The Problem with Name-Calling

February 19, 2007

Professor Alan Wolfe channels John Stuart Mill in a recent blogpost on The New Republic’s Open University blog. Discussing the use of the label “anti-Semite,” Professor Wolfe invokes Mill’s discussion of “the social stigma” in On Liberty. Wolfe writes:

Mill addressed the application of what he called “the social stigma” to unpopular ideas. It is true that stigmatization “kills no one” and “roots out no opinions,” Mill argued, but, he continued, “the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.” Like deTocqueville, from whom he borrowed the argument, Mill was persuaded that explicit, formal censorship was not the only method, nor even the most effective method, for suppressing ideas. Attaching invidious labels to those ideas, as a way of trying to isolate them from polite company, represents an insidious form of illiberalism of which we ought to be wary.

Whether or not one agrees with Wolfe’s analysis in this instance, one cannot deny the harmful effect that “invidious labels” can have on meaningful discussion. Both sides of the political spectrum have their labels. The right, to automatically discredit arguments or people, may use “feminist,” “radical,” or “leftist.” And the left may use “sexist,” “homophobic,” or “racist.”

The problem with these terms is not their existence. In fact, one would be foolish to assume that we could function without a way to quickly group and define a line of argument.  However, as Wolfe states in response to criticism from Jeffrey Herf and David Greenberg, using these terms simply to call names “is not to engage the discussion.”  Once someone quickly discredits an entire argument, the kernel of truth or wisdom that the argument may contain is lost.

What does this have to do with higher education? A look through The Torch and past cases will show that when controversy erupts, the first response of those offended is to attach an inflammatory label to the offenders and their actions. And, when administrators, often the president of the college or university, make their now-obligatory apologies, instead of fostering a discussion about the incident, they quickly confess their offense and attach a label to those being persecuted. If these responses continue, how will students know to act differently?

Many institutions of higher education include a statement about “the search for truth” in their missions. However, the actions of administrators, professors, and students are often antithetical to that goal. At a time when opinions and lines of argument are too quickly discredited with name-calling, especially on campus, administrators and professors should renew their commitment to analyzing arguments, even those they find the most despicable. If they don’t, we will continue to see a population that believes calling someone else a name is the best way to counter an opposing argument.