Looking at history we know that Martin Luther loved to go on a good name calling rant. In his treatise “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” for example, he referred to his opponents as “you popish flatterers,” “heretics and godless schismatics,” the “Antichrist,” “from the lowest dregs of people,” and the writings of one as “the filth of this vile-smelling cloaca.” And this was when he was in a good mood!
In early American history, John Adams was ridiculed as “His Rotundity” for having “sesquipedality of belly.” One senator referred to him as “vain, jealous, and [with] a half-frantic mind.” Thomas Paine called George Washington a “hypocrite in public life,” and one who was an “apostate” and an “imposter.” Jefferson was accused of being a coward. James Madison was called “His Littleness.” For his part, candidate Abraham Lincoln was called a “long armed ape” and worse. As President he was regularly insulted and called an “idiot” and the “original gorilla.” But, he could also give as well as he could take.
Take it back even further into history. It was in Antioch that believers were first called Christians, which was meant as an insult but was then adopted as a truth statement. Jesus himself called the Pharisees “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” and “whitewashed tombs,” not to mention the way he regularly insulted them through his parables. John the Baptist called the crowd that came to see him a “brood of vipers.” Not very seeker-sensitive, is it? The Old Testament prophets called those under judgment “harlot,” “cows” (referring to corrupt women), “dogs,” and far worse.
So, what gives? Is name calling a good thing? Is labeling someone always a bad thing? Some thoughts:
n Name calling (or labels, if you prefer), may be accurate and appropriate. Sometimes you have to call someone what they are. That is, the label or name may accurately and even appropriately describe the person, his attitude, actions, or beliefs. I take it that all the Biblical examples fall here! Often labels and names are worn proudly. There are plenty of people who are more than willing to identify themselves as liberal, fundamentalist, as a tree-hugger, or a redneck. In this case people are self identifying as such, so the label is fair game. Still, probably no one would want to identify with the vast majority or pejorative terms being thrown around today.
n Having said that, name calling and much labeling are more often than not a result of lazy thinking. It is a whole lot easier just to label and put someone in a box than it is to listen to their opinions and arguments and then present your own intelligently and patiently. When we are lazy we:
o Get defensive, often because we either haven’t thought through our position well or are a little insecure about said position. That can lead to name calling.
o Resort to insults and name calling because we haven’t even tried (and don’t want) to understand our opponent’s position.
o Lump and dump our opponents into pre-determined categories. It’s just the easiest thing to do – pin a label on someone, whether or not it really fits them. Worse, don’t even bother to define the label.
n Name calling also confuses opinion with personhood. Too often we simply say “that guy is an idiot” rather than “I disagree with his position because . . . .” Or, “she is blanket-blank so and so. How can she call herself a (Christian, American, patriot, woman, whatever) and believe that” rather than “I believe she is wrong because . . . .” See the difference? The first approach denigrates the person and immediately puts an end to any further discussion. The second approach respects the person but clearly points out that there is a disagreement in opinion. Note how the most popular way to discount a person in our culture right now is by the use of the word “hater.” All someone has to do is have a slight disagreement or offer a tiny bit of criticism and they are automatically labeled a hater, or worse, an intolerant bigot. That just dismisses the person and gives no room for honest discussion.
n Be careful in the use of descriptive labels. So, to borrow from Rodney King (younger folks, Google it), “Can we all just get along?” Well, no, not really. In this world there are legitimate reasons to disagree and disagree passionately. I believe there is such a thing as absolute and objective truth, and not merely subjective opinions. That means there is definitely a need for honest, open, and often firm and passionate discussion and disagreement. That does sometimes call for the use of descriptive labels – they can be useful, accurate, and necessary. It does not give us an excuse to be vulgar, hyper-critical, lazy in our thinking, or just a plain old jerk. Descriptive labels should be clearly defined and the person labeled should be able to either accept it or show why it is inappropriate. There is little or no room, however, for vulgar, dismissive, personhood attacking language that simply shuts down conversation.
No, the answer is not a phony, sugary sweet Pollyanna attitude as some Christians would suppose. Yuck! The answer is listening first, humility in firmness, truth in love, respect when disagreeing, kind words when appropriate, and a closed mouth much of the time. Now, let me look in the mirror and go to work on me.