Fascist! Communist! Lunatic! Murderer! Paedophile!
What do you do when someone calls you a derogatory name, one that really hurts, one that might stick? Your reputation has come under attack. How can you resist?
And it might not be just you. Your group could be labelled and have a hard time dealing with it.
Labelling, including derogatory labelling, happens all the time, and it’s an important issue. Many people care more about their reputation than about their health or happiness. In the olden days when their honour was besmirched, gentlemen would issue demands to engage in duels, which sometimes were lethal. Today, you can go to court with a defamation suit. That’s slow, expensive and may not protect your reputation.
Reputations under attack
This is the second in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, guilt by association, malicious gossip and online attacks.
It’s useful to understand what’s going on when labels are applied. Words have an explicit meaning, a denotation, and implied meanings or connotations. Derogatory labels are rich in negative connotations. The person who calls you a fascist may know little or nothing about fascism as an ideology or political system. They do know that “fascist” is a term of abuse. They use it to discredit you or simply to show they hold you in contempt. Maybe they are upset and want to take it out on you.
The key is to realise that the label is less about being a description and more about associating you with the connotations. This is important. You might want to respond to the literal meaning, which is fine, but this misses the power of the label to shape people’s views — if the label sticks.
It’s relatively easy to see the problems with labels when you don’t agree with them. You know you’re not a fascist and can laugh it off. However, when you agree that someone else really should be called a fascist, it can be difficult to appreciate the hurt and damage.
Consider “conspiracy theorist.” This has a straightforward meaning: someone who believes conspiracies exist. But usually when someone is called a conspiracy theorist, the main effect, and often the main purpose, is to dismiss or discredit them. Conspiracy theorists are presumed to believe in crazy ideas and therefore must themselves be misguided or deluded.
Suppose someone calls you a conspiracy theorist or dismisses one of your ideas by calling it a conspiracy theory. Consider your options.
Maybe it doesn’t matter to you what the person says or thinks. Maybe they have no credibility themselves. It might be safer to ignore the insult because a reply may give it more attention and make people think there is something in it.
Ignoring a label is not so easy when a friend uses it, when several others start using it or when it starts harming your credibility. If you want to win people to your ideas, you may need to respond.
You can say you’re not a conspiracy theorist. You can say, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist” and start explaining your beliefs (“Here’s some of the evidence”). In effect, you are denying the connotations of the label while asserting your ideas. There are many examples of this response, for example “I’m not a racist,” often followed by a comment that might be deemed racist.
The value of this response is in trying to get beyond the label, to get others to discuss the substance of the issues. One disadvantage is implicitly accepting the negative connotations of the label, which means you will continue to come up against prejudicial attitudes.
Accept with pride
You can say, “Yes, I’m a conspiracy theorist — and here’s why.” You can use various techniques to counter the negativity attached to the term. Can you do this alone? Probably not. But over time, some terms can be turned from negatives to positives.
Think of “Black” and “queer.” These were derogatory but eventually became more positive, accepted with pride. The transformation of the words’ connotations paralleled the change in the identity. If you’re part of a group with a stigmatised identity, you can help challenge the stigma by using the label with pride.
Rather than trying to defend, you can attack — and one way is to apply the same label to those who have labelled you. This only works for some names, but it does work for “conspiracy theorist.”
A well-known conspiracy theory is that the US government organised the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York. This theory is often assumed to be absurd and used to discredit anyone who supposedly believes in any conspiracy theory. To turn this around, ask “Who do you think planned the 9/11 attacks?” If they say al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden, you say, “Ah, you believe it was a conspiracy. You’re a conspiracy theorist!” This is a good example because nearly everyone believes 9/11 involved a conspiracy. It’s just a question of which one.
The conspiracy-theory label is seldom applied to the views of government officials. President George W. Bush and others warned that Saddam Hussein had or was getting nuclear weapons — this was the justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but hardly anyone says, “Bush was a conspiracy theorist.”
A counter-label can reveal inconsistencies in thinking. It might lead to a discussion of the meaning of the label.
Sometimes you may have the opportunity for a discussion, and you can refer to the views of experts. For racial epithets, you can mention that scientists say there is only a single human race and there are few genetic differences between ethnic groups.
A group of philosophers, called the particularists, argue that conspiracy theories need to be assessed on their merits, just like any other theories. In other words, they argue that explanations involving conspiracies should not be dismissed out of hand, or assumed to reflect poor thinking, but instead evaluated like other sorts of explanations. This is a perfectly rational argument, but that’s not the point. What you do by raising this perspective is draw on the authority of experts.
You may be able to distract or derail abusive comments with a humorous response. An off-beat or unexpected reply can sometimes make it difficult for the other person to maintain their mood of condemnation. You can make fun of the topic, make fun of yourself or introduce an absurdity that disrupts the serious intent of the attacker.
“You know who I think was behind 9/11? Elvis.” If you pick your example carefully, the labeller may not know whether you’re being serious. “You mean you’re not a shape-shifting lizard like me?” This reply will only make sense to someone familiar with this particular conspiracy theory. Ideally, you can expose some of the lack of logic behind labelling and encourage thinking about what a conspiracy theory is.
On some occasions, you may decide there is a serious and helpful intent behind the label. Rather than resist, you might reconsider your position. This doesn’t mean you agree with the label or the derogatory intent behind it, but instead of resisting, you try to join the person criticising your views. This can be disconcerting to them, and they may not know whether you’re being serious.
“I’m with you. Some conspiracy theories are goofy. We ought to check carefully before going down the conspiracy rabbit hole.”
“My mother told me never to believe a conspiracy is involved when incompetence or pure chance could be an explanation.”
The examples here involve one-on-one interactions, but there are many other situations where derogatory labelling comes into play. The same sorts of responses are usually possible. A lot depends on the circumstances, your skills, your assessment of the attackers, and the topic. A humorous response may work when you’re called a conspiracy theorist, but maybe not when a racial or sexual epithet is deployed.
Be creative, and be experimental. You can learn what works by trying out a variety of responses with different people and seeing what happens. If you’re able to strike up a conversation or stimulate some thinking or make the engagement less serious, you’ve been successful. If so, tell others about your techniques. We all need to know.
Thanks to Ben Case, Kelly Gates, Kurtis Hagen, Julia LeMonde and Erin Twyford for helpful comments.