Monday, December 22, 2014

Dehumanization through Negative Labeling in Sex Issues Discourse



Simple terms defined for the context of this post [1]:

- Label: “A short word or phrase descriptive of a person, group, intellectual movement, et cetera.”

- Labeling: “To affix a label to” or “to classify.”

- Stereotype: “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

- Prejudice: “An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason” or “any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.”

- Discrimination: “Treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.”

- Bias: “A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.”

- Ingroup: “A group of people sharing similar interests and attitudes, producing feelings of solidarity, community, and exclusivity.”

- Outgroup: “People outside one's own group, especially as considered to be inferior or alien; a group perceived as other than one's own.”

NOTE: Though there are positive labels (e.g., scholar) and positive stereotypes (e.g., group [a] is smart), this post’s focus is on ingroup bias/prejudice and discrimination (us vs. them/the other) and negative stereotypes and labeling. So, there will not be any discussion of positive stereotypes or labels, as they are irrelevant to the purpose here. Also, hereafter only “label” and all of its variations will be used.

Ingroup bias:

→ Prejudice = emotional component of the ingroup bias.
→ Labeling = cognitive component (preconceived beliefs and expectations) of the ingroup bias.
→ Discrimination = active component of the ingroup bias (taking action).
 Prejudice (emotional) leads to labeling (cognitive), which leads to discrimination (action).
 Labeling can also be an action, but it works with the initial prejudiced reaction (“thinking”).
→ Labeling can strengthen old prejudices and create new ones.

NOTE II: The issue to be discussed here is not whether “labeling” alone is bad. Labeling and prejudice are automatic responses in our brains. In fact, prejudice is needed in many cases to help us make quick decisions about things around us in the world, including people. Friend or foe, fight or flight. (Think judgment heuristics.)

(And, stereotyping is essential to human cognitive processes. Related: Bayesian inference.)

What is to be discussed here is how labels are used, either when subscribed to by a person willingly or when affixed to them by someone else, for the sake of demotion or devaluation. In essence, it is how labeling is employed to dismiss others and/or their perspectives, to shut down debate entirely, or to rationalize and justify actions against others. And, although this phenomenon is not exclusive to the internet, the chief focus here will be on manifestations online.

For example:

 Negative label: An “undesirable” label, worthy of ignoring, contempt, ridicule, destruction.

The negative labeling process in the context of this post (simple framework):

→ Ingroup [x] is good.
→ Ingroup [x] says that person [y] is part of outgroup [z] (or alike enough).
→ Outgroup [z] is bad; therefore, person [y], like outgroup [z], must be:
→ Dismissed: entirely rejected (and must not be listened to).
→ Hated: condemned/attacked (is the “wrong” type of thing).
→ (Potentially) destroyed: “wrong” and “bad” must not exist.
→ Ingroup [x] is good, so it is justified in carrying out [x] action against person [y] and outrgroup [z].
→ Why? Because, ingroup [x] is good; therefore, ingroup [x]’s actions are good.
→ Whether person [y] uses the label of outgroup [z] or has had it affixed to them erroneously is irrelevant to ingroup [x]. If the behavior or views of person [y] confirm a bias of ingroup [x] that they are similar enough to outgroup [z] to be considered the same, they will be.


Human beings employ labels for a variety of reasons. We use them to make things easier to identify, for the sake of structure or order (e.g., categorization), and even for destructive purposes such as damaging an individual’s reputation or livelihood. When labeling is negative, it can lead to prejudice (strengthening old/creating new), discrimination and numerous other harmful outcomes.

In the case of debates of sex issues, or the issues of women and men and all other permutations of gender, on the internet, the current trend appears to be to use labels as a means of dehumanizing others so that they are easier to dismiss, hate or even destroy. This method, which will hereafter be referred to as “negative labeling,” is especially prevalent when it comes to people accusing one another, usually with an undesirable connotation in mind, of being “MRAs” or “Feminists.”

