Political labelling: An important dimension we miss

Political labels could pressurise individuals into harder public stances and blinding them to the possibility of debate & reconciliation
Last Updated 13 February 2021, 10:11 IST

‘Andolanjeevi’ is the latest entry in a long list of labels and coinages of these times. The others, from the likes of ‘bhakt’, ‘jihadi’, ‘Khan Market gang’, ‘sanghi’, ‘sickular’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘Urban Naxal’ and so on are already part of the country’s political vocabulary.

Sure, there is some flinching in some circles at their utterance but many aren’t squeamish about the lingo even when they sense it is tasteless and worse. Users throwing these terms know what they are conveying and aren’t coy about it. Those at the crosshairs know what they are being charged with and have learnt to live, often proudly, with the badges.

For instance, self-proclaimed ‘bhakts’ are easily spotted on social media, and many unhesitatingly declared themselves ‘andolanjeevi’ within minutes of its mention by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It isn’t difficult to figure why these are fertile times label-wise. The Hindutva agenda has come to enjoy sizeable and unapologetic popular approval, the Modi cult has found fiercely enamoured followers, and the challenge to them, stiffer than they would’ve liked, is most cleverly portrayed as a conspiracy of now-emasculated ‘elites’ and ‘anti-national forces’.

The resultant polarisation, detractors of Hindutva-Moditva ranged against their backers, needs biting, bite-sized characterisations of the Other to nourish itself. With such characterisation – labelling, where individuals are sheared down to aspects of their existence convenient to the labeller – there’s the chance of challenging not just the adversary’s position but tainting the adversary herself. For good. With prospects of further hardening the faithful.

The option other than labelling – of marshalling coherent arguments to persuade the other side of one’s positions, or of reviewing one’s own positions in view of feedback from others – is harder (demanding on the intellect and patience) and riskier (the troops are edgy and won’t take concessions well), more so since a number of issues are queued up on the playlist.

Take the example of ‘Urban Naxal’. It has become shorthand for an intelligentsia supposedly at war with the government because its feasting on India’s challenges, poverty, human rights abuses, and so on stands stalled.

Dubbing an individual an ‘Urban Naxal’ slots her as a perennial, selfish grumbler, someone whose character, loyalties, and motives are suspect, and, hence, someone whose arguments on any issue, at hand or in pipeline, merit no engagement except dismissal. The doors then are shut for good on ‘Urban Naxals’, much to the delight of their detractors.

That political labelling can serve as a cue for demonisation, de-legitimisation, and targeted violence is something that has been spoken of. Worrying as this is, but there’s another dimension to it that we miss, the limiting nature of labels and how they mould behaviour and constrain conversations.

Labelling of any kind, psychology suggests, is limiting. In two ways. A: In consciously and subconsciously shaping self-perceptions and behaviours, labels prompt individuals into conducting themselves in a certain way, consistent with what is expected from the label stuck on them and at risk of not expressing themselves honestly. This is why some film stars reluctantly put on starry airs, and divas feel compelled to behave like, well, divas.

B: Labels prompt the world into pre-judging others, making assumptions about their nature, potential, and motives, without recognising that labels, if at all, cover only a subset of these. So, slow learners are given up on in schools, feminists come to be viewed as difficult people, and non-vegetarians get denied homes because they are perceived as untidy and cruel.

The end result of labels is that they stimulate and reinforce label-confirming public behaviour and/ or delude us about how well we understand others. Political labels then could be pressuring individuals into harder public stances than their inner selves feel and blinding them to the possibilities of debate and reconciliation. (How many times have we been struck by how someone sounded saner, more reasonable in real life than they do on social media?) Given the scale at which such labels are currently in play and the temperatures in echo chambers in which they are being cooked, things can only worsen.

Avoiding labels will aid honest expression, encourage less hostile posturing, reveal hitherto invisible flexibilities, trigger conversations rooted in fact, logic, respect for different perspectives and experiences, not imagined intents. It is in the stunting of such conversations that the principal problem with labelling lies. Imagine how differently the CAA-NRC conversations would have gone if protestors weren’t viewed as saboteurs but genuinely worried citizens.

Let us concede that the idea of a conversation with those demonised as ‘bigots’ or ‘anti-nationals’ is very difficult. There will be doubts around whether their souls are redeemable in the first place, whether the very act of entering into such a conversation amounts to ideological dishonesty, and whether any headway can be made with them without compromising on basic principles.

These could be valid doubts, but the reality is that neither liberal or extremist strains in society can be wished away, and that ideologies flourish only when they explore new catchments. Letting labels create distances with the Other is unhelpful. If unconvinced, think whether unleashing ‘andolanjeevi’ has brought the government and protesting farmers any closer to a solution.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 13 February 2021, 10:11 IST)

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