Tuesday, January 20, 2009



I write passionately. When I write, I cannot escape the fact that I believe strongly about certain ideas and issues. When I convey my ideas, I sometimes betray how forcefully I feel about them. My ideas arouse more than just intellectual stimulation; they evoke my emotions, too. At times, my emotions color the way I address an issue, whether seriously or through satire. In short, I can be polemical. I am not always that way. I just know that I can be.

I use the word “hate” from time to time in my writing. I reflected on that the other day. Does this mean I am a “hateful” person? Will someone investigate me because I dare to say that I hate things, arguments or situations? After all, “hate” has become a modern-day “dirty word.” We are taught to revile people who “hate.” But this is simplistic reasoning that fails to truly understand the word. Rather, the negative connotations surrounding “hate” refer only to one sense of the word, yet they pollute the whole.

“Hate” is a powerful, core English word. It has no Latin frills. It is pure German (derHass). It sounds strong. It conveys individual emotion, but that emotion does not necessarily reflect bigotry or personal malice. Rather, the verb “to hate” refers to any personal feeling of “strong dislike” for anything at all, whether another man or a plate of broccoli. See Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th Ed.), “Hate” definition, Meaning 1. Beneath the definition, the dictionary tells us that “hate” “implies a great dislike or aversion, and, with persons as the object, connotes the bearing of malice.” Id. at Explanations (emphasis added).

This is a significant distinction. It explains why people misunderstand the word “hate.” When paired with an individual person or people, the word takes on a more negative character. To say: “I hate Joe” means something entirely different than: “I hate injustice.” In the first example, the speaker voices his personal ill-will, malice and contempt for an individual human being. In that sense, “hate” carries a negative load; it is not good to “hate” other people. But in the second example, the speaker voices the fact that he has a “strong dislike” for a concept, namely, injustice. It is not a bad thing to “strongly dislike” injustice. Rather, one might say it is praiseworthy to strongly dislike injustice, because it suggests that the speaker “strongly likes” justice. “Hate,” then, is not intrinsically bad. It all depends on the object and the context in which the word appears.

“Hate” often appears negatively in racial, political or religious contexts. In these contexts, the word has an especially bad ring, and that ring has corrupted the word’s core. For example, people commonly say: “The Nazis were evil because they hated the Jews.” Here, the verb “to hate” targets individual people (“the Jews”), and an identifying characteristic (their religion). When used in this way, the verb “to hate” not only implies personal malice toward others, but also reveals that the malice flows from a religious source. In this context, “hate” shows not only strong dislike, but violent contempt for other people “for who they are.” It shows a bad motivation for the speaker’s “strong dislike.” It unfairly targets people for their intrinsic characteristics. It is the language of intolerance and bigotry.

Few people would argue that racial or religious bigotry are not “bad.” Colloquially, however, “hate” commonly identifies bigots. Most native English speakers, then, associate this “narrow sense” of the word “hate” with “bigotry.” Bigots undoubtedly “hate” other people. But linguistically, their “brand” of hate is not the only one. There are far less offensive—and far more legitimate—ways in which to use the word. The fact that we tend to associate a core English word with a particularly bad group should not deny its expressive force in contexts in which it should be used. It is eminently possible to use the word “hate” without suggesting that the speaker is a racial or religious bigot. Sometimes it is the best word for the situation. At times it is not. It all depends.

It saddens me that racial and religious intolerance have corrupted the word “hate” because “hate” can honestly convey how a person feels about issues, ideas and concepts. Language is most effective when it gives voice to an individual’s thoughts, impressions, memories, tastes, inclinations, experiences and beliefs. These are things that other people cannot directly perceive; language is the imperfect tool that can convey them. Words that directly voice a person’s mental processes and feelings are among the most vital. “Love,” “like,” “dislike,” and “hate” tell us how other people feel about their world. They reveal passion, indifference and everything in between. Without these words, we would never know how people feel about their circumstances. To that extent, it is essential to free them from unnecessary connotative baggage.

It is possible to use “hate” in a perfectly legitimate way. If a person is not the verb’s object, the word signifies personal belief about something. For example, to say: “I hate this job” indicates that the speaker has “strong dislike” for his work environment. In one stroke, it reveals the speaker’s intense dissatisfaction, unhappiness and frustration with a situation we can all understand. Additionally, by revealing his feelings, the speaker begs more questions: “Why do you hate your job? What is so bad about it? What drives you to feel so strongly about it?” These questions invite the speaker to impart his world to us. They ask him to tell us about the bad office, his malicious coworkers, the ill treatment and bad pay. We learn facts about his situation that make us understand why he feels “hatred” for his job. There is nothing illegitimate about this. Rather, when coupled with a non-personal object, the verb “to hate” tells a unique, individual story about the speaker.

“Hate” can also reveal passion in a speaker’s viewpoints. This is especially true when the verb “to hate” takes a concept or idea as an object. I do this often, and sometimes consciously choose the word “hate” because it honestly conveys my “strong dislike” for certain ideas or concepts. Recently, for example, I titled an article: “I Hate Euphemisms.” That accurately reflects how I feel about circuitous, weak language that attempts to obscure patent realities. I “strongly dislike” it. It bothers me on a fundamental, theoretical level. It does not make me a “hateful” person, nor does it make me intolerant. It simply reveals that I do not like condescending, pretentious, fluffy language that takes its listeners for fools. In these circumstances, the verb “to hate” fits. It voices my subjective view on a particular issue, nothing more.

Public dialogue and knowledge suffer when people stop before using words that best suit their expressive purposes. When conveying ideas, the human mind should not limit itself only to “acceptable” words. While prudence may dictate whether using a certain word in a certain context is advisable, one thing is certain: We cannot “excise” words from popular use. In an especially noteworthy opinion, the United States Supreme Court recognized the danger inherent in efforts to stamp out individual words: “Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971), and: “Indeed, governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning expression of unpopular views.” Id. at 26.

Although the Court restricted its comments to State efforts to ban words, its rationale applies with equal force in private discourse. Our civilization advances when every voice may accurately be heard. Information cannot travel effectively without robust, accurate language. We must understand what our words mean when we use them, and we must not shirk from upsetting “popular sensibilities” when certain words best express us. “Hate” upsets “popular sensibilities” in some settings. There are people today who categorically refuse to say they “hate” anything because they learned that the word “hate” cannot be used in any circumstances. That is unfortunate. There is no one alive who has never felt hatred for something. Does anyone not hate “bad luck” or “illness?” In short, if people restrict themselves from using words that best express their individual thoughts, others will never truly understand them. And without true understanding, there can never be true dialogue.

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