Human beings are incredibly complex creatures, yet we try so hard to simplify one another. We divide up into our warring factions and create tidy little labels which we affix upon the foreheads of our enemies, ignoring the fullness of their nuanced humanity so that we might more easily vilify them.
According to Donald Trump and his followers, Hillary Clinton is a criminal, a fascist, the devil, and a liar. To the Clinton establishment, Trump is scary, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and a demagogue. The media seizes these terms, neatly applying each label, and before long, that’s how we know each candidate. They are no longer Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They are the demagogue and the liar. Whichever candidate we do not agree with, those names are how we come to know them.
Names are powerful things, each one a cognitive bomb that sends out waves of associations within the language centers of our brains. Think of the way lawyers work. In the case of an auto accident, the defense might say that a vehicle “contacted” another car, while the prosecutor might change the language up, saying this same vehicle “crashed” into it. The two words paint wildly different pictures in our heads, but neither fully describes the event. They’re simply words designed to create a custom narrative rather than being aimed at revealing truth.
And we do lose sight of the truth when we become mired in these simplified, agenda-driven labels. Most people tend to choose the path of least resistance—they prefer not to think more than necessary, and want large, complex events—like an election—to be broken up into the smallest digestible pieces. This means a set of familiar, easily understood terms that can’t possibly accurately describe a human being. And this election, in particular, is rife with them. When we can look past the labels, though, we gain a better understanding of the human political figures behind them, as well as of those who apply those labels to them in the first place.
To better understand the destructive power of labels, let’s take a look at an all-too-common buzzword that’s circulating this election cycle, at what it means, and what’s really behind its use.
There is one term that appears more than any other, popping up across social media and the news, and coming with special vehemence from the mouths of activists —“hate”. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that to hate is, “To hold in very strong dislike; to detest; to bear malice to. The opposite of to love.” It’s a very real attitude based in very real emotions, and hatred, unchecked and irrational, leads to destruction and pain, usually for both the hated, and the one who hates.
But there’s a problem with its current use. “Hate” is no longer confined to its dictionary definition. It’s now become another label, thoughtlessly applied to those who criticize culturally accepted stances rather than those who genuinely hold hatred. It’s an “instant disenfranchisement” button that, when pressed, instantly removes the credibility of an individual or an organization. It is a nuclear weapon, a way to render an opponent culturally irrelevant.
But let’s go back to the dictionary definition of the term. When we accuse someone of “hate speech,” or label an organization a “hate group,” what are we really saying? Do we mean that this individual or this organization harbor a loathing for, say, a certain people group? No—we’re often simply saying that they don’t agree with our stances, and we’re angry about that. They somehow threaten us and our way of life, and that’s scary.
Objectively looking at the ubiquitous example of the gay marriage debate, the cultural war between conservative Christianity and social progressives, we see this fallacy in action. An activist might accuse a pastor of engaging in “hate speech” if that pastor teaches that homosexuality is a “sin,” that it is somehow inherently wrong. But how do the Christians who embrace this teaching actually feel? Do they truly feel hatred and malice? Loathing? A desire to harm? Sometimes, yes. There are most certainly Christians who employ irrationally hurtful rhetoric when engaging the LGBTQ community. But when a distinction is not drawn between actual malice and a sincerely divergent opinion based on an informed worldview, we cheapen the word “hate”.
To show an example of such a worldview, Christian theology advocates a stance of genuine love—not tolerance, not forbearance, but sincere love. That same theology also teaches that human beings who choose not to follow God’s commands are forever separated from God at death—a torturous condition. Believing this, what Christian would want that to happen to their fellow man, whom they love?
And yet the complexities of this situation are boiled down to a simple term. For a world that embraces tolerance, we are often quick to abandon that stance in the face of those who do not agree with us. In most cases, simplifying an opponent’s argument with a buzzword is wrong, and ignores the fact that tolerance is bi-directional. Seek to understand your opponent—humanize them through dialogue rather than simplifying them through labels. That way, the blows stop being traded, and peace can reign.
The same could be said of all of the labels which are applied to the current presidential candidates—racist, fascist, xenophobe, communist, liar, and so on. These are being treated as easy “I win” buttons, pressed without any effort to truly get to know the candidates. Even the word “love” has become a weapon, becoming the swift uppercut after a succession of jabs with the word “hate”—when someone engages in hate they fail to treat their fellow man with “love,” something that “our side” possesses. Thus, the opponent is doubly damned. This robs love of its power.
Love and hate are expressions of extremes. They are the absolutes, the very best and the very worst. But who among us are truly the very best? Who are the very worst? When we set people up—in this case, our presidential candidates—as either saviors or cartoon villains, we, as voters, lose out on the information we need to make good decisions.
That savior could end up being something darker than we imagine, and the villain could turn out to have a more human heart than we thought possible.