Thursday, January 01, 2009

The tyranny of labels

We're busy building and surprise, surprise what we are getting ain't quite what we would consider acceptable so we have ended up making compromises, to a certain degree, on the quality of the workmanship. It is frustrating to the n'th degree that we get to pay someone to do something just so that we can complain at how badly it has been done. The builders of course know that some things just can't be redone without a huge cost so they play the "what will they accept" game and try to get away with as much, or little, as possible.

A strange way to start a post on "the tyranny of labels" but what got me to thinking about the labels we commonly use to simplify life and discussions was a meeting with the builders where I was complaining about the quality of the carpentry which is pretty shoddy. Surprisingly, the builder agreed that the workmanship was shoddy but blamed it on "South African Quality" and this after having vouched for the (future) quality of their workmanship. By blaming the poor quality on "South African Workmanship" they were implying that, in their particular case, that if it had been done by "Germans" it would have been of better quality. I beg to differ, quality or lack thereof has nothing to do with nationality, it has everything to do with individual training, aptitude and experience not to mention price but it is so convenient to blame it on something that everyone knows is a problem in South Africa i.e. the skills shortage.

This got me to thinking about the labels we commonly apply like "Swiss Quality", "Fat Americans", "German Humour", "Nigerian Corruption" and how really unfair and wrong it is to treat these commonly held conceptions as the rule and the converse doesn't really exist. Personally, having worked with some swiss products, they aren't as good as they should be and I have met numerous thin americans and germans with a sense of humour do exist; as long as you don't mention "the war" (joke courtesy of John Cleese).

The problem with labels is that they stick, we innately like using labels and both marketing departments and those with prejudices to share know it and abuse it. So why do we continue to make these labels? Well, it's because they are partly true but the trick is that they are not wholly true and we have a bit of a weakness for extending what may be generally true to making it absolutely true.

Taking american obesity as an example, 55% of Americans have a BMI of >25 whereas there is a negligible number of Indians that are overweight; so are americans fat? Well, compared with indians, definitely and on average, yes they are, but there is still that 45% of americans who are at the ideal BMI or below it and 45% of a population is a big percentage to ignore by making a sweeping statement like "Americans are overweight"

Labels are particularly dangerous when used either derogatively to put a group of people in a negative light; for example "militant muslim" used often and indiscriminately enough leads people to believe that if you're a muslim you are therefore militant. This example is a bit more tricky than the BMI of americans because objectively assessing whether muslims, christians or any other faith or non faith are more or less prone to militant behaviour is not so easy. I would guess that we are all equally prone to militant behaviour but the point is that nobody really, I think, knows; the label is just attached to an identity and prejudice soon follows.

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