Whiting column: Labels are ineffective change agents

Bryan Whiting
Personal Responsibility

Labels are the tool and tactic of the weak.

Attaching labels to people and ideas isn’t a new temptation, but, lately, it’s become standard operating procedure. But, it isn’t helpful or productive. Labels camouflage real issues and provide 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 strictly party-line votes. Parties pressure them — not because it’s the right course of action, but the parties’ chosen position.

Threatened, they vilify those who disagree, with labels. Their reluctance to decide on their own or support a political position by themselves, regardless of validity, demonstrates their lack of credibility. They require safety of a group, hoping to recruit enough to 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 have the courage to do the work and gain attention by 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 like respect. Some attempt 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 doesn’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 school records.”

My father’s response was immediate. “What did that accomplish? You should be thankful you have them.” “What?” I exclaimed. “You wanted to make a difference. Here’s your chance. Be an effective teacher, and you will. Besides, records are just another person’s opinion.” “Isn’t it your responsibility to do whatever is right and 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; he’ll learn regardless, or I will treat him differently because he’s a good kid. To be effective, I needed to learn about and work with each student as an individual.

Labels create a demotivating environment and lead to undeserved assumptions. Prior to Parent/Teacher Conferences, we sent out “down-slips” to parents of students not doing well. In year two, I also sent out “up-slips” for 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 deserved an up-slip. Upon arrival, his 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 his 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 five minutes to convince him Fred didn’t need a beating. Fred 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, develop solutions; 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, 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 of labels we hear through conversation and media.

We forget that categorizing people under a label eliminates the possibility of changing someone’s mind. Lack of empathy assures they won’t hear, let alone consider, anything else we say. Whether our intent or not, when our response is a label, we are trying to limit the freedom of speech of the person having 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’s our personal responsibility to lead change through our change, to provide a role model for politicians, children and ourselves by not using labels as a substitute for thoughtful dialogue and freedom of speech.

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

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