Is ‘regulatory’ a better label (Position descriptor) than ‘authoritarian’ on PositionDial?

We often have a slightly different understanding of different terms.

Although Google, and it’s crowd-powered, trusted (by most) often top result, Wikipedia. … provides the see I told you or aha, you were wrong… oh yeah, moments. Removing much of the room for doubt…

But yet still certain words provoke responses. Differences of understanding, and positive or negative connotations.

Like “authoritarian”.

An example PositionDial including the ‘authoritarian’ Position descriptor


As outlined in our ‘axis ethos’ – on PositionDial, our aim is ‘labels’ or Position descriptors which are the clearest to understand, and at the same time the least offensive to those whose Positions fall into that ‘side.’

We have also been clear, that Position descriptors are up for questioning, debate, improvement when needed.

Not least because, as the late great Ciborra said- in categories, and particularly – between categories – there is suffering (yes, in relation to information systems).

So as we’ve had a few tweets on this particular axis / label lately. And it has been one I’ve wondered about previously, anyway, and have been surprised we haven’t had more feedback on. It seems well worth delving into at this juncture. (Not least as, with the general election fast approaching, avoiding discomfort to our users, political parties and indeed political candidates at this crucial time is high priority).


Bearing in mind, first of all, we never label a side as ‘good‘. But neither, do we want to label a side, or have a label that is seen to be, ‘bad‘.

So, to explore these comments and challenges, and the alternative proposed. I will ask here three questions:

  1. Does authoritarian mean control? (The semantic question)
  2. Is authoritarian pejorative / offensive? (The palatability question)
  3. Is the alternative proposed (regulatory) better?


1 Does authoritarian mean control?

First of all, semantically, historically, does the word authoritarian mean control? Are we using it correctly?

According to – the word dates back to 1862 – meaning “favoring imposed order over freedom.”

According to the “The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles” (which my late Grandad once conveniently (kindly) gave to me – (unsolicited!) … (and don’t be fooled by the ‘Shorter’ – it’s in two massive chunky hardback tomes).


Authoritarian means:


And authority means:



So in answer to the first question. Authoritarian does mean control and regulation. It is correct and accurate, semantically, logically, to use authoritarian in the way we are using it on the PositionDial.


2 Is authoritarian pejorative / offensive? (The palatability question)

Does the word authoritarian provoke offense? When labelled so? To some, yes. As shown above. Which is of course something we seek to avoid.

It is important here, now, with this, and any other similar such problems with labels we might have in future, to consider very carefully. Even, especially, if only a minority are affected. Because to have all the different shades of grey of positions and views brought together and explored, genuinely, differing perspectives must not be excluded, irritated or offended wherever possible.


3 Is the alternative proposed (regulatory) better?

The alternative proposed is ‘regulatory’.

  • So instead of using authoritarian / libertarian as our axis.
  • We would use regulatory / libertarian instead.

(Keeping libertarian as, as yet, people understand it, and no one has yet been offended by it, and non-regulatory sounds more convoluted- we try to avoid double-barrels where possible).


How do we define better?

For axis labels / position descriptors, we define better as follows:

a) Just as accurate, if not more so,

b) Less offensive (we have already seen that regulatory is less offensive to some, above – so won’t go into this again)

c) Just as understandable, if not more so


a) Context by context accuracy

To explore this, it’s necessary to delve into whether it makes sense to describe all possible positions, in context, as regulatory instead of authoritarian.

For economic contexts.

If we set financial or other penalties on industrial activity deemed environmentally harmful.

This is regulation.

It is controlling of behaviour by industry.

It is therefore authoritarian.

It is also regulatory.


For social contexts.

We set financial or other penalties on drug related activity, eg the possession of drugs for personal use.

This is legislation.

It is controlling of behaviour by individuals.

It is therefore authoritarian.

It is also regulatory.


A broader civil liberties example – we believe as a society (or at least our government) that we should not speak “hateful speech.” To be specific (getting more fictional here for the sake of clarity, please bear with) … if you call me anything in the animal kingdom (dog, pig, rabbit) this is hate.

The government sets financial or other penalties on calling each other animals.

This is regulation / legislation.

It is controlling of behaviour by individuals.

It is therefore authoritarian.

It is also regulatory.


And finally, to give another example, which becomes more and more important in this online age – some believe that the government should not be monitoring us.

The government monitors what we write, say, (think..? ;)) in order to protect us.

When we are free. No one is watching or listening to us.

When we are controlled. It is that there is regulation, determining we should be watched, and monitored. So that extremism can be identified before it harms our society or system.

It is therefore authoritarian.

It is also regulatory (underpinned by government rules and powers to watch us).

So for all applicable contexts explored here ‘regulatory’ does work as a label. Semantically.

