Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Henderson's Rules Of Name-Calling

In light of the Ann Coulter flap I've decided to formalize an idea that I've been toying with for some time.

Name-calling has a place in public discourse, but there's a right way to do it and a wrong way. Since the marketplace of ideas exists to advance ideas (duh), the right way avoids using labels that are detrimental to the message.

With that im mind, here are the rules:

  1. Apply to a person a name that is relevant to the ideas being forwarded by that person.

    1. This includes all slurs denoting ethnicity, nationality, or gender.
    2. The person's lack of credentials is relevant only to the issue of whether that person should hold a certain position. A colorful expression noting my legal inexperience would not be relevant to my past bloggage on Supreme Court rulings, but it would be relevant if I sought a court appointment.

  2. Do not use vulgar language.

    1. Many slurs in Rule 1a apply here.
    2. "Homophobe" is counted under this rule. The word originated from the white-hot bigotry of that set of anticonservatives who refuse to accept that rational people can have differing views on the nature of homosexuality. We keep "nigger" out of the realm of civil discourse because of its close association with prejudice; "homophobe" must be treated the same.
    3. An exception to this rule is granted when the purpose of such language is to make fun of prejudice or incivility (and when addressing an adult audience). Classic examples are the Racist Word Association Interview skit on Saturday Night Live, and Iowahawk's forum on political discourse.

  3. The name must not be slanderous.

  4. Nazi references are generally a bad idea. "Islamonazi" may be an exception, but "Islamofascist" carries the same weight.

  5. Names with vague meaning should usually be avoided

    1. Use "liberal" and "conservative" sparingly, and pay close attention to Rule 10.
    2. Do not use "fundamentalist" at all - ESPECIALLY when referring to non-Christians. The word originally applied to a specific faction within Christianity, but that meaning has been lost over the years. It is commonly used synonymously with "fanatical" - see Rule 3. An exception is granted if the audience is exclusively fundamentalist (per its original definition).

  6. Don't use a label that gives more ammo to the opposition than to your side. Have some PR common sense.

  7. Don't use a label that reinforces stereotypes of either the person so labeled or of the speaker.

  8. Make sure that usage of the name is audience-appropriate. (That was a part of Coulter's problem.) The exceptions to rules 2 and 5 serve as examples.

  9. The label must not otherwise distract from the message.

  10. When a label is used, the speaker must explain why the label is deserved. In C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the eponymous bureaucrat from Hell says: "Jargon, not argument is your best ally in keeping him from the Church." This bit of wisdom goes far beyond religion; just replace "Church" with any cause that means a lot to you. Explanations must always outweigh the snappy zingers, otherwise your efforts go straight to Hell.

Here are some names that conform to the rules:

  • Chimpy McHitlerBurton: Used to mock Bush Derangement Syndrome.
  • Christianist: When used to mock Andrew Sullivan; Instapundit has examples here. But do so sparingly.
  • Euroweenie: Refers to leftist Europeans. The issue is the weenyishness, not nationality.
  • Jooooos: Mocks anti-Semites. Number of o's varies.
  • Liar: As long as Rules 3 and 9 is kept.
  • Pleistocene Liberation Organization: Invented by yours truly, used to identify leftist environmentalists whose policies would reverse the direction of human civilization. The Pleistocene was the last epoch before the dawn of humanity.

These do not:

  • Christianist: Coined by Andrew Sullivan, which in this post he summarized as "the complete conflation of Christian faith and secular politics of the hard right." Almost as volatile as "homophobe," this word reinforces antireligious stereotypes.
  • Coulterism: Used to refer to uncivil discourse. Ann is far from the worst of the worst.
  • Das Klintonreich: Also invented by yours truly, as a private joke and not a label for serious discourse. I came up with the name in 1992 when I learned that one of Clinton's close advisors is named Reich.
  • Heterophobe: Distracts attention from real issues and toward the War of Euphemisms.
  • Hitlary: She doesn't get an exemption from Rule 4 until she starts herding off people into concentration camps. This also reinforces prejudices against Clinton detractors - see Rule 7. (Sorry Neal.)
  • Pro-Death, Anti-Choice: Abortion-specific distractions that feed the War of Euphemisms.

Feel free to send in names that you're not sure about.

Update: I just added the 11th rule.

Update: I made a few more changes. The rules on "fundamentalist" and "liberal/conservative" are combined into a single rule. The "fundamentalist" rule now cites an exception. The last three rules have been reordered; what are now Rules 8, 9, and 10 were originally Rules 11, 9, and 10, respectively. The Screwtape quote and additional comments are added to what is now Rule 10.

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