At times, this phenomenon might seem as though it exists only in sporadic and isolated incidents, but its recurrence proves otherwise. It is a part of the natural tendency of human beings to ascribe preconceived characteristics to those around us, and to then judge them based on those fixed or generalized characteristics instead of their individual attributes, views and personalities.

In a context compatible with negative labeling, researchers Tayla Bauer and Berrin Erdogan describe the phenomenon of stereotyping, particularly when intended to be negative, as follows:

“Human beings have a natural tendency to categorize the information around them to make sense of their environment. What makes stereotypes potentially discriminatory and a perceptual bias is the tendency to generalize from a group to a particular individual.” [2]

The second sentence of the quote above is highly pertinent to the focus of this piece.

The Effects of Negative Labeling on the Internet:

When a negative label is affixed to someone with no clear indication that the person actually willingly subscribes to the label already, it is normally based on perceptions stemming from differences of opinion (disagreements). An “undesirable” label given to someone is typically used as a justification for dismissing their points outright (with no further argumentation required), to justify hating them, or to rationalize additional action against them (e.g., “doxxing” or defamation). This can also occur if they already use the label of their own volition.

Taking the labels “MRA” and “Feminist” as the most common and appropriate examples, the negative connotations are usually similar to the following:

MRA – Misogynist, conservative, and some other forms of bigot. The general, central focus of the term, when used as a pejorative, is that someone who is an “MRA” is likely to be anti-woman, probably conservative (also often seen as being anti-woman and/or racist), and is therefore an undesirable and even abhorrent person (or abhorrent set of ideas). Naturally, these are all attributes which many Feminists, who tend to be pro-woman and more liberal (or at least “left-wing”), revile (or claim to).

Feminist – Misandrist, left-wing fascist (implied pro-censorship and authoritarianism), and other forms of bigot. The general, central focus of this label, when used as a pejorative, is that someone who is a “Feminist” is likely to be anti-male, pro-censorship (willing to suppress the rights and views of others in favor of their own ideology), and is therefore an undesirable and even abhorrent person (or abhorrent set of ideas). Obviously, these are all attributes which many people, MRAs (or Anti-Feminists) included, revile (or claim to).

Of course, none of the above is true for every single member of either collective. And, of course, there are those within each group who do fit the criteria defined above. However, the point of greatest importance here is not necessarily whether the stereotypes are mostly fitting, but rather, how they are used in the context of debates of sex issues online in reaction to members of opposing causes, or individuals with conflicting views to one’s own.

The labels of MRA and Feminist, especially when used as pejoratives or with a negative connotation intended, serve chiefly to distance us from the most important label of all: [human]. The dehumanization effect of negative labeling erodes social empathy, and creates hostility. This leads to apathy, and in extremes, hatred. The perspectives and experiences of those with opposing views are then undermined, dismissed or ridiculed, and the individual existences of inconvenient (and other) adversaries within opposing causes are erased.

Through negative labeling, people are made into mere embodiments or representations of “bad” ideas or heinous “things” to be despised and rejected, instead of human beings. When they become a label, they are no longer worthy, as the labeler sees it, of individual consideration, and their unique experiences, feelings and views are no longer meaningful, or even existent. They are simply perceived as another cog in a machine which must be stopped or ought not persist. Dehumanized. A faceless abstract.

Negative labeling, in the context of this piece, is typically an outcome of prejudice based on an aversion to disagreement, or a dislike for certain kinds of opinions. And, again, an underlying cause of its occurrence is somewhat natural (but that does not justify it or make it inevitable). Psychologist Gordon Allport, in “The Nature of Prejudice,” gave a description of the intent of ethnic prejudice which fits all other forms of prejudice as well:

“The net effect of prejudice . . . is to place the object of prejudice at some disadvantage not merited by his own misconduct.” [3]

And, on stereotypes (which still applies to negative labeling), he stated the following:

“[Stereotypes] aid people in simplifying their categories; they justify hostility; sometimes they serve as projection screens for our personal conflict.” [3]

The “justified” hostility, as described by Allport and as I have hinted at above, with regard specifically to negative labeling, tends to manifest in three major forms in online debates of sex issues (they are all intertwined and overlap, but can exist in part separately, or without all three manifesting fully).

