In Defense of Labels

FMH has been having a fun conversation about the meaning of different Mormon labels. I think these kinds of conversations, about categorization and what it means, are definitely worth having. But almost inevitably in any such conversation, a contingent of people will argue that we should abandon labels altogether.

To put it simply: I think this is crazy.

Yes, it’s true that in the context of concrete relationships with complex human beings, labels probably use a lot of their usefulness. They’re limited. But when you’re first getting to know someone, it can actually be quite useful to know generally where they’re coming from on certain issues. It gives you a context.

Imagine, for example, that I’m sitting in a classroom and people are identifying their religious tradition. I could say, actually, I’ve decided not to use labels. Really, this isn’t helpful. If I say that I’m Mormon, sure, that’s going to bring up a lot of prejudices and preconceptions–but it’s still an important piece of data.

You might say that this isn’t the same, in that Mormon is not just a label but a statement of belonging to a particular group of people. Which is true. But within a group of Mormons (or even a broader group), I think it can be helpful to go further and describe myself as a less orthodox or liberal Mormon.  That isn’t to say that I don’t have some reservations about those terms, if you push me on it. (E.g., does it makes sense to say “less orthodox” in a church in which orthodoxy is so vague?) But I think the shorthand is useful, for all its limitations. It gives you a general sense of some of my religious orientation, even if only time will flesh out the particularities and nuances. I use labels about ZD when I’m describing it to people I don’t know, because I think they should know what they’re getting into if they come by. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Another example. Say my sister tells me a story like this: I was talking to this guy in my ward, and he’s a really traditional, conservative Mormon, and he admitted that he voted for Obama. The story is a different one than if it would be about a self-described Liahona Mormon.

I also think that absolute resistance to labels can be a reflection of individualism run amok. Americans like very much to be unique and special, not able to be categorized. And sure, there’s truth to that. We are all individuals irreducible to any one category. But there’s also truth to the fact that we do share things in common with other subgroups of the population, and that’s okay. In addition, our brains really can’t function without drawing on categorizations. There’s just too much data.

Obviously labels can be pejorative. And I do think that’s a problem. I prefer to only call someone a TBM if they are cheerfully using that acronym about themselves, because I know that for many it’s a dismissive term. I don’t like the terms “open-minded” and “closed-minded,” largely because I only hear people describe themselves using the first and categorizing others as the latter. I know it’s hard to get away from connotations, even when you’re trying to be neutral. In comparing Mormons with other Christians, I usually use the terms “mainstream” or “traditional” to refer to the latter, and that seems to usually go over okay, though I always worry about it. (I use “apostate” if I’m teasing people I know well, who cheerfully call me a “heretical Christian” in return.) And I use terms like “traditional” or “conservative” to refer to some styles of being Mormon, though if people wanted to suggest a different word (not something loaded like “believing” or “faithful,” obviously), I’d be happy to go along with that.

And sometimes it’s hard to find a label that works. When it comes to abortion, I have so many reservations about the categories of “pro-choice” and “pro-life” that I don’t have a quick answer. (FMH Lisa once wrote an awesome post on this. Though this isn’t an invitation to turn this thread into an abortion debate).

But still, I think it’s unrealistic to throw out labels altogether. So I’ll label myself. I’m a feminist. I’m a Mormon. I’m also a Mormon feminist (and people aren’t always both–I’ve known those who were feminist outside of Mormonism but supporters of patriarchy inside of it, as well as those who are passionate about Mormon feminist issues but less so about non-Mormon ones). And without those labels, it probably would have been hard for me to find like-minded people on Mormon blogs.  Within Mormonism, I’d say I’m a hard-core feminist; outside of it, a feminist with some skepticism. I’d also consider myself an unorthodox Mormon, but a believing one nonetheless. That probably shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. But it’s not a bad place to begin.


  1. I’d say I’m a hard-core feminist; outside of it, a feminist with some skepticism.

    This is the first time I thought about this, but I was the opposite (prior to fMh participation for the last couple of years.) I was a hard-core die hard feminist outside of the LDS church but in it thought there was no place for “feminism” ’cause you can’t argue with God, right?

    This was a well articulated argument for labels. Too bad too many fMh readers are readers here, or I would copy this post, paste it in a comment on the labels thread over there, and appear to be brilliant!

  2. I think labels are most helpful if they are self-ascribed. The individual tends to have the most information on whether he/she belongs under the label, and chances are they are not basing their own label on a prejudice that would automatically classify the bearer of said prejudice under a label the classifier distrusts.

    Also, a self -identified label not only give you the main idea about what the list of the person’s likes, beliefs, activities, etc. would look like, but,because rarely do all lists of people even under the same label look the same, it also tells you which items are most important to the self-labeler.

