Hi Mike. Thank you for your excellent, thoughtful comments and my apologies for not being able to respond to you earlier.
I agree with you that people can and do use labels in positive ways. You use the term “Communities of belonging” and observe that “Belonging to a community establishes identity, and identity is therefore inextricably linked with labels.” I think this is an accurate description of much of human behavior. I agree with you that humans have a need to belong and a need for an identity. I grant that many people fulfill those needs by adopting a label and joining a community of one kind or another that is centered on that label. My challenge is to the presumption that because people do find comfort in a label, that means it is a moral and psychological good for them to do so. I think we need to avoid an is/ought fallacy about labels.
If we agree that there is a “need to belong” then the questions are “what is belonging for (what does it do) and what is it to which one is belonging?” If it is belonging for its own sake, then any group or any label will do and people need only find whatever label/group is convenient and/or expedient. I suspect this is what most people do. They don’t want to feel isolated and alone so they join a group. Sure, they pick a group based on some sense of common interests or geographic access, but is it deeply meaningful or just arbitrary? They would say they are belonging to a community but are they? Are they belonging to anything more than a label? Are they receiving anything more than a label of convenience? A fig leaf for their feelings of isolation and aloneness?
I think that the human need that we can call “belonging” is actually the need to be accepted and loved. Further, I think there is a huge difference between community and friendship. I contend that everything one can claim is a positive that comes from belonging to a community is actually coming from individual friends within that community, not the community itself. One receives belonging, acceptance, and a sense of identity from true friends. One does not receive that from a community. One doesn’t receive recognition, love, and acceptance from “I am a New Yorker” or “I am a Christian.” One receives those important needs from friends who may live in New York and may share the Christian faith.
And that’s part of why I raised the issue of labels as a problem. A community can be labeled, a friendship cannot. To say “I am a New Yorker” or “I am a Christian” is perfectly legitimate, but in no way do I need to also be a New Yorker or Christian to recognize you as a person worthy of respect and rights. We can even be friends. I’m from a small town in Minnesota. My wife is from Chicago. We joke about the differences between being “Minnesotan” and “Chicagoan” but we didn’t need to join one of those two communities and adopts its label to have the accepting and loving relationship we have. The point is that labels do nothing in themselves and they are incapable of giving acceptance and love, which we could call “belonging.”
You also talk about boundaries which is very important, and I think you are correct in what you say that a community sets boundaries as to who is in and outside of the community and that labels help with that. Respectfully, I can’t agree with your assessment of boundaries, which I find to be too sanguine. I agree that the discussion within Christianity as to what it means to be a Christian has been helpful in establishing a sense of identity and meaning. A sense of “this, not that” is necessary for issues of meaning, especially moral ones. But those are conceptual boundaries which I argue are quite different from the clearly defined boundaries of “we are Christians and you are not.” What I mean is that a discussion about whether being a Christian means being a pacifist is quite different from declarations of who is or is not part of the community. I mentioned in my article about labels being used as a cudgel and it is to these declarations that I refer. “You don’t believe X, so you are not one of us,” is deeply problematic and arguably counter to what Christianity is supposed to be about. I definitely have to dissent from your statement that “well defined boundaries give those who need it a safe and secure sense of belonging” because I absolutely disagree with the rest of your sentence, “while leaving other options open to others with different needs.” I respectfully respond that well-defined boundaries, by definition, do not leave open other options and point to, as proof, the history of religious, ethnic, and political conflicts. Well-defined boundaries give only an illusion of security and belonging. Those boundaries, or labels, are cudgels, or at best double-edged swords, that can be quickly turned on someone to remove a sense of belonging.
I sense that part of what you are saying is that the discussion about labels is a discussion about meaning and that is what makes labels a positive for people. I agree with you except that I believe that we can discuss meaning, acceptance, identity, and belonging without resorting to labels in a normative sense. We have to use labels (words) in a descriptive sense, but we invent and use words as we need and I side with those who warn that we shouldn’t confuse the sign with what is signified. If that is true, then all labels are ultimately meaningless and only point to what is real and I rather like that idea. When labels become too real, they obscure what is actually real.
To conclude, I think that every positive that comes from belonging is not coming from labels and community but from something better and more profound. People using labels are blocking their own awareness of those more profound positives.
Thank you again for excellent comments that provoked such great discussion. Feel free to continue, if you wish.