Three Major Outcomes of Negative Labeling (as a “Process”):

1) Dismissiveness: Points of view and personal experiences are dismissed on the basis of labels instead of individual merit or substance. What the opposing person has experienced no longer matters because their positions are the “wrong” ones. Their claimed experiences may also be fraudulent, and might have been manufactured only to strengthen an opposing narrative and/or to undermine a favored one, and so they cannot be considered credible. Their perspectives are based on the “wrong” type of thinking, and include things detrimental to, or antagonistic toward, a favored narrative or view, and thus must not be given even the validity of sincere acknowledgement and/or rebuttal (and no concessions, especially, can be made).

- Emotionally-impulsive narrative supporting (dogma); a trait that seems to recurrently exist in human society as part of a binary, dualistic construct (e.g., conservative/liberal).

- [Dismissiveness] usually results in attacking the opponent personally instead of what they are saying, typically with specific aim at character or with the ascription of a negative label or set of labels. Or, it will lead to simple ignoring, blocking or reporting. All points from the adversarial individual become representations of the negative label, and because the label is viewed as “bad” by the labeler, the individual’s arguments can be immediately dismissed as morally wrong or factually erroneous without further and exhaustive evaluation. Their existence beyond that is reduced to “enemy,” and the value of their individual humanity begins to deteriorate in the eyes of the labeler (if it hasn’t deteriorated entirely already).

2) Hatred: Empathy for others with opposing views, or of opposing causes, is eroded due to the label(s) ascribed to them (or which they take themselves). They are easier to hate because they become the undesirable (negative) label, and so their suffering seems less significant or even justifiable.

- In order to enforce “uniformed society,” one must brutally shame the deviants.

- [Hatred] usually results in name-calling (or other types of insulting), threats, reporting, attempts at censorship or suppression of dissent, and occasionally, to a lesser extent, public mockery. The individual hated is their label, and not a human being. They are an enemy of a favored cause or ideology, and therefore must be wholly rejected. Hatred can, in many cases, easily lead to a desire for destruction.

3) Destruction: The more people can subvert your humanity, the easier it is for them to rationalize destroying you. Destruction is usually the product of dismissiveness and hatred. A common example of this (though a bit extreme in this context) would be the Nazis exterminating people based on their being labeled (literally, counting Star of David badges) “Jews.” They were made lesser and villainized primarily on the basis of a label, and due to this, their destruction, over time, was justified in the eyes of many (especially the self-identified Nazis who were aware of the killings). Even today, the label “Jew” is seen as negative by some, and is still used to dismiss or undermine a number of concerns that Jews have, along with justifying hating or desiring to destroy them.

- [Destruction] is the ultimate end of the negative labeling process. The individual labeled is fully seen as the undesirable (negative) label. The faceless abstract. The opposing “thing” which must be eradicated. The justifications, in truth, are a matter of perspective, too overgeneralized to be fair, but to the labeler ascribing the negative labels, their desires for destruction are righteous, fully within reason, and wholly warranted. Destruction comes in a variety of forms (successful and not). It can result in blocking, reporting, censorship (attempted or successful), public shaming, defamation, threatening (and actually carrying out the threats), doxxing (gathering and releasing an individual’s personal information in hopes of inconveniencing and intimidating them or causing them some sort of tangible harm). Destruction is terrorism and gratuitous aggression. It is rationalized by the destroyer as being just because what is being eradicated is not a human being with unique experiences and individual points of view, but a repugnant idea. The ends justify the means.

