I first encountered the problem with labeling when I was a Scientologist.
My father and I fought – a lot. After some initial successes in using Scientology techniques to control that fighting, over the years, fights would still break out. And they were always emotionally upsetting to me.
I was very aware of the PTS/SP technology in Scientology and there was always a temptation to just go ahead and label my father as an “SP” and be done with him. The highly trained Scientologists in my mission, Class 8 auditors George Seidler and his son Andy Seidler, never once encouraged me to do this. In fact, they were against it.
When I asked their advice on whether they thought my father was an SP, they very carefully said nothing. Instead, in a long discussion I had with Andy about this subject, he told me that my father and I were in a “games condition”, and that I should learn how to handle those in order to handle my relationship with my father.
I won’t go into what L Ron Hubbard said that a games condition was, except to say that this was a label used to characterize a situation or a series of events, rather than a person. That’s the important distinction here. It was also very useful to me to learn about this idea from Scientology. And yes, I was able to use it to further improve my relationship with my father.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the few scientifically-tested forms of psychological therapy, labeling a person is considered a cognitive distortion. Here’s part of the Wikipedia description of the cognitive distortion of labeling.
Labeling theory – A more severe type of overgeneralization; attributing a person’s actions to their character instead of some accidental attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or extrinsic, the person assigns a label to someone that implies their behavior is intrinsic to the character of that person.
- Example of “labeling”: Instead of believing that you made a mistake, you believe that you are a loser, because only a loser would make that kind of mistake. Or, someone who made a bad first impression is a “jerk”, in the absence of some more specific cause.
The whole problem with labeling my father an SP, no matter how upset I became with him, and no matter how tempting it was for me to label him, was that I’d known my father all my life. And while Hubbard’s label for the Anti-Social personality did describe some of his characteristics – sometimes – it certainly did not describe all of the characteristics I knew about him. Not by a long shot.
In fact, at one point when I was really facing this down, a small piece of me way down deep found it absurd that 12 traits, or even 24, could describe anyone. As a Scientologist, I didn’t entertain that piece of me for very long – it was too dangerous to my continued effort to prop up the Scientology in my head.
And anyway, if I did entertain that piece of me, it might mean that I’m an SP!
See how sticky the label of SP is? Once you assume that the label of “SP” is real, that there are real, live human beings walking around on the planet who are “SPs”, it’s very hard to not use the label in all of your thinking about yourself and others.
It wasn’t until I got out of Scientology that I learned two important concepts in critical thinking that effectively killed off any temptation to accept the label of Suppressive Person as a real thing.
A mental construct is a category of contemplation which reminds you to distinguish between real things and your thoughts about them. Real things are those that can be touched, physically measured, and experienced outside your head. Thoughts are things which exist only inside your head.
I know it sounds so simple that you shouldn’t need to say it, but for anyone who has ever been involved in Scientology, believe me, it’s important to say.
When I first understood this concept of a mental construct, I began to identify all the mental constructs that Scientology was built upon. I realized that there was almost nothing that was actually real in Scientology at all. From reactive minds to service facsimiles to Suppressive People, Scientology was almost 100% made up of mental constructs. That’s when the whole house of cards really started to fall for me as a Scientologist.
Mental constructs are not logical fallacies. They are very useful. For instance, there was a string of armed conflicts and insurgent actions from April 19, 1775 until 3 September 1783 across the eastern coast of the United States. These real events all occurred in time and place in the real world. These events all had a similar purpose, and that was for the British colonies to become independent of British rule, and for the British army to try to stop that from happening. We lump all these real events together and we use a mental construct to call them “The American Revolutionary War”.
This may shock you, but the American Revolutionary War didn’t really happen. All those battles did. “American Revolutionary War” is simply a mental construct we use to organize and understand those real events.
This is a legitimate use of a mental construct because it takes real things that really happened and organizes them in a way they they can be better understood.
As you’ll see, mental constructs don’t always meet this test of validity. And when they don’t, and you believe in them – oblivious to the fact that they are a mental construct only with no real-world analog – you can get into big trouble not in just your thinking, but in your real life too.
The Logical Fallacy of Reification
The second critical thinking tool which helps to identify the fallacies involved in the use of labeling is the logical fallacy of reification. Reification is defined in wikipedia as:
…Also known as concretism or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, reification is a fallacy that occurs when an abstract belief or hypothetical construct is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing. A common case of reification is the confusion of a model with reality: “the map is not the territory”.
The term comes from Latin res (“thing”) and -fication, a suffix related to facere (“to make”). Thus reification can be loosely translated as “thing-making”; the turning of something abstract into a concrete thing or object.
So we have this label called “the Suppressive Person”. And we assume that SPs are real.
But when we take a human being who has been thoroughly checked out by the highest authorities in the Church of Scientology to be a real, live SP, and we examine his brain, his heart, and his lungs, we find absolutely no difference between the real parts of this “SP” and any other human being on earth. So there’s no real type of human being called an SP.
When confronted with this fact, the believers of SPs invoke the escape hatch for their belief: “Yes, but an SP exists in his BEHAVIOR and not in his brain matter!”
So we pursue the believer through his escape hatch. We acknowledge that behavior and actions really happen in the real world. You can pull out your smart phone and video them. If the theory on SPs is valid, then a real live SP would be a human being that goes around suppressing people.
Next question: What percentage of the time would he need to be suppressing people to be an SP? 100% of the time? More than 50% of the time? Would he ever NOT suppress someone? And if that’s true, even once, can we really label that whole human being as an SP, when he’s only suppressive sometimes?
