Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Define "Hate," Would You?

"'Hate group'," Megan McArdle tells us, "is, of course, not a scientific term with a precise definition." In this, I think that she displays a small talent for understatement, because "hate group" is a social term that lack almost any workable definition. And this is true, for the most part, because "hate" lacks anything approaching an workable definition in social discourse.

As near as I can tell, at this point, "hate" can be as simple as not seeing someone as someone else expects that they should be seen. That's a very low bar to clear, and as a result, accusations of hatefulness proliferate. As do accusations that organizations are "hate groups." Ms. McArdle worries: "The broader the definition, the more Americans will be swept up under that label, and the less sustainable it will be." And to a degree, she's right. But that's not the only risk at hand. Commonly, when we talk about hate and hate groups, we use the Nazis as our point of comparison, but they were so monstrous in the eyes of the public that it's hard to match them. And as a result many comparisons seem specious, and this may lead to another problem with the overuse of the word "hate." That it simply becomes a boilerplate trait applied to anyone one doesn't like.

I've been reading a scholarly book on witchcraft, and in the section where the author talks about the histories of the various charges laid at the feet of witches, we learn that the basic discourse between Pagans and Christians in the time of Rome can be summed up as each side basically saying: "We're not the licentious, infanticidal cannibals who harbor sorcerers... YOU"RE the licentious, infanticidal cannibals who harbor sorcerers." There's something disheartening about the idea that such name-calling as a way of deflecting criticism likely goes back thousands of years. And I found myself asking if anyone who wasn't one of the disputing parties actually paid any attention to things like this, or had it become so par for the course, that it was effectively understood as just the way partisanship worked?

For my part, I'm more or less of the opinion that accusations of "hatefulness," or that this or that organization constitute a "hate group," are little more than preaching-to-the-choir name-calling - a reminder of why "they're evil and we're not." Accusations of hate fly back and forth so often that it seems unlikely that everyone leveling it understands what hate likely is. It's become simply another means to giving ourselves license to ignore people who we'd rather not listen to.

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