Warning: labels

Let’s avoid labels and keywords, the argot of factions, choosing instead to treat the person in front of us as just that: the person.

If memory serves, it was about this time last year that I wrote about a (relatively) minor dustup on Wilfrid Laurier’s campus regarding free speech, identity politics and campus activism. That incident has been largely forgotten, I suspect, given the pace of the news cycle. 

But now I sit here again, clacking my fingers across the keyboard, reflecting on another incident on my campus parish which has collided free speech and identity politics.

A brief overview, in case you missed the story: A first year grad student, in her role as a TA for Communications 101, presented a clip from TVO’s The Agenda. The clip showed a debate between two University of Toronto professors about the use of genderless pronouns for transgender people. A complaint was filed against the TA, ostensibly about how she created an unsafe learning environment, though I use the passive voice deliberately here; it’s not clear who, or how many, filed the complaint, nor is the specific content of the complaint clear. The TA, subsequently summoned to a meeting with her supervising professor, the chair of her department and an official from the Diversity & Equity Office, clandestinely recorded that meeting, and released the recording to the press. And, as you can imagine, a great clamour arose. Column inches were filled, open letters published, public apologies made and flames in the tire fire known as Twitter dot com rose ever higher. International newspapers picked up the story, and whole affair has been rather embarrassing for Laurier.

Keywords and factions
The way we use (and perhaps abuse) language is central to all this. Questions of academic freedom, rights to self-definition, what qualifies as hate speech, etc., have all been turned over numerous times in the press and online. Predictably, factions have emerged, as they tend to in these politically-charged situations.

I’ve been especially interested in how these factions use language to identify themselves and their opponents. You can really see this in action on social media, which, fertile as a petri dish, encourages a rather, uh, fungal development of all sorts of exotic hashtagged group ID labels and keywords. Folks to the right on this issue categorize their opponents as #SJW (Social Justice Warriors) and #snowflakes. Folks to the left categorize their opponents with #AltRight and #WhiteFragility. One Tweeter even called the TA’s tears, audible in the recording, as a “canny deployment” of #WhiteWomanTears. Yeesh.

I use the word “categorize” above, but I think “dismiss” might be the better choice. In my darker moods, I think “dehumanize” might be even more appropriate. Of course, keywords and labels do have a certain utility; they can be a helpful shorthand to use in an increasingly complex world. But, as Alan Jacobs argues in his splendid new book How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World At Odds (look for a review of it in these pages soon!), keywords “have a tendency to become parasitic: they enter the mind and displace thought.” He elaborates:

When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed ‘victory’ in debate.

A great price indeed. It’s telling that there’s been no talk on campus about the possibility for reconciliation between the aggrieved parties. I can’t help but think that’s because the fault lines between the factions have been, in part, widened by the use of this jargon.

In that light, I’ve been considering a possible resolution for the new term (or New Year, if you’re off campus): let’s avoid labels and keywords, the argot of factions, choosing instead to treat the person in front of us (whether online or in the real world) as just that: the person, not the sociological category, not the political affiliation, not the purveyor of #wrongthink. That might help us understand more deeply the mystery of the imago dei, not to mention the whole “don’t bear false witness” rule. And that, in turn, might bring a little flicker of hope to a campus, a culture at odds.  


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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