There is a strain among certain traditionalist conservatives to eschew the use of labels. It’s not so much that they don’t use labels, or they wouldn’t call themselves traditionalist conservatives, but they seem to fear that labels are not only not helpful, but positively deleterious. I think the problem with labels as they see it, are that they tend to dehumanize and are used in a way to dismiss others who don’t agree with you.
I first heard this from a cousin of mine not too long ago when he said he doesn’t believe in right and left anymore, that such a continuum isn’t helpful and that it distorts more than it clarifies. I never got into his reasons for this, but he’s more of a libertarian, so I don’t think he was real worried about the potentially dehumanizing nature of labels. But I came across this again in a piece by my good friend Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative. Something I hadn’t reflected on much before and something he comments on in his piece is the obsessions people on the political/cultural right have for trying to find terms that define them:
In the movement today–in and around TIC–much debate exists over terms. Winston despises the term “libertarian.” John Willson has renounced the term “conservative”, as has, at times, Mike Church. Willson, especially, has embraced the term “traditionalist.” Church prefers “[r]epublican.” Peter Lawler is “post-modern” as are Gerald Russello and Pete Blum. Dan McCarthy calls himself a “Tory Anarchist.” Jim Otteson calls himself a “classical liberal.” Steve Horwitz, Aeon Skoble, and Robert Higgs readily identify with anarchism. Sarah Skwire is a humane libertarian. Patrick Deneen is a “Front Porcher.”
You would never see this kind of thing on the political/cultural left. Conservatives tend toward too many internecine quarrels over purity, whereas modern liberals all believe in benevolent government and the more of it the better. Anything that gets us to a thoroughly secular, European style welfare state, they’re on board. Right now they toggle between liberal and progressive, but that’s about it.
Those conservatives who disdain labeling their opponents appear to be trying to be “Christian” toward those who disagree with them. That’s all well and good, but they shouldn’t pretend that their way is the only way for a Christian to act and be truly Christian—Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus Christ Himself ought to provide more than sufficient refutation of that notion. Nor should these individuals delude themselves into thinking that such “restraint” on their part will cause the other side to stop its labeling and explicit contempt. It has never done so, and it never will. The latest presidential campaign is only the latest example that the modern liberal labeling express is alive and well, and winning elections. The refusal to characterize others’ ideas for exactly what they are will accomplish exactly nothing.