“Once you label me you negate me.” – Soren Kierkegaard
I have been criticized on occasion during my newspaper career for articles, whether they be news or opinion pieces, published by the newspaper for which I was working at the time. There have even been people who have threatened to, or actually engaged in a boycott of a newspaper at which I worked in reaction to an article or series of articles published by a particular writer. But never once did I, or anyone at the publication ever call these people “haters”.
Disagreement and spirited debate is inevitable and often even welcomed by people in the newspaper business as a barometer indicating the reach of the publication’s writers as well as the health of the democracy within the community it is entrusted to serve.
But why would anyone in the news business welcome criticism? Firstly because it is a sign that people are actually reading the content produced by the publication’s writers. And secondly, by challenging the publication, the reader is unwittingly acknowledging the newspaper’s influence in the community.
But the reason for welcoming disagreement by serious purveyors of news to the public goes beyond the self-interest of one specific news publication. It goes to the heart of democracy itself.
Disagreement — and I mean civil discourse, not the mindless venom often spewed ad nauseam on social media — is important for a healthy and vibrant democracy. Stifling disagreement or dissent by labelling people “haters” is in essence anti-democratic because it seeks to demonize people who choose to voice their opinions.
But what is the power of just one word? Surely our democracy isn’t so fragile that its fabric will be torn by one person or group of people calling other groups or individuals “haters”? And if people can’t call other people haters, what does that say about our constitutional right to freedom of expression?
These are arguments which most certainly warrant further examination, most importantly because these are generally the go-to arguments of people who would use the cloak or our charter to spread hate themselves.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. With freedom of expression comes an quite important caveat. What is expressed carries a weight of responsibility, hence the old adage that freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre.
So does labelling people who oppose a viewpoint as “haters” further civil debate in a democratic society? I would say no, and in doing so I refer readers to one of the most recognized quotes by the acclaimed philosopher noted at the top of this column.
The issue with calling people haters is that it degrades the person instead of rebutting said person’s argument. It is almost a reflex mechanism, like the primal “fight-or-flight” mode. The person who is being intellectually challenged suddenly feels threatened, so the perceived enemies are degraded to something unworthy of personhood — still people but at the same time something less than human. They are tossed into a group to be feared and singularly dismissed simply by labelling them as something other than what they are.
It is an object lesson of weaponizing of language, a convenient tool to herd “sheeple” unwilling or unable to think critically about what they are told. It is a trap for which western society falls far too often: They aren’t Muslims, they are terrorists; they aren’t black people, they are thugs; they are communists, not patriots; all Jewish people love money; local natives are all smugglers. And the list does on and on.
Words can be more that just a bunch of letters on a page, they can distort truth and incite hate. They can afflict invisible wounds that may never heal in a lifetime. That is the danger of labels.
Do I hate people who go around calling other people haters? No. Do I hate this practice when it is used to degrade people, especially in our very own community? Yes, I do. With every fibre of my being.
There are myriad reasons why people use labels, more than I can possibly deconstruct in this space, but the primary motivation is often fear. Fear is a powerful motivator and the reason you see the practice invoked so often in modern times during the run-up to war.
Labelling a group of people allows those who wield the labels to marginalize those whom they fear. It is a mental construct people create to bend their perceptions of society into something more in line with their world view. It is in one instance a crutch, in another a tool with which to bludgeon the perceived enemy. But it is a blunt, indiscriminate tool. It is the atom bomb of propaganda. It does not fell but one person, it eradicates a forest of unique and disparate people when unleashed.
We are all, first and foremost, persons; individuals with different backgrounds, differing world views and our own peculiar set of circumstances from which we have evolved on this tiny blue sphere hurtling through the universe. And we must remain persons if we are to continue co-existing peacefully in this city, across this country, on this planet.
Instead of negating people, how about we all focus harder on creating true constructive dialogue. It is not untenable, all it takes is a smidgen of love for one’s fellow woman and man, and a healthy dose of heartfelt understanding.
Personhood will be all that much better for it.
Greg Kielec is an award-winning reporter and editor with 25 years experience in the news business in Cornwall and the surrounding area.