As you can imagine, over the years I’ve met with lots of parents because we’re concerned about their child’s progress. The classic one is spelling: “We’re thinking of having her/him tested for dyslexia” they’ll announce gravely. Now I don’t for a second question the existence of dyslexia, but I’ve always found it interesting that the number of dyslexic pupils increases with the level of affluence of the school catchment area. I digress.
“So… should we have her tested?” they ask anxiously. My answer is always the same. “Have her tested if you think having a name for why she finds spelling difficult will help her.” The diagnosis of dyslexia doesn’t suddenly provide a school with additional resources and strategies for teaching that child. Strategies targeted at dyslexic children are often just good practise and work just as well with children that are not dyslexic so they are probably happening. For some people the label is almost a comfort “Oh, so THAT’s why he/she can/can’t do ____________.” I don’t say that with judgement and obviously there are many cases where you need to have your child’s needs diagnosed as they require specialist health care and treatment.
So there is a need for labels; we use them a lot in schools: High achieving, low achieving, free school meals, gifted and talented, English as an additional language, special educational needs etc.. they are the terms that staff use between themselves as a shorthand for talking about groups of children. But what happens when you leave school? Are you labelled at all? Well yes, of course, but by whom and are the labels helpful? We have labels to describe gender, sexuality, faith, race, appearance and interests. Before writing this post I started listing some of the labels someone might attach to me and there was nearly 100. Are they all accurate? Yes. Do they tell you a lot about me? Not really.
Politics if full of labels: leftie, tory, liberal, anti-establishment, pro-establishment, feminist, anarchist, left-wing, right-wing, Blairite. These words have become shorthand for the values people might have. They are so common that we rarely scrutinise how much we really understand by them. I think the best description I found was in this post:
“They [labels] give us a comfy vagueness of meaning, without having to bother with the hard graft of true understanding.”
Whilst I use the term “left wing” to describe myself, I often wish we could do away with speaking about political views within these limited terms. Firstly, by separating views into “right wing” or “left wing” it means people feel as though they have to “pick a side” and stick with it. These labels are clumsy; they lack nuance and don’t accurately describe people’s views which evolve and change all the time. Most people (myself included) are a mix of what would traditionally be considered “left wing” and “right wing” beliefs. I attend local Labour Party meetings which means I sit in rooms with 12-15 Labour party members and we talk about local politics. All of these people are “left-wing” but their views vary hugely and the term left-wing doesn’t begin to explain what these people believe.
Secondly, there have been occasions when I’ve given my opinion on an issue and the response has been “well you’re a leftie – you would say that.” As if having left-wing views is how I was born or the way I will always think rather than a choice I make about each issue. I find this way of thinking particularly unhelpful because it suggests your political views aren’t based on any sort of conscious thought process (which arguably for some people, they aren’t.) It implies people are born to either a “left wing” or “right wing” family and that’s the side they’re on for the rest of their lives.
When it comes to voting labels complicate things further. You have to once again pick a side. My rather fantastic friend Kirsty once made a rather brilliant off -the-cuff suggestion that people should be able to vote between two parties on individual policies. I loved this idea – the two main parties wouldn’t just be able to take chunks out of one another because they would need votes each other’s “supporters”. People would be able to openly discuss the different viewpoints without feeling pressured to commit to one side or party. It might lead to a more honest way of doing politics.
I’m not sure what the answer is but I do think being labelled as part of a particular side can close down debate and discussion because it then becomes about one side proving the other wrong. I also think some people feel intimidated by political labels it makes them feel they “don’t know enough” to have an opinion.
It’s also subjective. Both Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn have been described as radical. Ed Miliband was criticised for being too left-wing by some groups and too right-wing by others. David Cameron has been criticised by Conservative backbenchers for being too left wing on equal rights. One man’s Corbyn is another man’s Gove. No wonder people are confused – the definitions of these labels seem to change depending on who is using them.
If I’m really honest with myself perhaps my main concern is that labels are just so lazy. At school I often remind/nag children about being specific with their vocabulary choices. I really try and discourage them from using lists of adjectives to describe nouns but if they really must use an adjective at least let it be meaningful and accurate. That’s all that this opinionated, cheese-loving, educator asks.