Sunday, 14 August 2011

Don't label me!

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...


  1. Oh Kevin, You are so religious in your postings.... See what I did there....Oh Kevin, You are so religious in your postings.... See what I did there....

  2. I have also read about that research about the labelling of children as "clever" working against the child as they become aware of this pressure but am also failing to find the link in my plethora of internet bookmarks!

  3. But didn't you just label yourself, i.e. "Christian"? Isn't self-labeling encouraging folks to label others? I'm not convinced labeling is wrong--yes, it can be used by people who are lazy--e.g. instead of recognizing the many types of people who rioted (criminals, sheep, the disenfranchised, someone doing something on impulse that they'd never do again and has made them ashamed of themselves, etc), just call them all criminals--but what is wrong with labeling someone a criminal when they are? Or labeling someone a Christian? Is the first term any more specific than the second term?

    For example, to modify a sentence from your post,

    Is it because we think that we'd never do [hypocritcal] things like those, those [Christians] are doing? Perhaps it's comforting to subtly draw a dividing line between basically decent, law-abiding people like us and low-life, [hypocritical] scum like them.


    But I don't think it's helpful to label people as [Christians], [bigoted], or whatever, as if they are fundamentally different from those who have not been out [judging others] over the last week.

    I'm sure you know many people who call themselves Christian that you wish wouldn't--at least publicly. Their behaviour leads others to view "Christians" as little better than hate-mongering judgmental hypocritical uneducated bigoted scum...and U.S. Christianity in politics seems to have some nasty (or at least uncomfortable) parallels with Islamic fanatics.

    Is self-labeling okay while labeling others is not? If it acts like a duck, etc, then what is wrong with labeling it a "duck"?

    Anyway, it seems strange to say "don't label me" and then label yourself.

  4. Rob - so witty you posted it twice, arf arf!

    Diana - thank you. Do let me know if you find that research, won't you?

    D.J. Andrews - thanks for your comment. I think I would draw a distinction between labelling oneself and labelling others. Also, the label 'Christian' is (or should be) something accepted for oneself, based on one's beliefs or membership of a church, I guess. Again, I think that's different from putting a label on someone else based on their behaviour; all the more so if it's just based on a small element of their behaviour.

    Focusing on the label of 'criminal', my point is that I don't see what positive effect labelling a person (as opposed to specific behaviour) in this way has on anyone. And I believe it goes against the Christian idea of all being essentially in the same boat with God; all made to carry his image and glory on the earth but all falling short of that mission.

  5. Okay. I see what you mean about labeling oneself vs others. How about when someone else points to someone and says, "They're a Christian", and they make such a comment based on that person's actions (e.g. narrow-minded hypocritical or seeing the person doing charity work or going into a church)?

    Is calling that person a Christian based on their actions any different than calling someone a criminal based on their actions? Not giving you a hard time here--just being a nuisance because I can be. :)

  6. Hi again Dan, I'm happy for people to call me a Christian based on the fact that I'm part of a church; although even that might not be true - I think it's great when people feel they can take part in a church community despite not thinking of themselves as Christians.

    Mind you, I'd rather people only called me a Christian once they knew I called myself a Christian...

    And I would prefer people not to put any labels on me based on my behaviour (whether positive or negative). I'm not sure there's any difference between calling someone a Christian based on their actions and calling them a criminal based on their actions.