    I go to work every day, and have children. I have a co-worker who does the same. If asked to describe ourselves in one word, one of us might say “career gal” and the other might say “mommy” even though we both fit under both labels. But an outsider trying to describe us would have to do so from a partial window into who we are. Another co-worker of the “mommy” might first describe her as a “career gal” first, which is less informative…

  3. I think labels are most helpful if they are self-ascribed. The individual tends to have the most information on whether he/she belongs under the label, and chances are they are not basing their own label on a prejudice that would automatically classify the bearer of said prejudice under a label the classifier distrusts.

    I agree that labels are only useful when they’re self-imposed. Whenever we label each other, especially when it’s based on appearance or a few surface-level interactions, then I think it creates distance and reasons to isolate ourselves from others and never get to know them.

    I think about this often b/c I look like the generic molly mormon – not very cute trendy, I bake bread, garden, can food, have lots of kids, am very active at church – so I suspect that people never would realize that I’m pretty liberal in my politics and church beliefs, float around all over the bloggernacle, think about the issues brought up there, am not quite ready to self-identify as a feminist, but certainly agree with many of the issues surrounding the debate.

    How many women do you not bother getting to know b/c they don’t look like “your kind of people?” But, yes, if you were in a group and getting to know each other, a self-ascribed label would certainly help you sort out who you think you’d click with a lot faster than dancing around the topics for months.

  4. The term “Liahona Saint” was coined by Richard D. Poll in an essay, “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” published in Dialogue in 1967- sorry I can’t find a link. On the other end of the spectrum are “Iron Rod Saints.”
    I, for the record, am one of the few “Iron Rod Atheists.” 🙂

  5. I’ve been thinking about labels a lot recently because I got a summer job working at an arts day camp that’s open to children with disabilities. I had to do all this training on “labelling children” and how it’s not okay to call someone “autistic” and we have to instead say that they “have autism.” Linguistically, this is really frustrating for me because labels are so very useful in what I do and learning about how to deal with all of these children and I have a hard time seeing the difference between the two.

    Labels help us organize our minds. It is useful to know if someone is Mormon and we can use that label to gain information about them. Throwing out labels entirely seems ludicrous to me because there’s no easier way to get quick information about someone and know how to proceed that to find out their label. In part, this is one of the ways we make sense of the world.

  6. I think Jes has a good point. I understand the usefulness of labels but I must add that, invariably, tagging ourselves or others with labels always lumps the tagged person together with a bunch of other people or who’ve been tagged with the same label.

    And personally, though I may like lumping myself and thereby associating myself with people whose traits or beliefs or passions I appreciate, I definitely don’t like being lumped by someone else.

    So, sure, the good example you gave of the story of the guy who voted for Obama works and I’ve used that same framework of description. But in my book it’s even more thoughtful if I speak about the fellow specifically and respectfully, giving a description that enlightens the listener into the specific character of the individual rather than just that he’s an instance of a certain group doing something unusual for that group.

    I don’t always do that, but I think the accuracy of my communication and my ability to build bridges would improve if I did.

  7. Risa, my mom (1970s BYU Feminist type) and Wikipedia both attribute the Liahona v.s Iron Rod Mormon thing to Richard Douglas Poll.

    I Googled it for you to make sure it was safe. It was. I had heard the terms years ago, and the first few hits I got on Google agreed with what I had understood them to mean.

    Basically an Iron Rod Mo believes that God gave us hard solid rules found if you read scripture literally, see no room for argument of talks by GAs (even if they don’t agree) etc. and that if you step in line to the hard solid rules (not a little too far to the right or left…but especially not to the left 😉 ) you’ll be OK and not fall in the river and drown.

    And a Liahona Mo thinks the gospel is a guide through the wilderness but in a point the right direction now you find it yourself sense of a guide.

  8. I’m kind of laughing that I casually tossed out a label (Liahona Mormon) assuming that it was commonly understood–when it appears that it’s not so common anymore. I don’t know what label that puts me under! But the Richard Poll essay was one of my earliest encounters with the possibility that there might be room for people like me in the church, so it has stuck in my mind.

    Also, I have to love that our resident Iron Rod Atheist immediately recognized the term.

    I agree with the general sentiment here that labels are a lot more useful if they’re ones used by the people in question, as opposed to a categorization by outsiders. And I really appreciate Jes’s point that they can be a real problem if they make you assume that you don’t want to get to know someone based on a label. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of that–but when I think about it, I’d have missed out on knowing some pretty cool people if our differences had scared me off.

    Dave, I sometimes describe ZD as apostate. Not necessarily because I think it is, but I don’t want anyone to come here thinking it’s anything like And that way people can be pleasantly surprised when they find some faithful stuff here. 😉


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