Saturday, July 23, 2011


  Anders Behring Breivik

     What took place in Norway yesterday was a tragedy of the first order. At least 92 people were killed, between the bomb planted near the prime minister's office building in Oslo and the shootings at the youth camp outside of the city that was organized by the ruling Labor party in Norway.
     A 32-year old Norwegian man has been detained by police, who have so far revealed nothing about the man's motives. A newspaper has identified him as Anders Behring Breivik, who is described as tall, blond, and blue-eyed.
     So far, I have no problem with this identification. Name, age, and even general appearance, are standard in journalism, although in some countries the full name is excluded, and only the initials can be used until the person has been convicted.
    What does concern me, however, are some of the labels that have been used thus far in this story. Immediately after the bombing it was rumored that an Islamist group was responsible. A Kurdish leader, who was being deported from Norway, was also mentioned as a possible suspect, since he had threatened to kill those who were deporting him.
    In both cases, Muslims received the blame before there was any evidence to support these claims.
    Now that the prime suspect has been identified and charged, new labels have been used. The police have labeled Anders Breivik as a "right-wing Christian fundamentalist." On Breivik's Facebook page, according to police, "he describes himself as a Christian, leaning toward right-wing Christianity."
    For me, this police description raises several issues:
    1. Why call Breivik "right-wing"? He leans toward "right-wing Christianity," but does that make him "right-wing"? What difference does it make whether someone is "right-wing" or "left-wing," especially when it comes to violence? Even if he turns out to have extreme "right wing" views, does that explain this massacre?
    2. What does "Christian" mean in this context. It sounds like a label to me, similar to "Muslim." It is one thing for people to identify themselves as "Christian" or "Muslim," but when others use these terms, they become labels that can be, and too often are, pejorative. I, for one, am unhappy to have Christ's name associated with this massacre.
    3. Where did the term "fundamentalist" come from? This was not part of Breiivik's self-identification as revealed by the police. This term is nearly always pejorative. It is an additional label that is unnecessary, except to intensify the negative and pejorative aspects of "right-wing" and "Christian."
    4. Why use such labels at all? Does being a "right-wing Christian" help to explain why Breivik made a six-ton bomb out of the fertilizer that he had purchased legitimately? Does it help us to understand better why he dressed as a policeman and started shooting people at the youth camp? What difference would it have made if he had been "left-wing" or a "Muslim" or anything else for that matter?
    We all use labels everyday, but often with negative intentions. In addition to those already mentioned, labels like "conservative," "liberal," "socialist," "Jew," "Hindu," "queer," "feminist," "black," white," "young," "old," etc, are used to disparage others. They serve little purpose except to demean the intended group. You may add your own examples.
    Instead of trying to capture what we have in common, labels tend to divide people. Labeling stems from an attitude of "us" vs. "them." Rarely do we use labels in a positive way to endorse people or positions.
    Journalists are among the worst offenders. Journalism tends to simplify issues, and labels are a convenient way do so. Anders Breivik is a "right-wing Christian fundamentalist." End of story for the moment.
    Tomorrow the full story of why Breivik did this may come out. Then again, we may never fully understand.
    If Breivik is psychotic or declared mentally incompetent, we may never get a rational explanation. Instead, in lieu of anything better, we will continue to be barraged by labels.
    By their very nature, labels help to fit people like Breivik into the short segments that TV news requires. Newspapers too must chop up the news into bite-sized fragments that can be read while taking the train or bus to work.
    What happened in Norway was truly a tragedy, but labeling does not help us to understand the nature of this tragedy. It oversimplifies or even distorts the news. It serves as a cheap substitute for the real news. It is a convenient tool of lazy journalists when they have little else to report.
    There are countless other examples of such labeling everyday. Let us not fall into the same trap when we repeat these labels. Instead, let us demand that our news sources stop the practice.
    I don't want to get into what sociologists term "labeling theory," but this theory does help explain the practice of labeling.
    Let us above all refrain from using labels ourselves to pigeonhole others. A label is appropriate, of course, when used as a self description by an individual or a group. Even then, labels are reductive, reducing individuals or groups to a certain characteristic, such as "old."
    For example, it is one thing if I describe myself as "old" (although I know that I am not), it is very different when others label me as such. But I am more than just "old." I possess many characteristics, of which age is only one.
    Let us avoid labels ourselves. In the Breivik case, let us reject the labels that have been used. No one, neither Breivik himself nor his victims and their families, is helped by such labeling.
   I have no intention of condoning Breivik's behavior and actions. This crime is reprehensible. His motives, when they are revealed, will perhaps shed new light on the horrific nature of this tragedy, but labels will not help. I am not exonerating him; I am only raising questions about the usefulness of labeling.
   The childhood saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," is blatantly false. Names, in the form of labels, can and do hurt.

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