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.