberal" and "Conservative," thrown about off-handedly on news shows, have lost the true meanings of "liberal" or "conservative," and have become clumsy short-hands for ideological positions. Indeed, the meanings of the capitalized pair often change every few years with the policies (and rhetoric) of a particular power base. An obvious current example is the tendency of "Conservatives" to have believed that the current administration is in fact conservative. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, an agenda that seeks to legislate relationships differently for different people (homosexual marriage); asserts a pre-emptive defense policy (war in Iraq), and runs up a large national debt to do so, cannot by any unforced definition be said to be conservative. One might say that in the U.S., one adopts an opinion because of the party/group with which one identifies, while in most other places, it's the other way around.

It is as if the abstract label, signifying the ideology, is more important than the treatment of any concrete issue on its own merits. Large groups of Americans hold on to their ideology-identifying labels even as the meaning of those labels change. It is common practice in the U.S. to identify the audience of a book — and thus increase its sales — by naming the target ideological group in the title. A good example is, "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)"... This practice wouldn't work in other countries where such a title would put off many of the potential "conservative" readers it is seeking, as they prefer to think of themselves as serious people who are concerned with issues, and who think that labeling whole groups of people represents no serious attempt towards understanding anything. And what has that kind of labeling led to throughout history? We don't any more group people by color or gender and then claim superiority over them — so why is it acceptable in the U.S. to do just that but on the basis of ideology? As Kierkegaard said, "You label me: you negate me."

It may surprise Americans to read that equivalent political labels simply don't exist in British English — and we've not found a need to invent them. You don't hear on British television that region X is very Conservative and so will vote for candidate Y, or is very Liberal and will vote for candidate Z. Such statements simply have no explanatory power. Voting for the "Conservative" party in England does not generally lead one to label oneself as, "Conservative". And if you are a Labour voter (England's Democrats, currently in power), you don't even have an adjective to describe you individually. "Liberal" is never used with a capital "L", while "liberal", in its original meaning, is a label that most politically engaged people would comfortably adopt in the uncontroversial sense of "liberal democracy." When words are blunted, as they so often are in America, and then used as bludgeons, the most basic tools of understanding and progress are destroyed.

Older: American Pathologies Newer: Ideology, History and Religion

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