The error in negative labeling, aside from the obvious anti-human and irrational employment of it, is more relevant in the framework of this piece when the label is given to a person who does not actually self-attribute the label (though none of the above would be justified if they did, and all of it is still applicable).

Again, negative labeling is used almost exclusively to dismiss the views and existences of others, to justify hating them, or to rationalize destroying them. None of these things can or should exist in a civilized society, and are nothing but deleterious to the health, fairness, objectivity and nobility of all discussions of any issues.

This leads to something almost as important as, if not more important than, the three major forms of hostility detailed above. The reasons or “drives” behind the process.

The Motivations For “Negative Labeling” and the Resulting “Justified Hostilities”:

1) Aversion to Opposition: Either stemming from fear (anger/despair), indolence or irrational hatred. It could be due to fear of being proven wrong, being too lazy to actually construct meaningful and substantial arguments (unwillingness to research to support arguments), or hatred so strong that the opposing view is seen as too abhorrent to bother responding to in earnest.

2) Desire to Silence or Destroy Opposition: The reasons would be similar to number one, though slightly different. Much of it is based in various types of rudimentary self-interest.

The differences between #1 and #2 are:

Aversion to opposition: Hearing, seeing, perceiving. Opposing views must be blocked out (ignored) or undermined.

Desire to silence or destroy the opposition: Conflicting views existing at all is intolerable (must be suppressed and/or eradicated).

Motivations broken down further:

→ Fear and anger (and, to a lesser extent, simple laziness).

- Fear: An opposing argument threatens own views (breeds feelings of potential helplessness or lack of control, being inferior; fear of humiliation or plain humility, defeat, and/or loss in general).

- Anger: Hatred, arrogance and possibly envy. Anger at the nature of the opposing views, anger at the potential of being “wrong.” Anger stemming from fear (despair). Probably over loss of personal importance or control.

- Laziness: It is easier to block out or dismiss/undermine an argument than to rebut or debunk it. Researching topics and constructing complex and valid arguments is more difficult than blocking.

 All of these motivations would overlap.

What Is Gained, and What Is Lost?


1) Undermining an outgroup’s perspectives (making them look bad so that people won’t listen to them).

2) The strengthening of favorable narratives vs. damaging unfavorable ones.

*Or, the strengthening of favorable views/people vs. damaging unfavorable views/people.

3) The lesser reward of being a “hero” in a “culture war” and the attention that comes with it. 

*Attention = favor (for self or cause or “ingroup”); favor = strengthening of voice and platform, demotion of opposition (weakening of their voice and favor); reward (monetary or other).


1) What is lost for the labeler would be nothing of real value in most cases.

*What is lost “in general” would be, for everyone else, reasonable outcomes and civil discourse.

It Boils down to Simple Cases of “Othering” People:

→ Other = Outgroup (must be unfavorable).
→ Us = Ingroup (must be given the advantage and favor).
 Nietzsche said that behind every human drive is the need for power.
→ Robert Ardrey argued that it was all about territory.
→ The truth is likely an amalgamation of both and more.

There are also the issues of self-awareness and indoctrination. How much of it is deliberate and self-aware, and how much is delusion stemming from indoctrination (or pure ignorance). Do they know that they block and attempt to silence, et cetera, out of fear, because of laziness, or due to their anger? Do they not know, and are unaware of these things on a conscious level, and simply believe that they are justified in what they do? Is it a mixture of all of these things and both conscious and unconscious on different levels?

All behaviors of, and relating to, primal impulsive needs are, theoretically, dominated sub-linguistically, and are thus mostly unconscious; behaviors are to be retranslated according to cultural measures of impulsive requisite. It could be 60% unconscious and 40% conscious. But, any further “psychoanalysis” of motivations beyond this would require a far lengthier discussion, and I imagine that most people reading this have the point by now, or can infer the rest based on their own experiences and observations.

Negative Labeling is Inherently Toxic and Corrosive:

Negative labeling stifles debate and creates hostile discourse climates, which serves only to convolute issues and prohibit the reasonable conclusion of any individual discussions or greater dialogue.

