July 3, 2013

Using Inflammatory Words Incorrectly Can Cause Harm

Harassment City
Harassment City (Photo credit: Olivander)
Words matter. Some words are highly inflammatory, virtually guaranteeing that the person using them will receive attention for doing so. But the meanings of words matter too, and if someone uses inflammatory words incorrectly over-and-over again, a few unfortunate things tend to happen:
  • The audience has an increasingly difficult time deciphering the speaker's message,
  • Reasonable discourse becomes less likely,
  • The speaker's credibility erodes, and
  • The words may gradually begin to lose some of their impact.
To the extent that we value clear and effective communication, rational discourse, and the speaker's reputation or standing in our community, we have an interest in preventing the first three outcomes. Additionally, I'd argue that we all have an interest in preventing the fourth outcome because of the damage it can do to our shared interests.


Indiscriminately using the term "Islamophobia" to describe criticism of Islam provides a suitable example. Criticism of Islam is not necessarily Islamophobia. Claiming otherwise makes it more difficult for the audience to follow one's message, as the more clear-headed among them will be distracted by trying to figure out why the speaker is redefining terms on the fly. Labeling criticism as Islamophobia reduces the likelihood of reasonable discourse and may serve to escalate conflict. This is especially likely when accusations of Islamophobia are coupled with claims of racism. One who continues to repeat such a claim will lose credibility. And most important of all, the term itself will lose its meaning and relevance over time. To the degree that Islamophobia is real, does occur, and has the potential to cause damage, we do not want to weaken its meaning.

The Muslim who experiences genuine bigotry and/or discrimination may be harmed by those incorrectly labeling criticism of Islam as Islamophobia. His or her concerns may not be given the attention they deserve. The lesson some of us learned as children from Aesop's fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, comes to mind.


Using the term "harassment" to describe virtually any communication one finds displeasing, stressful, or otherwise upsetting gives us yet another example. Disagreement and even spirited criticism are not harassment. Characterizing them as such makes it more difficult to attend to the speaker's message. Once again, we do not each get to redefine words on a whim to give our words more emotional punch. Labeling anything one dislikes as harassment reduces reasonable discourse, and this is particularly true when the speaker begins hurling accusations of harassment indiscriminately at his or her critics. Continuing to do this will diminish one's credibility. And most important of all, harassment may lose its meaning over time. Since harassment is real, does occur, and has the potential to do real harm, this is a problem.

The person experiencing genuine harassment is not well served by those who use the label to describe the slightest offense. In fact, such repeated trivialization of harassment may make it more difficult for the person who is truly being harassed to be taken seriously and enlist the support of others. We have seen this happening within the atheist community where some are claiming "harassment" (and even stalking) in response to disagreement or criticism.

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