Alright people, here we go…on labels! (apollo, this one’s for you.)

  • Labels of preference
    • These are the labels anyone can just pick for themselves. “Awesome”, “feminist”, and “Abba fan” are all labels of preference. You just pick one, apply it to yourself, and no one can say you’re wrong! These labels aren’t owned by any organization, so they mean whatever you want them to mean.
  • Labels of significance
    • These are labels a person must earn, like “doctor”, “lawyer”, and “cosmetologist”. Labels of significance are “owned” by an organization, like the American Medical Association owns “doctor” (at least in America). In order to acquire a label of significance, a person has to meet the qualifications set by the body that owns that label.
  • Labels of organization
    • These labels are used internally within organizations, like “sergeant”, “project manager”, and “Relief Society President”. These labels don’t signify things a person has done, but rather point at the things that person will be doing. They are labels of convenience, and generally identify roles and responsibilities a person will carry within an organization.

Sometimes heated discussions ensue over the proper application of labels, like, say, whether someone really is a “feminist”, a “mother”…or a “Mormon”. Usually these debates are painful and fruitless because the parties are arguing about labels of preference as though they were actually labels of significance.

So what kind of label is “Mormon”?

It’s easiest to approach as a label of organization — from that perspective, anyone whose name is on the church rolls is a Mormon (and everyone else is not).

Is it also a label of significance? No. No one “owns” the word Mormon, and no one can stop you from calling yourself one. The one related label of significance that comes to my mind is “temple-worthy Mormon”. In that case, the label does signify that certain qualifications are met by the person who holds the label. Of course, not all the people labeled temple-worthy are actually temple-worthy, but then again neither do all doctors actually meet the qualifications of being a doctor — what matters, from the label’s perspective, is that there are qualifications and that meeting those qualifications results in some tangible privilege (temple attendance, in this case).

The question, then, is, is “Mormon” a label of preference? I think it is, in the same sense that “buddhist” or “taoist” are. I have two friends who are active members of the church who refer to themselves as a “buddhist Mormon” and a “taoist Mormon”, and for them the words “buddhist” and “taoist” express preferences beyond those that are just held in the organizational label of “Mormon”.

I’m told that the word “muslim”, in its literal sense, means “one who submits”, and that anyone who submits to the will of God, whether or not as an actual adherent to Islam, is, in that sense, a muslim. With these labels, there’s a sense that being “buddhist”, “taoist”, or “muslim” connotes a way of being, one that’s not necessarily strictly confined to a religion. So, in addition to the organizational label of “Mormon”, I think there’s a preference label of “mormon”.

So what does being “mormon” connote? If a Catholic friend of yours said, “I’m a mormon Catholic”, what would that mean? Of course, as with any label of preference, there’s no final answer — figuring it out through discussion is the fun. That said, here’s my definition for “mormon” (with echoes from Joseph and Brigham): a mormon is one who is motivated by the quest for truth and joy — to seek out every praiseworthy thing, and to live deeply in the greatest happiness possible, and to assist others in their own quests for happiness. In contrast to the submissive nature of “muslim” or the reflective nature of “buddhist”, “mormon” connotes an experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life.

There’s certainly a case to be made (and I imagine some of you will make it) that “mormon” should connote a prudish, fearful, unimposing or demure approach to life — but those are not the traits that I see at the core of our religion. I think those are traits that we have accreted from our protestant environment, and from our human desire to fit into mainstream society. At its core, however, I see see mormonism as the beating heart of God, reflected in passionate, loving lives of His children.

24 comments for “Labels

  1. Adam Greenwood
    July 14, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Its a lot of writing, but as best I can tell your main points are founded on simple assertion.

    So I assert the contrary.

    Mormon is not a label of preference.

    Mormon does not connote “an experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life.” Good gravy. It is to gag.

    Your scheme for classifying labels is interesting and worthwhile, by the way.

  2. July 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    There’s more than assertion here. I’ve identified that (a) no one owns the label “Mormon”, and (b) anyone can call themselves “Mormon” without repurcussions, so (c) “Mormon” is a label of preference. If you want to make a case against that, I’d be interested to hear it.

  3. July 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Labels are for cans. — GHWB

    I’ve found there are very few labels I will accept/claim. I am finding that I’m sometimes a fellow traveler to some labels, or maybe a useful idiot to them, even if the label isn’t a great fit. But anytime I use a label, I both inform and mislead. If I call myself a Sunstone Mormon, for instance, it informs the listener that I am interested in matters Mormon that go beyond Sunday School manuals, but it misleads them about my relationship with the Church (perhaps) and about my subscription status (never been, although I did attend a symposium and loved it). If I explain all the nuances of where I stand on all of those questions, then we’ve done more on the informing, and less on the misleading, if there’s been time to get to that point. But then, the conversation is what did the informing, not the label.

