That Wasn’t the Statue of Liberty: On Expectations and Labels

The Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline

My family recently traveled to New York City. If you’re familiar with LaGuardia, our destination airport, you know that it is situated in such a way that it often gives airline passengers a nice shot of Manhattan and other noteworthy sights as they descend.

Upon our own descent, an interesting series of utterances escaped from my seven year old son, for whom this was his first visit to the city. Before the trip we had discussed some of the things that we would do while there, and as he looked out the window as the plane grew closer and closer to the earth, in his mind every span of trees became Central Park, every large skyscraper was the Empire State Building, and every island was Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty just too small to see because we were so high, he inferenced.

Although I chuckled along with his excitement and felt sort of bad to tell him that none of the things he thought he saw really were those things, it was interesting to think about how often expectation determines outcome. This is a particularly important consideration for those of us whose jobs involve both creating and analyzing the labels that determine how we (and others) categorize the world.

As a person who studies conservative Christians, I am often intrigued by the manner in which other scholars use the term “fundamentalism” or who they identify as a “fundamentalist.” There remains a significant and ongoing debate in my field about the politics of the term. Many scholars have only applied the label to describe conservative religious groups, even while there are plenty of other groups that otherwise fit their own self-styled definitions of the term (including constraints such as dichotomous thinking, rigidity, reactivity, textual literalness, etc.). Yet such groups are never lumped under the “fundamentalist” umbrella because, I suspect, they simply don’t “look the part” – they are, in other words, not what we expect.

For instance, we can presume that most every American military person is a fundamentalist according to the most common definitions of the term, for every soldier must uphold certain beliefs about the nation and its mission in very rigid and dichotomous ways, must look to important nationalist documents as their own sort of carefully rendered text, and indeed, are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – for these principles even if at certain points they must enact violence on others to make it happen.

But soldiers don’t fit this definition in most American minds, perhaps in great part because the popularity of the military renders them so normal and acceptable that they don’t appear to be sufficiently different to deserve the label. I find this process all the more interesting in an age when racial profiling is increasingly under deserved scrutiny, for the manner in which we often construct definitions and then apply those to certain groups of people (while conveniently excluding others who may otherwise fit) depends on a similar process.

This is not unique to fundamentalism, of course — it’s true of any term that can be deployed politically, which means that it describes virtually all words. My son was disappointed to find that the Empire State Building wasn’t the largest building around, for he’d built it up in his mind as just that. Similarly, definitions of things often tell us much more about ourselves than they do the thing being defined.

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