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The rise of the labellers

By Michael Thompson - posted Tuesday, 11 November 2014

There is an insidious tendency creeping into modern discourse of labelling people with whom one disagrees. Such a tactic violates two fundamental principles of our democracy – the right to innocence unless proven guilty and the right to free speech.

We have labels like Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, Asianophobic, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, androgynist, anti-Semitic and so many others. It seems each day a new label is invented. If you want to silence someone you disagree with simply invent a label that you can pin upon them.

We can take the phobic words as an example but the same principles apply to other labels. A phobia is defined as a fear or extreme dislike of someone or something. Sometimes the word when used outside clinical areas seems to have several confusing meanings. It can be used to mean a fear, a dislike, a prejudice or simply a negative attitude. Such a confusion of meaning can often be used to manipulate a discussion such that, when challenged, a person can claim to have meant something other than what they really did mean. Fear, dislike, prejudice and negative attitudes are all perfectly adequate words so why not simply say what you mean instead of using a label and have people try and guess what you mean? Whichever meaning it is intended to carry is ultimately not that important since the same principles apply to all its meanings.


The right to be presumed innocent

If you express the opinion that someone is xenophobic you have to have some clear evidence to back up your claim – the same principles should apply to your 'diagnosis' as applies to clinical phobias.

People who have arachnophobia have a fear and intense dislike of spiders. This means all spiders always and everywhere. It does not mean that on one particular occasion they felt fear and dislike of a spider. Such fear may be perfectly natural if you were to wake one morning with a tarantula on your pillow. A phobia is an ongoing deeply permeating response to something.

When we see someone label another person as Islamophobic it is usually based on one particular example of behaviour or one expressed opinion. For example, if someone thinks that wearing a Muslim face covering in parliament house is a threat to security they can be labelled as Islamophobic without any other supporting evidence.

No doctor would make a diagnosis of phobia based on one instance. Not two or three even. There has to be a continually consistent pattern of physiological response for a phobia to be present. To label someone as Islamophobic simply on the basis of one or two opinions or actions is patently an abuse of the word.

If someone expresses an opinion that another is phobic without adequate evidence to support such a claim they lack all integrity. Like any opinion that is not supported by the facts it sounds hollow and the person comes across as shallow and reactionary. They have no respect for due process and the reputation of the person whom they judge. Of course everyone has the right to be shallow and disrespectful but why would you want to exercise that right? What is the point of expressing such an ill-informed opinion especially when it concerns serious subject matter?


The right to freedom of speech

Even supposing that you do have solid evidence that a person is definitely Islamophobic then it does not exclude them from the right to free speech and any action which does not violate the rights of others.

An Islamophobic person might agree with the banning of Muslim head dress in the parliament building but the fact that he is judged Islamophobic does not negate his right to present his argument. We should be making decisions based on the quality of the argument and not on the psychological health or prejudice of the person making the argument. Everyone has a right to be heard.

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About the Author

Michael Thompson is a freelance writer and blogger interested in social issues. His particular focus is on exposing the emotional manipulation that passes for reasonable and logical debate in many social issues. He believes civilised society changes for the better when it does so for good reasons and not because the loudest, most aggressive or most manipulative of its citizens get their way. His blog can be found at Social Justice Issues.

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