    It’s one of those conundra of communication. But I did find your points regarding labels interesting. I agree that nobody owns the label Mormon, and made that point to the guy who does the Media Watch column on Mormon Times. He tried to use a “traditional usage” and “don’t want to confuse people” response, but that didn’t go far with me.

  4. July 14, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    I love labels.

  5. July 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I think there is something fundamentally amiss with this argument, but I can’t quite put my finger on what…maybe you don’t have enough categories?

    for example, which category would you put “mother” in? Now, anyone can apply the label “mother” to themselves, but if they don’t fit a certain criteria (e.g., of having children), they do not fit the criteria.

    But this criteria is not owned by any organization or association. And these aren’t really organizational…the mother title may imply certain things a person will be doing, but it doesn’t have to, because all that is required to be mother is to have had a child.

    I for one look at Mormon in a cultural way…as a way of describing someone who has grown up in the church, who has been affected by church teachings, the church “vocabulary,” etc., etc., If my Catholic friend said she were a Mormon Catholic, but had never been in an LDS church, didn’t know LDS lingo, didn’t know any of the common experiences and rites of passage of being a Mormon, etc., the I think I (and anyone else) would be justified in calling her out on the claim. Mormon is not a universalizing term. I agree that it doesn’t have to apply only to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (although does the church own the rights to the word Mormon? I know they’ve had disputes about the proper names of the church.)

    So, yeah, I think you’re missing a category. And this isn’t just a category for Mormon. Because you’re missing this category, you can’t accurately describe plenty of labels, like “mother” or “friend”

  6. July 14, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I’d count those under “labels of preference”. I’m taking an unconventional stance, and I’m open to adding another category, but let’s explore “mother”. Does a mother need to have borne children? Can’t a woman be a mother of adopted children? What if they aren’t formally adopted — what if she’s a woman who is intimately involved in the nurturing of a neighbor’s child? How big is the “mother” tent? And people will draw the line in different places.

  7. July 14, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Technically, I’d say that “labels of preference” aren’t unowned, rather, they’re owned (and defined) by society at large. Any definition for a label of preference is correct to the extend that it’s accepted by a group of people and used by the group of people for communicating.

  8. Kristine
    July 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    “for example, which category would you put “mother” in? Now, anyone can apply the label “mother” to themselves, but if they don’t fit a certain criteria (e.g., of having children), they do not fit the criteria.”

    Actually, Andrew, according to Sheri Dew, we are ALL mothers.

    Just sayin’ :)

  9. July 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm


    In exploring mother, you can argue about what relationship the mother will have with the child, but it doesn’t follow that, like a “preference,” “you can just pick one, apply it to yourself, and no one can say you’re wrong!” It is also not true that the label means whatever you want it to mean. Always, a label like “mother” is tempered by cultural discourse…and there will be people who will feel confident (and justified) in “saying you’re wrong.”

    But let’s say these are labels of preference (like you expand the definition in 7). Well, then, your problem with the application of Mormon persists. How would “a group of people” accept Mormon as a label of preference? I do NOT think they would accept it as meaning someone who takes an “experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life.”


    after Kristine’s point, I concede all of my points. :3

  10. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    July 14, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I read your essay as basically asserting that words have ambiguous and flexible meanings. Following that assumption, wouldn’t the terms “Labels of Preference”, “Significance” and “Organization” have their own indefinite boundaries of meaning? While you offer definitions for how you wish to use the terms, those meanings are not defined by the titles themselves. I prefer the labels I use to be significant, especially if they relate to usefulness of terms in an organization.

    so I don;t think the taxonomy you propose is very helpful to the ultimate point of your essay, which seems to be the inability to assert that “Mormon” is a term that has a well-defined. limited meaning. I can agree with that as an obvious proposition. I would be more interested in what you and our cloud of witnesses think about whether there is a need to try to give more definition to the term “Mormon” in public discourse. From a public relations stance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invests a lot of resources to give the term “Mormon” a positive implication, in order to open doors to the Church, while stories about polygamists who claim to be legitimate occupants of the Mormon tradition, rather than squatters, undercut that effort. Is it worthwhile for the Church to try to clarify the distinction through asserting exclusive ownership of the term “Mormon”, or will it be more fruitful to use the ambiguity as justification to give the news media a more interesting story about the modern Mormons vs the strange and sexually titillating polygamist “Mormons”?

  11. Adam Greenwood
    July 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    “I’ve identified that (a) no one owns the label “Mormon”, and (b) anyone can call themselves “Mormon” without repurcussions, so (c) “Mormon” is a label of preference”

    Ah, I see. These are essentially legal categorizations, then? In that case, my objection is that you fail to offer an argument explaining why our norms about language use should be limited to legal norms.

