Laozi on the dangers of artificial labels

Perhaps because he was such a brilliant writer himself, Laozi was deeply concerned about the inflammatory effects that names or artificial labels (名/míng) can have on fueling people’s emotions and behavior.

In Chapter 2 of the Daodejing, he warns that when something is labeled as “beautiful” or “good”, this will inevitably lead people to desire it and perhaps even go as far to steal or fight over it. Conversely, when something is labeled as bad or ugly, this will cause people to hate it and even attack or destroy it.

Artificial labels thus not only stir up irrational feelings of envy and greed among people; they can also lead to vitriol and violence. In today’s feverish cultural and political climate, we are seeing a stark illustration of the dangers that they can can cause. As the levels of hyperbolic bluster and venomous bile relentlessly ramp up, our society is becoming increasingly divided and people are refusing to engage in civilized discourse with others who they consider to be on the “wrong” side.

In the Daodejing, Laozi counsels us to speak as little as possible so as not to rush into making rash judgments. He also advises us to shed all the preconceptions, prejudices, and fake knowledge that we have accumulated inside ourselves so that we can remain grounded and centered. His ultimate objective is that we should revert to a state of unconscious harmony with nature like an uncarved block of wood – one in which we deal with each situation we encounter in the most appropriate way without even having to think about.

Working towards such a goal may appear to be not just idealistic but also impractical given the raucous epoch that we live in. But perhaps there has never been a better time for us to take a step back to calm contemplation rather than moving further forward into the maelstrom that we are whipping up around ourselves.

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