13 April 2007

Name Calling

We live in an abusive culture.

In our society, it is acceptable for a grown man, speaking on the air, to publicly insult a former First Lady of the United States - repeatedly - for laughs. It is acceptable for other men to publicly insult veterans and impugn the good faith of heroes who have lost limbs in combat. It is acceptable for women to insult and demean other women who have lost children in combat, or spouses and other family members in catastrophic acts of terrorism.

In our culture, such people are lavishly rewarded, with air time, publicity, admiration, money, and various other forms of power. So of course, such a person would expect to be admired and rewarded for insulting and demeaning a team of beautiful, graceful, intelligent young women, women whose ancestry differs from theirs, as though that fact of being were somehow a shameful thing.

When directly confronted, these individuals often claim that they are 'only joking' and that those who object should 'lighten up' and 'take things less seriously'. They insist that they are actually good people, that they should be judged by their actions and not by their words, when they - and all their witnesses - know perfectly well that, in their profession, their words are their actions.

No, these people are not joking, and there is nothing amusing about this behavior. They are practicing emotional and social abuse, whether consciously or unconsciously; and as they model this behavior, they train us, as a society, to accept abusiveness as the normal form of human interaction.

Emotional abuse often begins with mean, childish jokes at the expense of the person being targeted [in social abuse, it's at the expense of either a prominent person, or a group]. Disparagement of the person's objections [or of the group's protestation] comes next [consider the familiar lines, "You're too serious", "You take everything personally", "You have no sense of humor", "You can't take a joke"]. Blaming the person or group for the abuse, as though they compelled the abuser to act out against them by virtue of some hideous, fascinating flaw, comes next; and when the victim - and the audience - are sufficiently beaten down and desensitized, name-calling begins.

Name-calling is the antagonistic form of labeling. It is pejorative and its purpose is straightforward. This rhetorical device invites a simplistic emotional response; it is a method of 'enemy creation'. Name-callers create or exploit enmity, divisiveness, revulsion, contempt, a sense that it's 'us' against 'them'. The targets of this vitriol, if it is accepted, are not seen as human beings, but as categories or objects.

Once the targets are perceived as non-human, some form of hostile acting out may be incited, even actually practiced. This may be covert social violence, such as shunning, exclusion, refusal to hire or promote those who belong to any of the negatively labeled groups; but it has also been, all too often, actual physical harm, even murder.

Given the prevalence and popularity of name-calling in our public space in recent years [in print, on radio, on television], it is encouraging when people take a stand against it and other forms of social abusiveness. It is especially encouraging when members of the group that is being encouraged to practice abuse - overtly or covertly - instead take a stand to support the group being demeaned and abused. And it is most encouraging of all when those who abuse others, and by their public behavior advocate abusiveness as a way of life, are exposed, and deposed, and prevented from doing further harm.

It will be more encouraging still if, instead of an isolated incident, such a principled stand against abuse and prejudice is the beginning of a trend.

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