Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Thoughts About Labels

When it comes to convenience, labels can't be beat. They help us to organize items according to categories and to find what we're looking for more easily.

When one visits a local book store, the products aren't scattered randomly throughout the store. They're organized and labeled according to categories, such as Science Fiction, History, Romance, Art, Music and so forth. The same thing is true in record stores. There are sections for Rock, R&B, Country, Folk, Classical, Jazz and so forth. For shoppers, it's usually a big time saver for things to be organized and marketed that way.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's point of view), some things aren't so easily categorized. Was Miles Davis a jazz musician? Undoubtedly. But it could also be argued that his later albums could be categorized as rock music as well. Music by people such as Linda Ronstadt and Charlie Daniels could be described as country music or rock music, and I've seen their music in both sections in various record stores. (In the Midwest, I saw their music in the Rock sections at various record stores. Later, when I moved to New England in the 80's, I found their records in the Country music sections. It was the same exact music, but it was perceived differently in different parts of the United States.)

Labels can be useful, but they can also be very limited, and very limiting. A musician such as Neil Young, whose output has ranged from country music to electronic music, can't be easily described by any single label. Often, the label which is applied to a musician or a visual artist or a writer is whatever label was attached to that person at the beginning of his or her career, even if the label subsequently becomes very inaccurate when used to describe that person's most recent creations.

Often, artistic people end up creating rehashed versions of earlier material rather than exploring fresh territory, because they're afraid that if they stray too far from their roots, they'll lose their existing fans while running the risk that they won't acquire any new ones (or not enough new ones, at any rate, to sustain their careers economically). Sometimes they are pressured by their record companies, publishers, etc. to play it safe, and they eventually become parodies of themselves.

Labels can also be limiting from the standpoint of the intellectual growth and maturity of consumers. This can be seen particularly in terms of the changes which took place in radio broadcasting during the 80's and beyond. In the sixties, when I was growing up, one could tune into a Top 40 music station and hear a wide variety of music styles. A single Top 40 station would often play tunes by artists which included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Fifth Dimension, Al Hirt and the Tijuana Brass, Antonio Carlos Jobim (e.g., "The Girl from Ipanema"), Glen Campbell, Carole King, Iron Butterfly and more. I won't say that things weren't stylistically categorized at all back in those days, but I will say that things became a lot more compartmentalized once broadcasters discovered a little thing known as demographics.

These days, it's very unusual to find a radio station which will play tunes representing a wide variety of styles, including folk rock, heavy metal, pop music, rhythm and blues, jazz fusion, blues, hip hop and much more. It's far more common for stations to cater to fans of specific subgenres. The problem with that approach is that it tends to promote narrow minds and immature people. People grow when they're exposed to new things, even if they don't like everything that they hear or see or read.

The preceding statements mostly relate to the arts (and to music in particular), but they're equally applicable to other facets of life. Take politics, for example. It's very difficult to find people who have enough confidence in their own judgment to assess issues on the basis of their own merits, instead of being swayed by a bandwagon mentality. Such a mentality is caused, in part, by limited exposure to people with differing opinions. I've especially seen the effects of such insularity here in Chicago, where the domination of popular opinion by the Democratic party is nearly monolithic. It's common for people to associate the term "provincialism" with smaller towns and rural areas, but the reality is that big cities in "blue states" such as Illinois can be just as provincialistic, and their citizens can be (and often are) just as uninformed and narrow-minded. I say this as a person who has spent a considerable amount of time in both types of environment.

Fortunately, there are also some Americans who dare to think for themselves. For instance, Newsweek magazine recently published a letter from William Wright of Antioch, Tennessee (on page 23 of the November 10, 2008 issue). Apparently, Mr. Wright doesn't like to be defined or limited by conventional political labels. Here's his letter:
The whole liberal-versus-conservative thing, the us-versus-them mentality, serves no useful purpose but to keep divide-and-conquer politicians in power. Why not judge each issue on its own merits? As for me, I'm an atheist pro-lifer who supports gay marriage and the right to bear arms. That makes me an American.
Personally, I'm more of a stereotypical conservative than Mr. Wright. I'm a Christian pro-lifer who opposes gay marriage and supports the right to bear arms. But my views aren't stereotypical in every respect. I oppose the death penalty (for reasons which are somewhat different from the reasons often cited by liberals), and I was granted legal status as a conscientious objector when my draft board called upon me in 1974. (My views on war have become slightly more moderate over the years, but I am still proud of the stand I took at that time, and I still believe that America needs to make a much stronger effort to promote peace and avoid war.)

One of the problems with labels is that they make it easy for people to dismiss one's views without giving them a serious hearing. One of the things which caused me to become more passionate about my pro-life commitments was that I resented being dismissed in that manner by people who falsely assumed, on the basis of those commitments, that they knew everything else about me. I read a tract, published by a pro-abortion group (or a "pro-choice" group, as they would prefer to describe themselves) falsely claiming that "right to lifers" were universally in favor of war and capital punishment. It was a form of argumentum-ad-hominem, and it made me more aware of a wide variety of specious arguments frequently being made in favor of legalized abortion. (Over the years, nothing much has changed in that regard. Most of those lame arguments are still being repeated by abortion supporters today, with little or no real thought being given to the implications of those arguments.)

It's ironic, it seems to me, that liberals who practically make a religion out of respect for "diversity" are so often unwilling to acknowledge the diversity which exists in this country when it comes to issues such as abortion. Pretending that all pro-life people are clones of one another makes it easier for such people to dismiss our arguments without considering or addressing the substance of those arguments.

I understand why this sort of thing takes place. People often find that it is necessary for them to establish political alliances in order to get things accomplished. Such alliances do generally have characteristics which can be analyzed and summarized. As a rule, political conservatives do tend to share certain common characteristics, as do political liberals. It isn't wrong to acknowledge those shared characteristics, provided that one is willing to acknowledge the exceptions and to evaluate issues based on their own merits, even if doing so means being willing to defy conventional wisdom and to openly take a stand against the prevailing views of the group to which one belongs. Even though labels can sometimes be useful, we need to learn to look beyond the labels if we want to obtain a completely accurate understanding of reality, whether one is talking about music, politics or any other facet of life.

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