  12. July 14, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    I’m more than willing to give away the title of Mormon. If people who aren’t members of the Church want it, they can have it. Historically, it was a derogatory term anyway.

    But anyone who has read and understood the scriptures knows that a Latter-day Saint is very different. It is a label of significance according to the covenants and grace of God. It has prophetic weight that refers to a specific group of people, as chosen by God. That label has been bestowed, and whether or not those who claim it live up to its work will determine if they get to keep it.

  13. July 14, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    ” Historically, it was a derogatory term anyway.”

    So is queer and I love how gays have taken the term and made it there own.

    Being upset about the term Mormon require one to be anal retentive in the way that only a Mormon could be.

  14. Stephanie
    July 14, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    Usually these debates are painful and fruitless because the parties are arguing about labels of preference as though they were actually labels of significance.

    This is profound.

  15. July 15, 2010 at 9:07 am

    You can mark me as modestly disgruntled as you closed comments on me between my entering them and hitting the submit button in a different post.

    But seriously, consider the arguments over what is the bloggernacle and where blogs fit in it.

    Much of the problem is whether or not “Mormon” is a denotation, or merely a label with connotations.

    If a denotation, does it denote a class? If a label with connotations, is it proper to apply it to entities that do not have the connotations?

    There is a disagreement as to whether it denotes a single entity, or a class, with a number of arguments that the largest single entity has not developed an exclusive use.

    On the other hand, there is a general consensus that the connotations typically associated with the term apply only to one group, and that the use of it by others causes confusion.

  16. Dane Laverty
    July 15, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Sorry about your disgruntlement, Stephen — closing a thread isn’t something I’ve done before.

    Mormon does not connote “an experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life.” Good gravy. It is to gag.

    Then you’ll love my next post ;)

    you fail to offer an argument explaining why our norms about language use should be limited to legal norms.

    I’m not trying to address all of language here, just the words we use to identify ourselves and others. One useful distinction I see in that discussion is whether or not we are allowed to call ourselves by a specific label. Legality is the most obvious tool for disallowment, but as I pointed out with temple worthiness, there are others. What I’m trying to say is that, some labels signify certain rights (like “doctor” or “temple worthy”). Other labels are just convenient for communication (like “health practitioner” or “religious”). If a label doesn’t signify rights, then it’s not useful to discuss it as though it did.

  17. Adam Greenwood
    July 15, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Again, you are conflating legal norms with other kinds of norms. When people are making normative claims about language, they are usually not making legally normative claims and its silly to act as if they are.

  18. MikeInWeHo
    July 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    The AMA does not control the use of the label “doctor,” nor does anyone else. Any of us could pick up a shoddy online PhD by the end of the week and start using that label. Dr. Phil, anyone? Very few labels are controlled as tightly as many would like.

  19. MarenM
    July 15, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Can I just be an awesome, feminist, Mormon ABBA fan?

  20. Dane Laverty
    July 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Yes Maren, but only you :)

    MikeInWeHo, I admit that I’m ignorant on the subject — can anyone just put up a sign that says, “I’m a doctor, come in for your gallbladder removal today!”?

  21. MikeInWeHo
    July 15, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    I think calling yourself a Medical Doctor is highly controlled, Dane, but not generic “doctor” of which there are many kinds. Again I go back to the example of Dr. Phil who is not even licensed as a therapist.

  22. Left Field
    July 15, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    According to his Wikipedia page, Dr. Phil has a PhD from an accredited university, and so has earned the title of “doctor.”

    Also, please note that the title “doctor” is not synonymous with “physician.”

  23. July 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    Doctor is a great example. The term originally meant “scholar” and was picked up by physicians to improve their public image. What is really interesting, as medical doctors have (in the United States, with the help of Dear Abby and others) started to pre-empt in the public mind the word “doctor” — so other groups have done the same thing (e.g. Doctor of Chiropractic, which at one time did not require a high school degree, though now it has a good deal more in the way of qualifications) and another group is starting to work at making a play for the term “physician.”

    It could well be argued that “Mormon” is also in that category.

    I do really think that the issue that surrounds “Mormon” is the one I’ve gone into, a denotation/connotation issue.

  24. July 17, 2010 at 12:34 am

    This definition resonated strongly with me:
    “mormon” connotes an experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life

    I don’t think most of the Church members I know would actually fit into that category, but I try to surround myself with those who do. I think it is an appropriate definition, and I would only add to it (not distinguish/exclude from it) the submissiveness we can learn from Muslims and the reflectiveness we can learn from Buddhists.

    But I think this hit the nail on the head for me: “motivated by the quest for truth and joy… seek out every praiseworthy thing… live deeply… assist others in their own quests…”



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