Against denigration and disregard

We attach labels to people and groups of people, partly because we try to make sense of what we do not understand, and partly to reinforce our identity and belonging to a different group.

“People that are born in that period are weak.”
“People that work in that team are lazy.”
“People that come from that geographical area are dishonest.”

Even if we assume that these types of labels have some truth behind them (they usually do not and are more of a reflection of our internal insecurities, yet humor me for the sake of the argument), the best and more effective approach would be to first understand the deeper level of the manifestation that inititated the labelling, and then try to imagine and build an environment in which the deeper reason can either be leveraged or addressed.

So, for example, if we believe that a group of people is particularly weak, on a deeper level this might mean that they are better in touch with their own feelings and emotions. As a reaction, we could try to figure out a way to make sure that their improved understanding of their selves could be employed and put to good use.

If we assert that a certain team or department is lazy, it might be because they do not have the tools necessary to effectively do their job, or because their team lead is not sufficiently motivating. As a reaction, we might want to try to facilitate their tasks and work in any possible way, or look for another manager.

This happens very seldom. The easiest and most common reaction to labelling is either denigration or disregard. Denigration is where every form of extremism is born: we reinforce the labelling by supporting it with every evidence we might find, and we feed it to the public forum every time it is possible. Disregard is instead working around the group and their characteristics, building walls to keep them out, pretending they do not exist.

It takes a great deal of awareness and courage to act differently when we catch ourselves in lazy labelling.

5 thoughts on “Against denigration and disregard

  1. You have pointed out some home truths to me. Although I consider myself egalitarian and altruistic, I sometimes hear myself “lazy labelling,” ; because it is witty or for some the reasons you enunciated. Labelling appears to value or devalue the individual, because they identify or fail to identify with the same values. Therefore, do you think it has some link to weak self esteem by the perpetrator in that labelling identifies that person to be outside of a group that is ‘better’ in some way than the one being criticized.

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    1. Thank you SO much for your comment! I believe labelling per se is not a bad thing. It helps us understand the World and make sense of it. And it helps us in defining who we are and who we are not. So yes, in a sense, we come from a place of weakness when we label (we do not know). But I want to be super clear about the fact that it is a normal process and we should not beat ourselves up for doing that.
      The problem, I believe, starts when we take our labelling and we give it the status of “truth” or “absolute truth”. We should attempt to maintain awareness on the fact that labels are artificial, and then leave the labelled item (particularly if it is a person) the opportunity to prove us wrong. Empowering them to prove us wrong is to me one of the highest level of leadership/power.
      Hope this answers your questions, have a great week.

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  2. Thanks for clarifying Fabrizio, and for such an erudite suggestion. That has really got me thinking more deeply about labelling, its origins and purposes. Maintaining awareness that it is an unsubstantiated judgement, prone to bias and open to conjecture, is a mature way of considering it, as trying to eliminate it completely is very difficult for some, particularly those for whom it has become a habitual way of communication. Are you suggesting we consciously empower them to prove us wrong in some way?

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    1. Absolutely. If you are in a place of power, and you always are when you attach a label to someone. But let’s say, for example, that you are a leader of a team in which one of the members has been labelled “lazy”, or “aggressive”, or “disturbing”. It is your duty to empower them to prove the label wrong. You might want to start a series of conversations with the person to see where the behaviour (if there is any in the first place) is rooted. Do they need different tools or processes to carry out their work? Do they need more interactions, more time alone, different tasks, more guidance, more freedom? And then, facilitate them and build an environment in which they can thrive.
      The same is very true in other areas. Think about all that is being said and done about immigration: are we really giving expats and immigrants a place and a frame where they can prove our generic and lazy labellings wrong? Could we do more to empower them?

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  3. If we are to speak about immigration then absolutely we should empower them. They need tools, interactions and above all work and a sense of purpose. Particularly the label – lazy. I feel it masks other issues or problems an immigrant or even expat might suffer, rather than the blanket judgement of being lazy without cause.

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