129 How name-calling helps by letting off steam 23 Jul 2021

The threat

Story 1, mental threat

Picture a child in a psychiatrist’s office describing a terrifying tiger nightmare in which the child is about to be eaten. Picture that the good doctor says, “That sounds like the tiger in my dreams when I was little.” When the child asks, “You mean you didn't get eaten?” the doctor replies, “Oh no. I grew up and the tiger just went away on his own.”

The doctor is giving the child a coping mechanism. If the child can identify with the doctor and give the tiger some disarming label, the child finds an avenue through the distress. There is a comfort to grasp, whether completely rational or not. It is the emotion, not the science, behind the label that provides the comfort.

Story 2, physical threat

When I was small, my father took my brother and me, one under each arm, to the window during a lightning storm. He explained that this was a high energy spark that would find targets other than our house. We were close to the phenomenon, where we could see that we were indeed shielded by the structures (tall trees) around us.

In contrast, one of my schoolmates told a different story. His father said, “That's just God lighting up a cigarette.” Here I must digress to point out that if somebody had said that to me, I would have felt my world coming to an end with the thought that God was a smoker. I suppose this friend's father did smoke, and the association was endurable for my friend. At any rate the technique sufficed to give my friend some mental image of reassurance. My father taught with science; my friend’s father taught with fable. Both stories were successful in calming the children.

Story 3, abstract threat

One of my Sunday School teachers, taking a role like that of the above doctor, told us how she had worried about how Adam came to be on earth. She was addressing our likely doubts about spontaneous generation, sharing what had helped her over the same hurdle. She had learned the pat answer that Adam was transplanted, and God did not make something out of nothing. Already the iconoclast, I asked her after class how Adam came to be in the place from which he was transplanted. If reproduction there were anything like it is here, that was just pushing the question back an unknown number of generations. She had still not identified the origin of humans.

The above paragraph deals with a formidable threat. Some people accept nothing that they cannot explain in full detail. Until they have what they consider the irrefutable answer, they deny the question. I am challenged to provide a coping mechanism for this third story. I choose the label of “conservation,” the process by which matter can be turned into energy (combustion) and energy can be turned into matter (photosynthesis) without being created or destroyed. I use a steady-state picture of the universe, saying that we are on a stage that already exists and always has. Neither we nor the world around us was ever created. Everything simply exists without explanation. We are limited to learning about the changes that existing things can experience. Using that coping mechanism, I have regarded myself learned when I can reasonably manage outcomes without knowing all the origins.

This epistemological (theory of knowledge) coping mechanism is the hybrid between the science of conservation of matter and energy and the fairy tale of transplantational creationism. I attempt to make reality logical to someone from either camp. It is like the first two stories. The observer gets no absolute super-power over the threat but does appreciate some satisfactory way of labelling the world. The relief is not objective, but rather subjective or apparent.

The lesson

In article 128 I roundly condemned name-calling in any form that could apply to humans and their activities. When humans are strongly conditioned against the word “socialism” that word becomes a label that bars any uncomfortable possibility. Today I am discussing something else, namely, non-human labels and abstractions. Labels we attach to dreams or natural phenomena are not the pejorative name-calling I was trying to eliminate in the previous article. Here I am recognizing the importance that can be attached to disarming labels of a different sort.

When a label is a coping mechanism, it is not measured by its objectivity. Dream-classifying the tiger is neither pejorative nor conclusive. The label becomes dangerous only when we use it as a substitute for an eventual real solution. In other words, if the child does not grow up and outgrow the tiger nightmares, or if the young boy feels immune to lightning and stands up in a rowboat during a thunderstorm, there can be bad consequences. To be beneficial, the label must only be a crutch that gets us to a more lasting understanding. It works if it keeps us calm while we learn what is really going on and what we should do about it.

For example, the placebo effect is scientific: it is demonstrated to have measurable temporary influence on health events. There is a similar example from religion. If parents pray over impressionable children, that forms an association pattern that later becomes a coping mechanism to get a patient through difficult treatments. The religious label usefully triggers an expectation of healing. Just as the placebo is not a permanent cure, there are physical conditions like burst appendix that are better treated long-term with physical intervention than with prayerful expectations. The labels have value according to how and how long we use them.

Fable to science

In article 128 I forbade saying “They don’t understand.” It is a label that shifts the stigma of ignorance to some “other” party. However, if hiding behind the label is a crutch that avoids immediate bloodshed, it might keep the parties at safe distance through a crisis. When people tell me that I don’t understand, if that takes the pressure off them, I am better off for being thus labelled. As we continue coexisting, I have a chance of demonstrating that I do understand—or at least that the discussion will bring me (and them) to understanding. That is better than a hostile rejection by me that triggers blind rage in them. In short, if the superficial name-calling crutch helps, be my guest—but do outgrow it eventually! Understanding and healing begin as the label fades into disuse.

Image by Christoph from Pixabay

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A label can be a coping mechanism, a comfort, whether rational or not. The threats can be mental, physical, or abstract. A neutralizing label seems to disarm the unknown. Relief is not objective, but rather subjective or apparent. Temporary belief in the label can have a calming effect, much as a placebo has, to allow understanding to develop over time. Damage follows from pejorative labels or labels that are not eventually set aside as reality prevails.

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