This skeptical questioning causes the believer to dive into his next escape hatch for his belief in SPs: “Yes but it’s a term that is used pragmatically to cleanse your life of toxic people. You don’t need to follow an SP around 24/7 to see if he’s really an SP. You just need to “handle him” so he’s not suppressing you any more, and if he doesn’t “handle”, then you need to disconnect from him!”
This pursuit of the believer through his series of escape hatches gets us closer to the truth of what this label of SP actually is. If this label is simply a pragmatic tool to get away from people who you feel are toxic to you – then does that not admit that there are really are no such things as SPs in the real world?
If the label SP is just a pragmatic tool and there is no such thing as SPs, then SPs are only people who you are presently upset with, or who oppose or hinder you when you are trying to get something done.
And if that’s the case, doesn’t labeling a person as an SP block your ability to fully understand this human being that you are so upset with, and why they do what they do? Thus ensuring that you are never able to come to a resolution with him?
I think it’s the belief in the PTS/SP technology that is one of the most crippling set of beliefs in Scientology for this very reason: A Scientologist who sees SPs everywhere soon becomes unable to handle almost anything and anyone in his life.
I found this to be true even before I’d left Scientology. I knew that human beings have an infinite potential to be good and to be bad. And in order to understand them, you have to understand their environment and the problems that they are trying to handle themselves.
But that takes a lot of work. Most of the time you are so upset with the “SP” that you simply do not want to do that work, and you just want to get away from them.
Well that’s fine. But don’t then pretend that you understand the person you have labeled as an SP and all that motivates his behavior just because – like picking your nose and wiping a booger on him – you labeled him an SP.
I think that labeling people with labels like “SP” is a way to try to understand what is going on in the heads and hearts of people you are upset with – at a time when it’s the very hardest for you to understand them.
Nevertheless, labeling people is a very bad substitute for understanding them, because the meager insufficiency of the label itself can lead to further upsets and more damage to the relationship than if you were never fooled into believing in SPs in the first place.
These beliefs, their stickiness and their inherent escape hatches, don’t just apply to the label of SP. They apply to ANY label that you use as a substitute for understanding another human being.
Labeling People in Anti-Scientology
There are many parallels to the labeling done in anti-Scientology with the labeling done in Scientology. You would think that Ex-Scientologists who could see the fallacies in the PTS/SP technology would never get tripped up making these same mistakes when they get themselves out of Scientology.
But for a majority of Exes, I have found that the opposite is true.
After they get out of Scientology, too many Exes go straight for grabbing the corresponding labels that some of the most sloppy psychologists use to describe people. There is a label in Psychology actually called the “Anti-Social Personality” – which Hubbard probably stole from and bastardized for Scientologists for his “Suppressive Person” label.
But there are many more labels for an Ex-Scientologist to choose from to stereotype the motivations of people they are upset with after Scientology.
“Narcissist”, and all its flavors, is another one.
How many types of narcissists are there?
- Malignant narcissists
- Collapsed narcissists
- Acquired situational narcissists
- Aggressive narcissists
- Codependent or Inverted narcissists
- Collective narcissists
- Conversational narcissists
- Corporate narcissists
- Cross-cultural narcissists
- Cultural narcissism
- Destructive narcissists
- Medical narcissists
- Phallic narcissists
- Sexual narcissists
- Spiritual narcissists
and, believe it or not, there is even the “healthy narcissist.”
Just think about that. Isn’t this more about loving to use labels than an attempt to define anything real? Not one of these labels of types of “narcissist” is any more real than the label of “SP”, “PTS”, Degraded Being, or even “Witch”.
And to a person who believes in narcissists? By questioning the very idea of narcissism, this whole post that I am writing – all 2500 words of it – PROVES that I am a narcissist!
My point is that these labels are extremely shoddy substitutes for understanding people when you really need to understand them. In fact, these labels BLOCK that understanding when they are supposed to provide it.
There is no substitute for being willing and able to see things from someone else’s perspective -especially when you are locked in the middle a major battle or dispute with them. It’s the hardest thing to do, but I think that it is the ONLY valid route to resolving your disputes with others.
It is a major skill in itself. And that skill actually provides the tools you really need to “overcome the ups and downs in life”.
Having said all that, and with all these concepts in mind, watch this interview that Chris Shelton did with
his psychologist his friend Rachel Bernstein called “Narcissists, Psychopaths and Sociopaths – Oh My!”
It’s more than an hour long, but you can get the feel for what I am saying by just watching the first 10 or 15 minutes. Observe their knowing nods with one another, and their complete lack of critical thinking and skeptical questioning of their own belief system about labeling other human beings.
I might be wrong, but it appears to me that Rachel Bernstein’s whole practice is based on labeling the people who surround her patients. As a psychologist who can’t prescribe medications, it seems to me that she works to find the right label that “indicates” to her patients, rather than the right drug and its correct dosage.
Again – I could be wrong.
And I’m sorry for bringing up Chris Shelton again. But he is such a great example of an Anti-Scientologist who is an unquestioning True Believer of the Anti-Scientology narrative. His sermons on the Anti-Scientology ideology are classics in unquestioning belief in one’s chosen religion after Scientology.
After being in the Sea Org and everything else Chris has experienced, you would think that Chris would have learned the problems in adopting an ideology to do your thinking for you.
Maybe he still will.