What about a Position on having more police on the streets? Can we use ‘regulatory’ then?

Well, at a push. It doesn’t read as neat as authoritarian, but the police are there to enforce legislation and regulation after all, so it does sort of work.

c) Is ‘regulatory’ just as understandable, if not more so?

When someone uses PositionDial. Especially for the first time. Will they ‘get’ what regulatory means?

Will seeing that word, as their ‘Position descriptor’ or label, be any less understandable than seeing the word authoritarian?

Arguably, the word authoritarian is in more common use. It is used in political discourse more. It appears more commonly on political science tests and quizzes and cool stuff like the Political Compass.

Getting it wrong on get-ability

This regulatory vs authoritarian question reminds me of similar wranglings around the eco-friendly / eco- sceptic axis.

Vs the more accurate in some cases – manmade vs natural axis.

In case this isn’t obvious, this came about due to people (well, one of our trusted advisers) saying that eco-friendly vs eco-sceptic isn’t a fair label. That it doesn’t work for him.

That he cares about the environment – about conservation for example, but just doesn’t believe in manmade climate change.

So we started using manmade vs natural as an axis instead for the climate change topic.

Trouble is. No one “got it.”

“What is manmade?” We’ve added the answer to the FAQ. The least ideal ‘resolution!’

Is authoritarian to regulatory as big a leap? Is the understandability factor as problematic?

Probably not.

But still.


Understandabilty is a very important factor.

Because with PositionDial we seek to engage not just political animals, but the politically curious: those who are not sure where they stand, and even less sure where politicians, who want their vote, stand.

So we must not make decisions / change Position descriptors based around semantic sensitivities at a highly intellectual level, at the expense of appealing to, and being used, and understood by, and empowering, those who are not yet as politically engaged and studied.


In summary

So to round up –

  1. “Regulatory” is just as appropriate / accurate as authoritarian to be used as a position descriptor
  2. Regulatory can be less offensive to some than using authoritarian
  3. The only remaining concern is, is it as understandable to PositionDial users, new and existing


Tell us your view: what works better. For you, and everyone?

There can be no better judge than you, the crowd, on this.

  • Do you understand regulatory as well as you understand authoritarian? Even as a label seen quickly / out of context? On a PositionDial?

Here’s a qualitative poll (yup, it’s a thing, or it is now). Please comment below and on Twitter whether we should update authoritarian / libertarian to regulatory / libertarian.

We’re listening. And will act accordingly. And keep this question open to feedback ad infinitum. Look forward to hearing from you.

Tagged , ,

7 thoughts on “Is ‘regulatory’ a better label (Position descriptor) than ‘authoritarian’ on PositionDial?

  1. Lewis says:

    Authoritarian is fine.


  2. Peter Clarke says:

    regulatory is not great but better than authoritarian which has other connotations, sadly people use words that fit their prejudices rather than checking their proper meaning in a dictionary.


    • Mariam says:

      Thanks for feedback Peter. Given we have explored from a dictionary point of view above, your main objection falls under 2) because you feel authoritarian = bad / negative.


  3. Hello, we met at the Nesta event last week. I really appreciate the depth in which you have considered this issue.
    The careful selection of captions is very important, as you acknowledged, but I think that a “qualitative poll” is not the right method. As this work falls in the field of work of information architecture, I think card-sorting is the right methodology. The way you organize information, that is the creation of categories to match the issues with the topics in the graph, is an asset of your company, if well done, this is the real value you provide.
    I know you’ve given much thought to it, and you can continue to refine it, that is why I’m proposing you hire a professional Information Architect.


    • Mariam says:

      Hello Martin, Great to meet you last week and thanks for taking the time to follow up with your comment.

      The PositionDial and the axes / labels we use is at the core of our technology. While I’m familiar with card sorting as an excellent technique for web IA, it doesn’t help us identify the best term where we do not have one. This I have found is only solvable via talking to lots of people – to see whether a better solution can be found.

      To check, especially, that the ‘better solution’ preferred by a few people, doesn’t confuse the majority.

      E.g. using restrictive / open for immigration came out of months of deliberation – and was an improvement over its predecessor.

      I would invite you, and indeed any information architect, to suggest a better label here, as without a better alternative, we are not able to solve.

      Incidentally, I am trained to masters level in social information systems research and design. I do not think this is a pro vs amateur issue. Rather that we need to find the best solution which is inclusive enough to the politically curious as well as the deeply politically engaged (such as yourself).


  4. Mariam says:

    Update: We have changed the ‘authoritarian’ axis label to ‘regulatory’ following further feedback via in-person testing and on Twitter. We will monitor to see whether people find this new label understandable / better. Thanks very much to everyone who has given comments and feedback on this. Please stay in touch and keep sending your views.


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