Passing Bull 78 –  The evil of labelling

Some years ago, a lady at Oxford, en route from the reading room to the dining room for breakfast, was heard to say: ‘I have just been described as a typical Guardian reader, and I’m trying to work out whether I should feel insulted.’  A discussion about the meaning of the word ‘presumptuous’ then followed.

There is no law or custom that says that we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename.  There is no law that we should not. But most of us can’t help ourselves.  So what?

Well, most of us don’t like being put into boxes.  That is how we tend to see governments or Telstra or a big bank behaving toward us.  Nor do most of us want to be typed.   When someone says that an opinion or act of yours is ‘typical’ of you or your like, they are very rarely trying to be pleasant to you.

Most of us just want to be what we are.  You don’t have to have a university degree specialising in the philosophy of Kant to believe that each of us has his or her own dignity merely because we are human.  We are in a different league to rats and flies.  So, if I am singled out as a Muslim, a Jew, or an Aboriginal, what does that label add to or take away from my humanity?  It is often not easy to see anything positive coming from someone else subtracting from my humanity by labelling me in that way.

So, the first problem with labelling is that it is likely to be demeaning to the target, and presumptuous on the part of the labeller.  We are detracting from a person’s dignity.  We put registration numbers on dog collars, and we brand cattle, but we should afford humans the courtesy – no, the dignity – of their humanity. After all, we can scarcely bring ourselves to think of that time when some people were tattooing identifying numbers on the bodies of other human beings.

The second problem with labelling is that it is both loose and lazy.  If you say of someone that they are a typical Conservative or Tory, that immediately raises two questions.  What do the labels Conservative and Tory mean?  What are the characteristics of the target that might warrant the application of the label?

In this country, at the moment, the terms Left and Right hardly mean anything at all – except as terms of abuse (which is how the words Tory and Whig started in England).  These terms are now generally only applied by one side to the other.  Not many people are happy to have either of those labels applied to themselves. They are just too plastic and fluid.

There is one curious distinction in the way that these terms are applied in this country at the moment.  The Murdoch press is happy to call followers of the Fairfax press or the ABC ‘the Left’ (or ‘the P C Left’ or ‘the Love Media’), but those members of the press very rarely respond by calling readers of the Murdoch press Right wing  (or Far Right, or worse).  Is the difference one of custom or courtesy – or don’t we know or don’t we care?  Just how many people are left who could give a hoot for these outmoded terms?

Similarly, the labels Liberal and Labour hardly stand for any difference in principle any more.  At the time of writing, on any of the major issues in Australian politics, what were the differences in the policies of those parties that derived from their platform?  The old forms of name-calling between Liberal and Labour mean nothing to my children – absolutely nothing.  These old ways are as outmoded as name-calling between Catholics and Protestants.  And there is some common ground in the two shifts – very many people have lost faith in both religion and politics.  The old tensions or rivalries just don’t seem to matter anymore.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the obvious problems we have just referred to, labelling is not just common but mandatory in far too much political discussion in the press, and certainly for shock jocks and those who make a career out of working TV chat shows.  While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler are two bad cases – some people in the press engage in conflict for a living. These people rarely have a financial motive to respond reasonably, much less to resolve the conflict.  To the contrary, they have a direct financial interest in keeping the conflict as explosive as possible.  It is notorious that controversy feeds ratings and that bad news sells newspapers.

If you put up an argument to one of these people who live off the earnings of conflict, the response will very commonly involve two limbs – a personal attack  on you (the Latin tag for which is ad hominem), followed by some labels, which are never meant as compliments.  So, for example if someone, were to query the rigour of the policies of the government toward refugees, a predictable response would be ‘What else would you expect from someone who subscribes to the ABC?  How would you like these people to move in next door?’  There is no argument – just vulgar abuse.

The disintegration of thought is palpable, but a lot of people are making a handy living out of it – and not in any way that does the rest of us any good.  So, when someone I know was described as a typical ‘Julia Gillard Labor lawyer,’ he expressed some interest at what that might mean, particularly since he has expressed the views set out above about the lack of difference between Labor and Liberal, and since he also had said that he had voted for Malcolm Turnbull (professedly a conservative) at the last election.    Since the label as a whole hardly looked to have been intended to flatter, he was also interested to know what our first female prime minister had done to be loaded into the shotgun.  The response was sadly of the shirtfront plus label variety.

What does a labor lawyer look like?
Take a look in the mirror.
You will likely see someone who feels superior to the masses.
Who knows best
Struggles to entertain concepts outside of their bubble.
Hugs up to socialism.
Likely not understanding that sooner or later the cash runs out.
You can only squeeze a lemon so far.

Good grief, who are ‘the masses’ outside the dreams of 1948 Marxists? What on earth could ‘hugs up to socialism’ mean in Malmsbury 2016?  That the person being abused believes in Medicare?  Does the complainant actually look like a squeezed lemon?

This example shows the third problem with labelling – it generally tells you a lot more about the labeller – some would say the sniper – than the target, and the answer is rarely pretty.  (Have you noticed that people who use labels and who abuse abstractions expect that others will do the same?  Is this what Freud called ‘projection’?) And if you pile cliché upon label, and venom upon petulance, the result is as sad as it is predictable.  You disappear up your own bum – publicly, and painfully.

So, I would leave labels with George Bush senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans.

Poet of the Month: Vergil: Georgics

I’ll begin to sing of what keeps the wheat fields happy,

under what stars to plough the earth, and fasten vines to elms,

what care the oxen need, what tending cattle require,

Maecenas, and how much skill’s required for the thrifty bees.

O you brightest lights of the universe

that lead the passing year through the skies,

Bacchus and kindly Ceres, since by your gifts

fat wheat ears replaced Chaonian acorns,

and mixed Achelous’s water with newly-discovered wine,

and you, Fauns, the farmer’s local gods,

(come dance, together, Fauns and Dryad girls!)

your gifts I sing. And you, O Neptune, for whom

earth at the blow of your mighty trident first produced

whinnying horses: and you Aristaeus, planter of the groves,

for whom three hundred snowy cattle graze Cea’s rich thickets:

you, O Tegean Pan, if you care for your own Maenalus,

leaving your native Lycaean woods and glades, guardian

of the flocks, favour us: and Minerva bringer of the olive:

and you Triptolemus, boy who revealed the curving plough,

and Silvanus carrying a tender cypress by the roots:

and all you gods and goddesses, whose care guards our fields,

you who nurture the fresh fruits of the unsown earth….

2 thoughts on “Passing Bull 78 –  The evil of labelling

  1. Geoffrey,
    I note with interest your first and second points re “labelling”
    I recall an earlier post from you describing Cory Bernardi as an “inane ratbag”
    Is this not “labelling”?

    • Peter

      No, it’s not. It says he has no brains and is unpleasant. That is said of him alone. It does not seek to apply a term that is applied to groups – like fascist, or right wing, or Catholic or Hard Core Liberal Rump. To impute characteristics to one person is very different to saying that that person is characterized by qualities of a group. I would be guilty of labeling Bernardi if I had said he was an inane ratbag because he was a part of the religious right, or some similar bullshit.
      And I notice that your response was directed to the man not the thought.
      You might enjoy the note on the next label – populist.

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