February 4, 2010

The Dangers of Labeling

Beware "the human propensity to name something, to categorise it, and then discover its properties vanish before our eyes." -- Shawn Callahan, Anecdote, Australia

Shawn recently wrote a terrific blog post, sharing and reflecting upon a story about Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–73), a Swiss-born American zoologist and geologist.
Imagine that you went to Louis Agassiz’s laboratory at Harvard as a student. Agassiz would place a small tin pan in front of you with a small fish and utter the stern requirement that you “should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything related to fishes” nor use any artificial aids like a magnifying glass until he gave you permission to do so. As one student said, “To my inquiry ‘What shall I do?’ he said in effect “Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think you have done the work, I will question you”. Students kept telling Agassiz what they had found and Agassiz kept saying “That is not right.” This went on, typically, for 100 or more hours with the same now “loathsome” fish. Agassiz would keep asking “What is it like?,” “Do you see it yet?” and saying “You have not looked carefully” and “You have 2 eyes, 2 hands, and 1 fish”. Gradually, things would begin to change. One student replied to the professor’s query as to whether he had seen one of the most conspicuous features of the fish, the symmetrical sides with paired organs, “No I have not seen it yet, but I see how little I saw before.” Agassiz replied, “That is next best . . . now put away your fish, go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish”. Another student reported the following experience: “I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned. ‘That is right,’ said he, "a pencil is one of the best eyes.”
Shawn explained, "Agassiz (nicely told by Karl Weick on an article on richness) was acutely aware of the human propensity to name something, to categorise it, and then discover its properties vanish before our eyes. Once named we no longer need to attend to the details to work it out."

Refraining from labeling can help us to truly see an object or a situation. Shawn offers great advice on helping an organization tell their strategic story. I'm struck by the parallels to effective interpersonal communication.

I've written in the past about the dangers of assumption. And about the importance of being in the moment, and not making assumptions about the future. We want to be in control; we want to get to a comfortable place of knowledge, to assume we understand something in its entirety. Our eagerness to please may sometimes result from ego, and it may also result from a genuine kindness, and a strong desire to express empathy.

I've also written about the terrific work of Exhale, and Shawn's post got me thinking about what happens when someone is labeled A Woman Who Had an Abortion, or, A Woman Who Decided Not to Have an Abortion.

When we jump to label, we loose details such as context and emotion, details that are critical to true understanding.

1 comment:

  1. What is so interesting about this, is one of the reasons Exhale started using the term "woman who had an abortion" was to get away from the negative labeling of "post-abortive woman" and to try to speak plainly about a shared experience, rather than an identity-defining experience. And yet, how easy this becomes a new way to label someone too. Makes me think about the "danger of a single story" and how we need multiple, complex stories to understand a person.



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