This past Sunday I spoke about perserving our history while remaining true to the present, and trying to look forward to see what might be around the corner. I used the word “conservative” to describe the work of historians. Then, at this week’s Wednesday morning Lectio Divina Bible study, the issue of labels came up. One person mentioned “conservative” and “liberal” perspectives in relation to an issue we were discussing. Another responded something to the effect of, “I try not to use labels because there is no way any one label can fully describe someone.”
It made me think. Labels, which are often broad generalizations at best, are not always helpful. The words “conservative,” “liberal”, and even “progressive” have a lot of baggage around them these days, and they are thrown around in different contexts to mean different things. And in the spirit of that response, I realize I am at times a liberal-conservative-progressive, and sometimes a progressive-conservative-liberal.
I used “conservative” on Sunday in its original etymological meaning: to conserve, preserve, remember. As I have understood the term, conservative is the tendency to conserve or preserve things, to not move too fast to adopt the “new” or “innovative.” The term “liberal” typically refers to a perspective that welcomes many perspectives, learning to appreciate the gifts each has to offer without the need to judge positively or negatively. The focus of liberalism is to seek understanding, regardless of agreement, in order to discover hidden insights. And, of course, “progressive” is the tendency to want to improve what is and discover the new or rediscover the old in a new way. I’m sure there are other ways of looking at these words, but this is generally how I have come to understand them and use them.
Some use these labels as either self-identifiers or accusations of incorrect thinking, depending on which camp you mostly find yourself. Either way, there is a lot of baggage around these labels, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to use them to express what we might be thinking.
For instance, I am conservative in many ways as I look to the past and recognize truths that our ancestors have discovered and responded to in certain ways, and sometimes feel we have lost sight of their discernment which clouds our view of the present. We can learn from old and ancient ways, mimicking them at times and learning the consequences of their storied decisions, or learning from former mistakes. I am a liberal in the sense that I do, despite what some may say about me, try to understand other perspectives regardless of where or not I agree with the perspective. I may argue for or against a perspective, but my goal is also to seek deeper understanding beyond the issue of agreement. And while I seek to preserve the past to better understand the present, I try to broaden my understanding of diverse perspectives and ways of being and doing (past and present), and tend to lean toward the “innovative” to try new things and discover new ways of being and doing that might produce fruit. I cannot fully put myself in any of these camps, and not sure I really want to.
I appreciate the push back on these labels, and I think I need to be more careful about when, how, or whether I use them. It’s cumbersome to use a label and then have to always qualify it. At the same time, labels are how our human brains work. We categorize things in order to wrap our minds around them. This is how we make meaning out of otherwise chaotic and confusing circumstances. I’m not sure we need new labels, so much as we might need longer, more intentional, and deeper conversations across the labelled boundaries we’ve drawn. After all, the purpose of labels is not to “define” people, but to better understand them.
I invite you to comment on your experience around labels and how we might better communicate with one another. Thanks for reading!