Labeling will always exist because ingroup and outgroup mentalities are naturally built into human psychology, and due to the fact that humans have a tendency to favor classification and organization; we crave structure and the ability to easily identify things based on their categorization.

(Related: Dunbar’s number/“Monkeysphere.”)

However, it is imperative that we consistently remember that the label “human” is the one which must always come first, in any context, and at any time, under all circumstances. Everything else is secondary to that. Placing any superficial labels before individual humanity is dangerous and can lead to dangerous outcomes (e.g., Nazis, Jews and the Holocaust).

And, within the parameters of what is discussed above, negative labeling is almost never necessary or reasonable.

If we truly wish to reduce the occurrence of negative labeling, we should seek to radically change the way in which people are brought up and socialized. Moreover, though, and for those currently involved in the debates of sex (and other) issues online, we must look within ourselves to overcome our animosity toward certain labels and views. We must keep open minds, avoid harmful stereotyping or labeling, and strive to place objectivity and fairness before our prejudices. This does not mean that we cannot still disagree, even vehemently. It means that we simply must avoid, and rid ourselves of, tactics and mindsets which are counterproductive. No reasonable and just outcomes can be had in a world wherein serious discourse is fueled by spite, contempt and fear.

Opponents, or even just individuals with some conflicting views to one’s own, are not reducible to a collective’s general identity. Seeking absolute, black-and-white answers and lines in everything skews perspective and approach; nearly all issues are complex, nuanced and multifaceted, and to have an unbiased, balanced and comprehensive view of most things, one must consider all of the angles. Find and analyze the gray areas. Be willing to civilly engage with someone who has adversarial views and impartially entertain what they have to say.

If there are people who suffer from the problems that all of us debate and discuss, as is often the case with human rights or human social issues, then their suffering is only extended by the negative labeling process.

Each time a debate is shut down because people dislike the “labels” of those on the other side, or because they attribute a negative label to someone who does not use it themselves to avoid productive and respectful engagement, that contributes to, and serves to help enable, the suffering of real human beings.

The ones out there which all of us supposedly care about and fight for each and every day.

“When people rely on surface appearances and false stereotypes, rather than in-depth knowledge of others at the level of the heart, mind and spirit, their ability to assess and understand people accurately is compromised.” – James A. Forbes
“Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest. When we learn that individuals do not fit the group stereotype, then it begins to fall apart.” – Ed Koch
“Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and clich├ęs.” – Harold Evans (It all begins with one; every individual.)

Author: Krista Milburn [@Femitheist]

NOTE III: This post, by no means, covers everything that could be included in this type of discussion. I simply wanted to take a first step at something fundamental, to lay out the problem as I see it. One could write a book, or many, on all of this, going over just this topic alone (and people likely already have from different angles).

NOTE IV: I am certain that many who read this will have experienced what this post discusses. It has become a fairly common strategy. You can trade out “MRA” and “Feminist” with other terms such as “Anti-Feminist” or “SJW” or even “Atheist” and “Theist” and find numerous occasions where the processes and results will be the same or similar. I focused on MRA and Feminist because they are most relevant to me, but all of it applies to many other labels. “SJW” might actually be more common than Feminist right now, but very few people self-identify as SJWs in earnest. It is almost always used as a pejorative. And, negative labeling can, and does, occur in debates of subjects other than sex issues.

NOTE V: This piece is a “food for thought” sort of presentation. If you enjoyed it, or even if you didn’t, feel free to leave your feedback in the comments below and/or share the post with others. I am sure that many people have their own views on this topic, and I would love to read them.

NOTE VI: (TL;DR) – Negative labeling is bad; only a Sith deals in absolutes; et cetera.

References (Last Accessed December 22, 2014):

[1] Simple term definitions:

[3] Allport Gordon, W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice.

Other Items Mentioned (Last Accessed December 22, 2014):