Saturday, January 10, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the use and misuse of labels

I have just updated my post A message for our overseas (and Australian) blogging friends to include a short tour of the University of Jember or UNEJ. I really enjoyed my journey of discovery. It completely took me away from what I had intended to write this morning.

Perhaps this is just as well, because a couple of things happened that triggered that moody introspection to which I am sometimes prone. I no longer feel like writing in quite the same way. However, I do want to make some brief comments about labels.

As human beings we use labels, symbols if you like, to simplify thinking. We attach meanings and emotion to those symbols. In doing so, we create something in our mind that has a real reality to us. It affects the way we think and behave. Where that symbol and attached meanings come to be shared in some way by groups of people, another reality is created.

To illustrate the nature of the complexity that arises, take the symbol Indonesia.

Indonesia is a country. As such, we can describe it in physical and economic terms. We can talk about its constitution, about its institutional structures, about its politics. However, we then go beyond this and attach other attributes, some of which are labels in their own right with their own meanings.

We have to be very careful in doing this. Indonesia's national motto is Unity in Diversity. There are particular historical reasons why this was adopted, reflecting the problems of creating a unity in the midst of great diversity.

I am actually very careful about the use of the 'symbol' Indonesia past a certain point because, to me, it has no meaning. I know something of the history and geography of the country. I know its diversity. Past a certain point, the use of Indonesia or Indonesia as a label simply misleads. Instead, I try to use the correct label where I know it.

I could obviously extend this argument to cover labels such as "christian" and "muslim", labels that have to my mind become so distorted as to lack objective meaning. We have to deal with the fact that as symbols they have acquired a life of their own, but as simple descriptors of two complicated faiths each with its own history and diversity, the actual meaning of the labels is or should be very limited.

Instead of pursuing these examples, I want to look at an Australian issue, what we can call the labelisation of politics and public policy. By this, I simply mean the way in which the language of politics and public policy has become dominated by the use of abstractions and descriptors to the point that people have vanished. They have become labels.

I find this complicated to explain simply, so let me try to illustrate.

In the language of current policy administration, I was going to say modern but this is in fact another label and with the wrong connotations, we talk of inputs, outputs and outcomes.

Nothing wrong with that you might say. After all, the inputs are simply the resources we need, the outputs are the things that we want to get from those resources, the outcomes are the the ultimate things that we hope to achieve. In practice, the usage is quite distorting because what was once a simple process description has acquired a life of its own; the labels have taken over.

In parallel with our emphasis on inputs, outputs and outcomes, we now talk about target groups. The two are linked. Inputs, outputs and outcomes require measurement, so we have to define in some way what we are going to measure. If you look at the language of Mr Rudd, it is redolent with the current approach almost to the point of parody.

This post is bringing back my moody introspection. I may continue it later. In the interim, I will make one point and provide one example.

The constant use of labels in Australia, and not just in politics, creates barriers to understanding. It acts to conceal people and diversity. It leads to intolerance.

The example? Much of the discussion on our indigenous peoples is labelised. Here is a plain language statement that sets out my own position in this area. Read it and compare it with much current discussion.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were the original settlers of this continent. We need to recognise this.

Past official policies as well as community attitudes disadvantaged our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, preventing them from finding a full place in the Australian community. We need to recognise this.

Considering their previously disadvantaged position, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have made enormous advances, in so doing advancing their own position while contributing to the broader Australian community. We need to recognise this.

In doing so, we need to recognise the contribution made by individuals within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as other Australians who made this possible.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were never a single group, but a multiplicity of groups each with their own traditions and histories. We need to recognise this, ensuring that they and all Australians have access as far as possible to those varying pasts.

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still face specific problems. We must deal with these.

Some of these problems reflect past disdvantage and must be dealt with directly.

Some of these problems reflect broader Australian community problems and can only be dealt with in this context.

Some of these problems require individual and community action to resolve. Here Government can only facilitate and support.

This position moves away from the labelisation and symbolisation that has dominated so much of the debate.


Just so I don't lose it, I am adding Neil's comment from his Google reader series. I have to do this because posts disappear from this as new posts are added. Neil wrote:

Much sense in this, and it relates to the linguistic idea of "framing" rather well too, I think. I do worry about the words "labelisation" and "symbolisation" though, Jim; that's just rampant nominalisation! (Pedant strikes again!) Mind you, you might try "symbolification" (which I just made up) -- I won't patent it. You would really love Cormac Millar, I think. Ireland seems equally infected.

Thanks, Neil.


Anonymous said...

I do like the final statement in red.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thought you might, Neil. But just to be clear to readers since I have since added a further statement in red, in fact a comment from Neil!, Neil is referring to the statement in red on Australia's indigenous people.

To my mind, we are in the worst possible world at the moment in this area.

Instead of getting agreement on broad principles on one side, specific activities on the other, we debate individual principles on one side (that is, when we address them at all), outputs on the other.

I get so sick of things that go nowhere, of word crafting that sounds good but actually acts to confuse and conceal.