The Importance of Labels

Those who work in certain regulated industries, most especially the pharmaceutical field, know that labels are important. In fact, companies have people who do nothing but manage the labels of their products, and the language on them. This is because a change of even the positioning of a comma can require going through a regulatory re-approval process.

While this might seem like a lot of bureaucratic hassle to some, the reasoning is that a minor typographical error on a label can cost lives.

There are many aspects of life other than technical communication where this is true, and I have recently had the sad occasion to experience one case.

Labels and Ignorance

My sister-in-law speaks fluent Russian, and is a qualified translator from that language into Spanish or Catalan. Some years ago – in fact before she was my sister-in-law – she brought home a young scientist from the Soviet navy. There – first label (in case you didn’t get it – “Soviet”). They fell in love, and married. The labeled navy had stopped paying its members, and her husband started his own business. Most people here in Barcelona think of him as a Russian (get the idea?). But he is actually from Kiev, which means he is really a Ukrainian. He speaks both languages, as well as English and Spanish.

It has probably not escaped you, dear readers, that both the Ukraine and Catalonia (which has Barcelona for its capital) have been in the news recently. In the eyes of some, there are parallels between events in both places.

The Ukraine was long integrated into the Soviet Union, and had no identity of its own. After the fall of the communist regime, the Ukraine regained its independence and identity as a country.

Catalonia also had a long history as an independent country, sometimes aligned with other kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula, most notably Aragon. On September 11, 1714, Castilian  and French forces broke the siege of Barcelona, and ended the War of the Spanish Succession with the integration of Catalonia into what is now known as Spain.

In this year, the tricentennial of that defeat, Catalonia – at least a goodly part of it – has chosen to express a desire to once again become an independent country, separate from Spain, and within the European Union. The reasons are varied, and I’m not going to go into a long discussion here of Spanish-Catalan politics, which are Byzantine enough for the most avid conspiracy theorist. Suffice it to say that there is a large nationalist current here in Catalonia.

There are a number of active political movements here, largely young people (but not entirely), largely inspired by the indignados of a few years ago – similar to the occupy movements in North America. Most of these movements get identified as left and populist. This in contrast to the Spanish central government, which is generally considered to be hard core conservative. Most nationalist movements tend to be on the right of the political spectrum, but here in Catalonia, there are several different nationalist parties, some on the right, others on the left. The current Catalan government can be identified as nationalist and centre-right.

Some people on the populist nationalist left of Catalonia, have interpreted events in the Ukraine in an interesting way: they still see Russia as stemming from a leftist socialist heritage, and they view the current pro-European Ukrainian government as being on the right. Since the Russian media have been accusing the Ukrainian government of being fascists, these young people, who see themselves aligned with causes on the left, believe it to be true, and haven’t done any critical questioning of the role of the large neighboring country, with its own expansionist ideas.

According to them, the Russian separatists of eastern Ukraine are victims of Ukrainian fascism. For them, the Russians, like the Catalans, are simply trying to express their own minority culture, and that they have the right to secede from the Ukrainian oppressor, just as the Catalans do from the Spanish oppressor.

This is where my brother-in-law comes in. His sister and her husband (from Kiev) were visiting in Barcelona. All the family (and we have a large family here) knows them, and we all get along famously. They are warm, generous people.

On October 11, they attended a meeting organized by the Committee for Solidarity with with Antifascist Ukrainians, to discuss the situation there. These members of my extended family, who identify themselves as Ukrainian nationalists, in the sense of maintaining there independence from Russia, had negotiated with the organizers to come and speak. They tried to explain their point of view, but were heckled down, and expelled from the meeting, which did not want to hear their side.

Once outside, a group of young people, identified as part of the “redskin” movement – also known as  Catalan Revolutionary Independence Movement (populist nationalist extreme leftattacked my family members with motorcycle helmets. One of them – let’s call him Dimitri (not his real name), was struck directly on the head, and fell to the ground unconscious. This is a video someone took of the attack:

Dimitri was in a coma for three weeks, during which surgeons had to remove two pieces of his frontal lobe. Fortunately, Dimitri can walk and talk, produce words in a few languages other than Russian (but not speak fluently, though he could before), read, write, etc. But he doesn’t remember most people, barely recognizes himself in the mirror, and can’t count beyond four. Others in the family were less seriously injured.

Keep in mind that the people under attack here are my family members, known personally to to me. Now they are in the news.

All for a label someone else imposed on them.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (, a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium ( and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Labels”

  1. On one hand, horrifying. Please express my and Linda’s concern for Dimitri and sincere wishes for further recovery.

    On the other hand, incredibly familiar and depressing. We have the illusion of free and open exchange of information, and the reality of better propaganda amplification everywhere. Herr “Big Lie” Goebbels himself would be so thrilled.

    Have you considered polishing this up for submission to the op-ed column of the mainstream media outlet of your choosing?

    Much love, Z.

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