Negative Labels

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We use the phrase negative labels to refer to negative words used to directly describe a person, group of people, or some other entity. These can include nouns, like saying a person is an idiot or a racist, or adjectives, like saying a person is stupid or uncooperative. We have also understood negative labels to also encompass constructions like "he was being uncooperative".

Attaching negative labels to people or groups of people is prohibited under our rules of communication; in order to communicate within the rules, people need to limit their attaching of negative labels (adjectives or nouns) to people's actions or words. Although not expressly prohibited, we recommend exercising caution with applying negative labels to a person's beliefs, as a person's beliefs can be intensely personal, and/or more strongly tied to their sense of self than individual words or actions.

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Applying negative labels to beliefs

Although our rules of communication only directly prohibit applying negative labels to people or groups of people, we are also cautious about applying negative labels to people's beliefs, especially when the people are present, but even when they are not.

Negative labels implying something that breaks the rules of communication

In many cases, attaching a negative label to a person's beliefs can come across as a personal attack, through implication. For example, statements like: "I think that belief is idiotic" or "I think that belief is bigoted" are likely to come across as implying that a person holding the belief is an idiot or a bigot. As calling a person an idiot or bigot would break our rules, we consider it more within the spirit of our rules to avoid using such terms to apply to a person's beliefs.

Sometimes, labels applied to beliefs can imply a certain degree of analysis, implying something about a person's thoughts, beliefs, or motivations, which would break our rules. An example would be if a person referred to a belief as homophobic, when the belief itself did not directly reference or involve fear of homosexuals or homosexuality. In this case, the label homophobic implies that the people who hold the belief are motivated by fear, and, because a statement to this effect would break our rules of communication, we would consider it more within the spirit of our rules to avoid such a label.

Another problematic use of negative labels is when people say a belief is "wrong". The use of the word wrong, besides being more likely to come across as rude or abrasive, is also imprecise as it does not distinguish between something being incorrect or untrue, vs. something being considered morally wrong.

Alternatives to using negative labels

A negative label, whether applied to a person or a belief, can be viewed as a shorthand or simplification. In order to avoid using such labels, we encourage people to give more extended explanations or reasoning about why a person feels uncomfortable with a certain belief, or thinks that a certain belief is problematic.

  • Instead of saying: "I think that belief is bigoted." a person could say: "I think that belief is problematic because it seems to favor such-and-such group of people over this other group, giving them special treatment or rights, and that goes against my beliefs."
  • Instead of saying: "I think that belief is idiotic." one could say: "I find that belief hard to understand; it doesn't fit with my understanding of the world, and I've never heard reasoning in support of it that seemed rational to me."
  • Instead of saying "I think that is wrong.", one could say: "I don't think that is true." or "I don't hold that belief."

These examples are more within the spirit of our rules, because they involve I statements that take responsibility for the subjectivity of the speaker's perspective, and they also give more explanation rather than using a negative label.

What do we consider negative?

Sometimes there is no consensus on whether a label is negative, positive, or neutral. For example, the word alcoholic could be used as a negative label, but it could also be used by someone to describe themselves in a way that they do not necessarily see as negative, as in the "I am an alcoholic" narrative used in Alcoholics Anonymous. Other labels, like religious can have a positive connotation to one person and a negative to another.

When a person is applying a label to another person, if the person being labelled considers the label negative, we consider this a breach of the rules. When labelling a person not present, we consider an objection from any person that the label might be construed as negative.

When a person applies a label to themselves, however, it is not sufficient for one person present to consider the label negative. These situations exist in a gray area, which can sometimes break our rules of communication, but do not necessarily always do so. Often, how we respond to these uses depends on how they relate to other rules and to the spirit of our group. For example, if a person called themselves Christian, and another person interpreted that as a negative label, we would not consider it a negative label because we would want to respect the person's self-identification. However, if a person said: "I'm socially awkward," this label would be problematic because it breaks other rules, characterizing the person as strictly socially awkward rather than acknowledging the shades of gray inherent in how all people act more awkwardly in some situations and more gracefully in others.