News & Events

Leadership Likes: Mrs Bradshaw

LABELLING IS FOR JARS, NOT FOR PEOPLE

In my assembly this week, I reflected that we could become unhealthily obsessed with labels in a world of short social media biographies and hashtags. Of course, I acknowledge that there is something innate and entirely human about categorising things. Our cavemen ancestors needed to quickly distinguish between human and tiger, or stick and snake. It was a matter of life and death. And there are certainly situations in which women and children need to make similarly quick assessments of risk. All women know the instinctive, immediate assessment they make when a second passenger enters their empty train carriage—man or woman, old or young, drunk or sober, friendly or threatening. I certainly do not advocate a world where we override these important human instincts.

However, in my opinion, our media and social media encourage the overuse of labels. And in doing so, we are simplifying complex issues and sowing division where the discussion would be so much more productive. We have come a long way from our hunter-gatherers in our ability to reason, construct arguments, and discuss the abstract. It seems a shame to behave as though all we know how to do, is decide which one of two tribes someone belongs to and treat them accordingly.

It appears that for a lot of people, the use of labels has stopped us from seeing the whole person, stopped us appreciating the nuance of an argument and has made us lazy in our assessment of other people. We can simply write off people who choose a different label to us. We don’t ask any follow-up questions; in fact, we often don’t think they are worth talking to at all. And so we instead seek out people who have chosen the same label as us, and we listen to them, comforted by the fact that what they say doesn’t challenge us. Reassured that our echo chamber is proving we chose the correct label.

We are being forced into opposing boxes on so many issues when the reality is so much more complicated. It is easy to list examples of this oversimplification: Vaxer or anti-vaxxer, Brexiter or Remainer, pro-life or pro-choice. The list goes on. And yet I would not want to pick any of these labels and let it convey my entire position. And I wouldn’t expect anyone else to.

Where in this binary equation is the room for the person who believes that vaccines are safe and effective but should be used primarily in vulnerable groups. Any mandate of vaccines, which we are seeing in other countries, would set a worrying precedent for individual liberty? Where is their box? What’s their hashtag? Where in this thought of ‘you are either with us or against us’ mentality is there room for the person who believes that women should have bodily autonomy; and is therefore concerned about the current wave of heartbeat bills in the US, but who also believes that human life is sacred and that abortion rates in the UK are too high. Where can that person go to have that conversation?

In my assembly, I encouraged the pupils to avoid asking people questions that were simply asking people to label themselves. I gave the example of ‘are you a feminist?’ I suggested there were better questions to ask. How about ‘do you think equality of opportunity should be the goal or do you think an equal society needs an element of equality of outcome?’ Or, ‘If women have equal rights in law to vote, to own property, to earn equally, what are the new threats to women’s rights that society should be taking notice of?’

I urged them to ask questions of each other and the adults in their lives, which can’t be answered in one word. Questions that start conversations rather than end them. Questions that might challenge their views and particularly that might challenge opinions expressed as fact on social media and even in mainstream media. Because on most issues, the world is not split into two boxes. And labels are for jars, not for people.

Mrs Sophie Bradshaw
Deputy Head (Sixth Form and Operations)

 

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