Negatively Labeling Political Groups Based On The Actions Of A Few

labeling cognitive distortion face

This is a common occurrence in politics.

It’s so common, no one seems to care how twisted the logic is. If a member of a political movement acts out of line, the opposition will rush to vilify the entire movement on the basis of that one member.

This is what’s called Labeling. It’s one of many cognitive distortions that I’ve discussed here on The Political Informer.

But it’s more complex than just evaluating a group on the mistakes of a few.

Here’s what I mean…

The Theory of Labels

Labeling theory was originally introduced by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, in his 1897 book, Suicide. His book was the first methodological look into social control and integration in society. His approach was to study the levels of suicide among Protestants and Catholics.

Other key figures of labeling theory include; George Herbert Mead, an American philosopher during the late 1800s, and one of the founders of social interactionism; Frank Tannenbaum, was an early 1900 criminologist, who’s 1938 book Crime and Community proved pivotal to modern criminology; Edwin Lemert, sociologist, and introducer of the main concepts of labeling theory; and Howard Becker, who’s 1963 Outsiders became the manifesto of labeling theory.

Deviance VS Normalcy (Minority VS Majority)

It was Becker who theorized about how deviants are created in society, and how they interact with non-deviants.

Deviants, he described, are those who fail to follow the stated or unstated rules of society. They are the outsiders, the ones who fail to fit in, and are labeled as outsiders because of their behavior.

A key result of labeling is creating outsiders.

For instance, look at the divides between libertarians and conservatives. Many conservatives see libertarians as crazy outsiders. Libertarians accrue that label because some of them legitimately are nuts, but the misconstrued label attaches that exception to the overall group.  On the other hand, many libertarians see conservatives as complacent and controlling. As you’ll see further on, these divides and labels create increased hostilities. Neither side completely respects the other.

In the relation between minorities and majorities, French-Tunisian essayist Albert Memmi describes the pressure a lesser group can feel from a larger one. In The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), Memmi says…

“The longer the oppression lasts, the more profoundly it affects him (the oppressed). It ends by becoming so familiar to him that he believes it is part of his own constitution, that he accepts it and could not imagine his recovery from it. This acceptance is the crowning point of oppression.”

For the victims of social stigma and labels, inflicted on them by the social majority, it can eventually interlock with their self-identity causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Howard Becker, in Outsiders, described this self-fulfilling prophecy as one where the deviant motivation comes from the deviant behavior that earned him the label from the normal majority.

Tannenbaum, in Crime and Community, found that negative labels often contributed to further criminal activities.

The social majority enforces a certain set of rules that, once broken by someone, result in ostracization and vilification. The longer those negative labels persist, the higher the chances are of that individual continuing down their divergent path.

Labeling creates more of what it’s supposed to stop.

Increase in Hostilities

In Feeling Good, David Burns describes how easily hostilities can increase between two people once labeling is involved…

When you label other people, you will invariably generate hostility. A common example is the boss who sees his occasionally irritable secretary as “an uncooperative bitch.” Because of this label, he resents her and jumps at every chance to criticize her. She, in turn, labels him an “insensitive chauvinist” and complains about him at every opportunity. So, around and around they go at each other’s throats, focusing on every weakness or imperfection as proof of the other’s worthlessness.

Some common examples of this in the political arena are labeling groups you don’t agree with “domestic terrorists,” claiming your political opponents have malicious intentions, and labeling opponents as arrogant and closed minded.

The Tea Party was labeled by liberals as a domestic terrorist group, and Black Lives Matter was labeled the same by conservatives. The Right tends to assume that the left is emotionally charged and irrational all the time.

Both sides think the other has malicious intentions. For republicans, they think democrats are trying to enslave Americans with welfare. For democrats, they think republicans hate poor people by removing welfare.

These labels create barriers against honest conversations. And the longer you believe in these labels, the more you get indoctrinated. You become so entrenched in the label you put on them that you become closed minded and bigoted.


How does it help further the conversation when you label your opponent a “domestic terrorist group”? Ignoring the irony and naivety of such a label (especially if you’re a Tea Partier), how is it helpful?

Do you think they’ll see the error of their ways? Do you think it’ll make their allies think twice before supporting them?

I doubt it.

If anything, your labels will push them farther into “outsider” territory. They’ll become more and more radical and militant.

It’s the same principle when you interact with self-proclaimed rebels. Is labeling them “disobedient,” “rebellious,” and “degenerate” going to push them away from their rebel ways?

As someone who’s been at the end of such labels, it won’t. It’s an incentive to be more radical.

There’s a reason why labeling is a cognitive distortion. It affects the mental views of both accused and accuser. The accuser eventually can’t move past the straw man they created in their head. And the accused is incentivized to become more radical in their behavior.

Labeling is a lose-lose situation for all.

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About John-Pierre Maeli

Keeping it simple and crystal clear, because anything else is useless. I'm here to not only inform you, but to also connect with you. That's what The Political Informer is all about. Feel free to follow me on either Twitter or Google+ Let's talk!

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