Remember Mad Libs? I loved that game. Getting to throw random words into a story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsensical tales we made. In fact, let’s play a round right now. Quick – write one infinitive verb and one noun. Done? Now, fill them into the dialogue below.
Person 1: “Would you like [verb]?”
Person 2: “Not really.”
Person 1: “Come on – don’t be a [noun]!”
Person 2: “Well, okay.”
It’s funny how little sense it makes, right? Laughable. After all, the first term isn’t the opposite of the second; it can’t be, since the first is a verb and the second is a noun.
Hmm. I’m guessing that I haven’t caused anyone to roll on the floor, laughing out loud. It’s a shame, since it probably ought to. Unfortunately, we’ve internalized this exchange so thoroughly that it doesn’t sound quite as funny as it ought.
I’ll try to explain the joke.
Looking back over the exchange, you might think, “Oh, that’s peer pressure.” We remember it from school: peer pressure is a child’s problem and an adolescent’s problem. Of course, we adults are beyond peer pressure. Beyond, that is, in the sense of a terminal patient who is beyond treatment or a lost climber who is beyond the search party’s reach. Many of us are beyond peer pressure in the sense that we have internalized it so thoroughly that peers need not even enter the picture to hold sway over our choices. No longer do we need to have the above exchange aloud with another person – we can carry on the whole thing in our own heads.
We bow to the label peer pressure has pressed into our minds. Too many times, I’ve heard people who are deliberating over a decision say: “I would do this, but I don’t want to be a bigot/idiot/prude/slut/goody-two-shoes.” In short, they don’t want to be a label. Sadly, this fear even rises in people who are convicted that one action would be best, but simultaneously desire to avoid the label it may bring. Not even conscious they are avoiding shame, they avoid the label because their culture has so thoroughly infused them with a belief that a particular label is bad. When we are so desperate to avoid a label, for instance “intolerant,” that we bow to those who are intolerant, it is clear that intrinsic love of the virtue is not our motivator.
However, the moral weight of the label is unwarranted. Deliberating over a choice, the person holds on one hand a reasonable argument for behaving a certain way; on the other, she holds a label. It would be bizarre to give each equal weight. Choosing actions based on labels is a losing game since there is a label for everything. On one end of the spectrum, there’s “sloppy” and on the other, there’s “anal.” However, if you’re talking to the right person, “sloppy” could be “free-spirited,” and “anal” could be “organized.” If you avoid being “anal,” you immediately stop being “organized” and start being “sloppy.” So, any bad label you reject loses you a good label and gains you another bad label. (It sounds like a game, too; though much less fun than Mad Libs.)
I’ve presented opposites in moral choices here, so you may be ready to pull out the old trump card: moderation. (Moderation always wins!) And, certainly, it has its place here, but only after a little digging. If we were holding out two opposite verbs and trying to determine which is better, moderation may be the answer. But, one of these things is not like the other: we are holding out a verb and a noun. Finding the golden mean between an unripe apple and an overripe apple is moderation; finding the golden mean between an apple and an orange is nonsense.
Let’s examine these negative nouns assigned to persons, which I’m calling “labels.” Since we usually articulate our fear in a certain logical progression (i.e., “If I do [verb], then I’ll be a [noun]), let’s assume actions give rise to labels.
To give a charitable definition, labels are quick ways of articulating agreed-upon values. If a culture or group agrees that a certain pattern of actions are either detrimental or desirable, they may form a label for a person who displays those actions. The next generation may inherit that label as part of their vocabulary, whether or not they’ve gone through the examination that led to the creation of the label. So, those who are armed with the ability to use the label end up at least one degree removed from the original work of thinking about the actions. This leaves them with the label, but without direct connection to the reasons why a person who earns these labels is to be chastised or praised.
These labels may succinctly articulate genuinely useful ideas. For instance, labels like “heretic” and “racist” can be very useful, since they offer a quick articulation of a complicated and important idea. However, labels are only useful insofar as they draw their life from the roots of their history. For instance, if I call someone a racist, I should know to which set of actions I refer. When labels lose their roots, they become clubs with which to bludgeon others. And, I end up flinging the term “racist” at people I simply don’t like. Or, because I’ve internalized peer pressure so thoroughly, I may start avoiding being the kind of person who is called a racist by those who don’t know what the term means.
Yet, beneath and within these labels are actions. When trying to make moral decisions, those who unpack the labels may determine that the labelled set of behaviors are correctly judged; that person may choose to go along with the recommendation of the label in that specific instance. Or, by unpacking the term, they may determine that the label is an incorrect judgment. But, at least by opening up the label, the thoughtful person compares like things: actions to actions. Instead of “I could do this or be that,” the option becomes “I could do this or do that.”
We need to remember that “I don’t want to be a [insert label here]” is very rarely, on its own, a reason not to do something. Because, any noun someone can label onto us verges on being a lie of omission – only one noun is true. You are a person. Fashioned in the image of God, fallen in the weakness of will, unchained from Satan, flirting with your old chains even as they nauseate you: you are a person. The labels all fade away before that fact.
Oh, Mad Libs. Getting to throw random words into someone else’s story and laughing in pants-wetting glee at the nonsense tales we made. Labels are stories our culture tells. Actions are stories the individual person tells. Funny how we fall for the culture’s nonsensical stories when we’re writing our own. Funny how we internalize our culture’s gag so that we don’t examine their labels, instead letting them write their choice words on the lines of our actions. Not Mad Libs funny, though.