Whiting column: Labels are a tool and tactic of the weak
The temptation to attach labels to people and ideas isn’t new, but lately it has become standard operating procedure. It isn’t helpful or productive. It only camouflages real issues and provides the weak something to hide behind because neither they nor their ideas can stand on their own merits.
Labels polarize. In our current political environment, those involved are unwilling or incapable of thinking for themselves as demonstrated by their strictly voting party-line. The party pressures them, not because it is the right course of action, but because it’s the party’s chosen position.
Threatened, they vilify with labels those who disagree. Demonstrating their lack of credibility, they won’t make a decision on their own or support a political position by themselves, regardless of validity. They require the safety of a group; hoping if they get enough in their group it will add credence to them and their ideas.
It boils down to desire for attention. It’s always been easier for the weak and incapable to attach a label to those who oppose them, than do the work and gain attention by the legitimacy of their own actions and ideas.
They choose a self-serving label for themselves in a futile attempt to justify and strengthen, because they fear their ideas won’t survive close examination. It’s similar to respect. Some try to demand respect, because their own character and work won’t develop it. Any level of respect with value is voluntarily granted by others; earned not demanded.
Labels provide an excuse. My first year of teaching, I soon realized labeling didn’t help. Prior to my first day of class, my father asked if I had class lists. “Yes,” I replied, “but because I’m the new guy I have all the dumb and problem kids.” “How do you know that?” he responded. “I looked up their records in the office.”
My father’s response was immediate. “What did that accomplish? You should be thankful you have them.” “What?” I said. “You wanted to make a difference, be an effective teacher; here’s your chance. Isn’t it your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to assure their learning, regardless?”
Actual experience confirmed my father’s wisdom. Knowing their academic and behavioral history only provided an available excuse. He’s dumb, so I don’t have to work hard, because he isn’t going to learn anyway or if he doesn’t learn it’s not my fault. Or, he’s smart, I don’t have to work hard. He’ll learn regardless or I will treat him better, differently because he’s a good kid. To be effective, I needed to work with each student as an individual.
Labels create a demotivating environment and lead to undeserved assumptions. Prior to Parent Teacher Conferences, it was accepted practice to send out “down slips” to parents of students not doing well. Sadly, many parents didn’t communicate with teachers, or weren’t confident they were getting the straight scoop from their children. Consequently, down slips were utilized. In year two, I also sent out “up slips” to those doing well, figuring a positive stroke would be nice for both student and parent.
That year, “Fred” had been struggling in class, but suddenly his effort, work and results hit an uptick, and I sent an up slip. Upon arrival, Fred’s father immediately started apologizing — how when he got home he would take care of the problem, getting madder and madder as he continued. I was trying to figure out what I had missed, when the father said, “I know Fred stole an up slip from your desk, because he’s a loser and only gets down slips and sent to the principal’s office.” It took me five minutes to convince him Fred didn’t need a beating. He was doing great, I appreciated his work and was a pleasure to have in class. No wonder he hadn’t been doing well.
There are two types of people. One is willing to stand up, face the music, do the work. The other runs and looks to hide behind something. A label provides that whether it be a label for themselves or those they fear. The label hides the real issue behind it, but that is what they desire.
Labeling has become a blanket response when someone disagrees with us and we don’t have anything rational to say. It’s not limited to one side or another. We all tend to do it. If you disagree with me you’re a conservative, or a liberal, or rich, or poor, or racist, or sexist, or biased, or dumb, or lazy, or old, or young, or any of the myriad labels we hear through conversation and media.
We forget that categorizing people under a label eliminates the possibility of changing someone’s mind. Our lack of empathy assures they won’t hear let alone consider anything else we might say, regardless how valid. Whether our intent or not, when our response is a label we are trying to limit the freedom of speech of the person who might have a contrary opinion. Don’t you dare disagree with me or you are _________________.
Our current political arena illustrates the resulting polarization and inaction. Wouldn’t it be nice if they worried less about hiding behind or categorizing others under a label and more about inspiring us with efforts on our behalf and the benefit of the whole.
It is our personal responsibility to lead change through our change; to provide a role model for politicians, our children and ourselves to not use labels as a substitute for rational dialogue and freedom of speech. The need is significant.
Labels are the weapons of the weak and insecure, because they realize they don’t have any others.
Bryan Whiting feels most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of non-partisan economics rather than by government intervention. Comments and column suggestions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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