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Does Public Labeling Contribute to our Apathy and Complacency?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Charles Wallace
May 30, 2017

We are facing a self made conundrum affecting our ability to communicate with the public we serve. It is a perpetual deterioration of our capacity to correspond with and inform our public, brought about by assigning labels to our citizens. In a 2006 article titled Does it matter what we call them? Labelling people on the basis of notions of intellect Jonathan Rix discloses, “Labels carry with them expectations of behavior. They are never value free. They affect perception, expectation and response. In using them, we call up a range of stereotypes that commonly define an individual with that label.” What we don’t perceive is how the use of specific labels affect the individual user in their responses to those labeled.

Two commonly used labels attached to the public are apathetic and complacent, both of which invoke specific perceptions and expectations of those labeled. They also invoke a response process within the user of the labels. As British politician Peter Mandelson states “The moment you start reducing expectations, you risk introducing complacency.” Meaning, in this case, the user of such labels may in turn become apthetic and complacent toward those labeled, affecting job performance to the point of altering ones own ability to communicate and represent their intended message. Instead of charging forward with their intended message or duties, they may begin to perform without change or new intent, day after day, year after year, the same thing over and over, conceivably even falling below the unenviable standard of status quo.

“The most damaging phrase in the human language may well be, IT WAS ALWAYS DONE THAT WAY,” a profound statement by Grace Hopper, the former US Navy Rear Admiral in the 1987 April/May OCLC Newsletter titled The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper by Philip Scheiber. A common occurance throughout Public Administration, many have accepted it was always done that way as common practice, including the negative labeling of the public. As new personnel began their employment, many were taught by supervisors and peers who accepted labeling as normal. Their biases and labeling were projected as part of the training to validate why things were done they way they were. It was just the way it was. Change may even have been frowned upon because it upset the status quo within an organization.

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Winston Churchill once said, “What is adequacy? Adequacy is no standard at all.” Users of commonplace labeling are not necessarily doing a bad job, but the effects of the negative perception and expectation biases toward their citizens slowly increases complacency within the users, ultimately altering their job execution to an adequate performance level or less.

When we, as label users, are affected by the same apathy and complacency we believe the citizens possess, change never occurs and stagnation of our programs sets in and begins to weigh heavily upon our staff and those we are charged to serve. As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” Progress comes to a grinding halt. No change. No goals. No advancement.

In a 2010 Huffington Post article titled An Interview with Howard Zinn, Howard Zinn stated, “What is called “apathy” is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness on the part of the ordinary citizen, a feeling of impotence in the face of enormous power. It’s not that people are apathetic; they do care about what is going on, but don’t know what to do about it, so they do nothing, and appear to be indifferent.” Public administrators need to empathize with the citizens and communities we serve. Labeling creates a negative impact upon our citizens and upon ourselves. A concerted effort by all to rebuild trust, understanding and cooperation needs to begin today.

Labels are a part of everyday society. Whether we wish to admit it or not, they proliferate in every family, every street corner in every community, and throughout business and industry. We assign labels to those who are different, or who challenge the status quo. We label those who don’t hold our same beliefs in politics, or religion, or sexual orientation. Recognizing the use of labels affects not only those labeled, but ourselves personally. Complaining about those (insert label here) people is, an extension of ourselves and our beliefs. Understanding the assigning of labels presents barriers to what we are attempting to achieve at work and in our private lives is the first step toward change. If we eliminate our use of labels towards individuals and groups, we create a positive environment for cooperation, collaboration and constructive transformation.


Author: Chuck Wallace is the President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA). He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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