I want to have a moan tonight. There's been a lot of labelling in the media over the last week or so relating to people involved in the rioting. You know what I mean; 'feral youth', 'hooligans', 'irresponsible parents' and so on (and so on...). I wonder why we feel the need to label people like this, rather than talking about their behaviour. Is it because we think that we'd never do terrible things like those, those criminals are doing? Perhaps it's comforting to subtly draw a dividing line between basically decent, law-abiding people like us and low-life, hooligan scum like them.
It's reminded me of a couple of other references to labelling. Firstly, a friend of mine who has young daughters mentioned that she'd heard (or read; I can't quite remember) about a danger in telling your children that they're beautiful. This had never struck me before (isn't it the most natural thing in the world to tell your daughter that she's beautiful and you love her?) but apparently it can make your child think that you only love them because they're beautiful. I suppose this can easily be made worse by the effect of all the images in advertising that children get bombarded with as they grow up. I've no idea how solidly founded this research was; perhaps it's one person's hare-brained idea that's not based on any concrete research at all. Anyway, it got me thinking.
The second thing that came to mind was something I read a year or two back about academically gifted children. I think this was a proper research paper but I haven't been able to find it again tonight (apologies!). The article referred to two groups of children; both of which were given praise, but one along the lines of 'You're really clever' and the other with more specific statements like 'That work you did was really good'. Each set of children were asked to sit a test and could choose an easier or harder version. Here's the kicker; the children given the broader, labelling-type praise (the 'You're so clever' statements) chose the easier test significantly more often than the children whose specific pieces of work were praised. Label a kid as clever and it seems they'll choose the easier option, because they don't want to fall short of the standard set for them. Label their work as good and they'll choose the harder option, believing that it's within their capabilities. Interesting, huh?
Going back to the rioting and looting, I'm not at all meaning to excuse criminal behaviour. If people are found guilty of criminal acts then I think they should be punished. But I don't think it's helpful to label people as criminal, anti-social or whatever, as if they are fundamentally different from those who have not been out rioting over the last week. Also, as a Christian, it's a core part of my faith (a) that all people are made in God's image, to carry his glory into the world, and (b) that all people fall short of this ideal. To what extent each of us falls short isn't something that should concern us. Planks of wood and specks of dust...