Libel by Label

Dick Dewhirst
Pekin, Indiana

To libel is to expose to public ridicule or contempt, or to injure the reputation, without the public welfare in mind. As used here, "label" means a descriptive word or phrase applied to a person, group, theory, etc., as a convenient generalized classification.

As a boy in northern Ohio I heard my first label applied. It was "Sommerite." I didn't know what one was, but I knew I was "again" it. I knew that to be a "Sommerite" was even worse than to be a "Denominationalist" or a "Sectarian." The "Sommerite" ought to know better. The "Denominationalist" and the "Sectarian," whatever they were, did not know any better. So there was some excuse for them, but I never was sure, as a child, what the excuse was. Through the years succeeding these, church trouble was caused everybody everywhere by the "Sommerites." When a church did not grow, they were to blame. When one split, "they" did it. It was a very convenient arrangement. I have marvelled since how strong were my convictions against people I had never met and didn't understand.

Today, other boys feel as strongly about me, for I am an "Anti," concerning which there is nothing worse. "Antis" are "hobby riders" and "trouble makers." They split churches and do not believe in "cooperation." They don't even think you can preach on the radio; they are opposed to radio preaching. They are also against recreation and "fellowship," not to mention "benevolence" and "our" Bible schools and orphan's homes. They are a thoroughly bad lot. Chances are these boys will never listen to me. I've been libeled with a label.

Conversely, another label is applied. This label "Liberal." Actually, it is not a very fair term, except as applied to a specific doctrinal dispute. It is not simply a convenient generalized classification, for it has implied libelous overtones, just as "Anti" has. Neither is suitable for one who wishes to define and discuss a proposition. As labels, however, both are terrific.

But what is the job that labels do? Are we content with their results? I, for one, am not. For they have the following effects, none of which are desirable.

Sacking vs. Sorting

To sack is to throw everyone into one of two big bags. One is labeled "Anti," the other "Liberal." Then one conveniently attributes to everyone in the "Anti-Sack," or the "Liberal-Sack," every extreme, hurtful, damaging position, or human failing, of every other person in that sack. To sort is to appreciate the fact that PEOPLE cannot be sacked and to be fair enough to let each man's work stand for itself. I am convinced we need more sorters and fewer sackers.

Discounting vs. Discussing

I lower, in my eyes, every opponent I label. If I label him before I "hear him out" I may never really hear him at all. What I think he is shuts out his words. I have put discount prices on his views. If I discuss with him at all, I do not seriously try to understand his thinking. After all, he is a "Liberal," or an "Anti," as the case may be. What can he possibly know about the matter at hand?

Libeling vs. Loving

Today we got a letter. At one point it said, "We do not subscribe to any of the current hobbies such as opposition to orphan homes, and are anxious to cooperate with other congregations in good works." The writer labeled his opponents "hobbiests." (Sic.) He implied they opposed "cooperation." He labeled himself "for cooperation" and "good works." In one word, he said his opponents were wrong, bigoted, and exceedingly active in publishing their views. Because they are his opposition and he believes in "cooperation' and "good works," they must not. Has he been fair? Or has he libeled with the labels, "hobbies"," "cooperation," and "good works?" You be the judge.

Prejudice vs. Proof

Both "Anti" and "Liberal" predispose the mind, either favorably or otherwise. They define nothing and contribute nothing to understanding. They are not becoming to the serious student who loves the souls of his brethren. Let us give proof of one's behavior and let the receiver of the proof apply what name he will to the spirit which produced it.

Our religious neighbors have learned how to use prejudice against us. They tell people, "The church of Christ teaches all people in other churches will be lost." They could just as easily say, "The church of Christ teaches Christ will only save the church." If they did, much of the prejudice on this point would disappear.

The letter, quoted above, could have said, "We do not subscribe to the views of those who oppose orphan homes..." We would have known where he stood. We could have categorized those who do oppose orphan homes for ourselves.

On "CANDID CAMERA," June 17th, adjacent phone booths were labeled "MEN" and "WOMEN." The "MEN" booth was kept occupied, the "WOMEN" booth, open. The effect? NO MAN WOULD ENTER IT. It had been labeled, marked "off limits to men," and stigmatized. No self-respecting "man" would enter a "woman's" phone booth! I laughed as they showed this film; it was hilarious. Then I thought of my brethren, and I cried.

Truth Magazine VII: 9, pp. 12-13
June 1963