Labels Can Be Libel

A recent conversation resulted in a brother telling me that: “Labels are libel.” I fear there is more truth in this aphorism that most of us would care to admit.

Technically libel is: “A published false statement damaging to a person’s reputation.” It is very difficult to prove in a court of law and rarely is a person successful in a case regarding libel. Free speech is a valued liberty in our society and rightly so.

But a secondary definition says libel is “a false or defamatory oral or written statement; a thing that brings discredit by misrepresentation.” This definition carries with it the idea of accusing falsely and/or maliciously.

So, are labels sometimes a form of libel? To my mind it depends entirely upon the context. If I am called a Calvinist, for example, it could be a form of libel or it could be an accurate statement. It depends entirely on the person using the label and what they intend by using it. Often this label does turn out to be libel in terms of personal relationships and real honesty. By using a shorthanded way of referencing a very small portion of what I believe you have shut down all further communication about a lot of other things I also believe, or do not believe. If the term Calvinist means “rabidly devoted to promoting and arguing for the five points of Calvinism” then I rather dislike the term since I have no interest in such practice. If the term means that I am deeply committed to a high view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility both, then I rather like the label. With it comes a great deal of mystery that I am willing to embrace while I keep seeking to work out a host of difficult issues that are related to biblical theology and life’s meaning.

Let me take another term, a label used often with regard to me personally: “Postmodern.” If you really want to finish off someone you are committed to exposing as a false teacher then call them “postmodern,” or some similar label. (You don’t even have to use the label itself, just place the person into a discussion about postmodernism and the job is more subtly done.) Don’t bother to have or give a clear definition of what is meant by postmodern, or the various ways the term has been used in the past two or three decades, but use the label. You have accomplished your goal—marginalizing a serious discussion and libeling a person who has a series of more complex ideas about that discussion. The person so labeled becomes damaged goods and all discussion can then be stopped. In my case, since I am a public person, thus labels are used to discredit me or to warn people to stay far away from me. This is the part of this business that hurts the most deeply to be truthful. But to retain an honest and credible public witness requires a person to face this kind of thing and move on without rancor or remorse.

So, I have to agree with my brother’s simple comment. Often, labels are a form of libel. If I really want to treat people, especially other Christians, with basic dignity and civility I will generally do that best by trying to avoid the use of the labels we employ to categorize or libel others. This requires me to use words like “fundamentalist,” and related labels, with much more care. I find this difficult when I want to summarize an argument I read or hear. I can do the same with the label words "liberal" or "conservative."

It is not easy to communicate without using some labels. They prove to be shorthand and sometimes they are quite useful. Christian love demands that we all work very hard at not becoming libelous in our writing and speech. When I cross the line I am willing to be corrected and to make changes. Caveat emptor!

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