Passing Bull 345 – Excluding people by labelling them

There were two items in the press today about typing people.  The first was a droll note in The Guardian about how silly it may look if people took offence at being referred to as members of a group.  Some French people thought it was hilarious.  It can be – but it can also be wounding.  I sent the note below with a relevant extract from my last book.

The second item in The Sunday Age was anything but droll.  People in Melbourne have imported a play about people of colour.  The paper says of the play: ‘It’s sharp and funny, filled with biting social commentary and, in this iteration staged at the Malthouse, powered by stellar performances by Chika Ikogwe and Iolanthe.’  The Melbourne producers want it to be reviewed only by people of colour.  For what I regard as good reasons, The Age declined to review it at all.  Elizabeth Flux politely said why.

Two things.

First, the people putting on the play want to exclude people on the basis of their colour. They are doing this to achieve a political purpose.  In doing so, they are indulging in the very evil that they protest against.  And they are damaging the cause they seek to advance.

Secondly, this nation faces this year what I regard as a very simple issue on how to deal with a problem that we have in dealing with people of a different colour.  There are many unpleasant people out there who will try to dredge opposition to a measure we badly need from any source of division that they can find.  This kind of thinking is blood to a tiger for the Murdoch press.

Here is the comment on the other – and related item – and from the book.

I can see both sides on this.

It is just a fact of life that group labels are often used for people the speaker looks down on. 

I commonly refer to the ‘French’ and the ‘English’.

With different levels of attachment.

And then you might refer to the Serbs, Irish, gays, Presbyterians, idiots, Jews, elites, or blacks – and the world falls in.

Presumably the French think they are above all that stuff.

Unless, perhaps, you ask what contribution ‘the French’ made to Hitler’s war aims.

The problem is that a label assumes members of a group share an apparent common denominator – and that is demeaning.

Extract from book follows.

The vice of labelling

Some years ago, a woman 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 we should apply a label to people – or put them in boxes, or in a file, or give them a codename. There is also 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.

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 not in the same league as camels or gnats. 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? What good can come from 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. In labelling, 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 own humanity.

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 ‘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 apply either of those labels to themselves. The categories are just too plastic and fluid.

Similarly, in Australia the labels ‘Liberal’ and ‘Labor’ 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 Labor mean nothing to our 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 seem no longer to matter.

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 or those who make a career out of working TV chat shows. While some people naturally thrive on conflict – Napoleon and Hitler were two bad cases – some journalists 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. For example, if someone dared to query the rigour of the government’s policies 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 ways that do the rest of us any good.

There is commonly a 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. 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.

Let us take one label that became prominent in 2016 right across the Western world. There has been a lot of chatter, or white noise, about ‘populists’. Who are they? One of the problems with this word is that people who use it rarely say what they mean by it. If you search the internet, you will find references to ordinary or regular or common people against political insiders or a wealthy elite. These vague terms don’t help – to the contrary. What do they mean? Is dividing people into classes a good idea in Australia now – or anywhere, at any time? If it is simply a matter of the common people wresting control from a wealthy elite, who could decently object? Is this not just democracy triumphing over oligarchy?

Populus is the Latin word for ‘people’, with pretty much the same connotations as that word in English. Do populists, therefore, appeal to the people for their vote? Well, anyone standing for office in a democracy does just that. The most famous political speech in history concludes with the words ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’.

But ‘populist’is not used to describe everyone standing for office. It is used to refer to only some of those, and the difference seems to be in the kinds of people who are appealed to and the way in which that appeal is made.

So, what kind of public do populists appeal to? Those who use this word say that the people appealed to are anything but the ‘elite’ – those who have got on well in life because of their background or education, or both. In both the United Kingdom and the United States this feeling about the elite – which might look like simple envy to some – is linked to a suspicion of or contempt for ‘experts’. People do, however, tend to get choosy about which experts they reject. (This rejection does not extend to experts who may save their life in the surgery, or at 30,000 feet, or their liberty; but it may explain the curious intellectual lesion that many people of a reactionary turn of mind have about science and the environment.)

Another attribute of the public appealed to by populists is that they have often missed out on the increase in wealth brought about by free trade around the world and by advances in technology. These movements obviously have cost people jobs and are thought by some experts to be likely to cost another 40 per cent over the next ten years.

A third attribute of those appealed to by populists is said to be that, in their reduced condition, they value their citizenship above all else, and they are not willing to share it. They are therefore against taking refugees or people whose faith or colour threatens the idea of their national identity.

Now, if folk who use the word populist are describing politicians who appeal to people with those attributes, they may want to be careful about where they say so. The picture that emerges is one of a backward, angry and mean chauvinist failure. That picture is seriously derogatory. If that is what people mean when they refer to populists,then it is just a loose label that unfairly smears a large part of the population. The term does then itself suffer from the vice of labelling that we have identified.

So, we would leave labels with George Bush Senior, who said that labels are what you put on soup cans

Labels – people of color – black and white – excluding people by color – the Voice – Murdoch press – The Age.

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