As advocates of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), it’s clear that we face a challenging task. Convincing people to abstain from name-calling, labeling, and overgeneralization seems almost impossible, especially in today’s era of social media where such behavior is rampant. This issue is of utmost importance, given the toxicity and inflammatory nature of name-calling. Yet, people seem to condone, embrace and revel in it, oblivious to its detrimental effects on interpersonal relationships, both in private and public spheres.
I am disappointed when people misinterpret my views on this topic as attempts to prescribe language. REBT doesn’t do that. I don’t do that. At least, I try not to. However, my hope and my goal is that my readers and students will learn about and appreciate the dynamics at work here rather than engaging with this as some kind of rule, and certainly not as some kind of must. After all, we don’t want to be “word Nazis,” do we? Oops! I just employed a colorful, potentially annoying label to make a point. Am I going to hell for it? Just continue reading.
So, what can we do? How can we, as proponents of REBT, shield ourselves from the undeniable toxicity and inflammation of name-calling and other forms of labeling and overgeneralizations?
If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.
A potent strategy is to understand the nature of name-calling and labeling wherever and whenever we encounter them, whether it’s directed at us personally or observed by us happening among others. It is important to remind ourselves that name-calling is essentially devoid of content. Consider the common epithet “asshole.” Beyond its vulgar reference to an anatomical feature that all humans share, what does it truly signify? It doesn’t provide any specific insight into a person’s behavior, character, or personal traits. Despite its negative connotation, it fails to offer any substantial information that we can use to discuss it intelligently.
If a label doesn’t provide any concrete or tangible information about someone’s character or behavior, what does it convey?
The answer is simpler than it might appear. It indicates that the person using the label harbors dislike for the person targeted. “Asshole” and similar labels are merely empty vessels used to convey contempt, disgust, and hatred. Stripped to its core, like most name-calling, it expresses a vague notion of a “bad person,” offering little or no insight as to exactly constitutes a “bad person”? It leaves it to our imagination to–accurately or inaccurately–fill in the blanks, as it were, and decide what it actually means. Any of Albert Ellis’s books, and especially The Myth of Self-esteem, delve deeper into this topic, providing more depth and a more comprehensive exploration than we can offer here.
So how and when, exactly, does a person become a “bad person” (or a “good person” for that matter)? If someone commits one terribly destructive act along with a thousand acts of kindness, does that make him a bad person? What if he engages in about 50% socially constructive acts and 50% socially destructive acts, does that make him a bad person? Bottom line: It is a vain and wildly fantastic presumption to rate a person’s self or essence globally, either with a positive or a negative label. If you are honest, open and willing to think about it critically, it will become obvious that labels are vacuous, they rarely have any tangible meaning. Yet people go about their lives assuming that such labels actually do convey meaning. It’s astounding if you stop to think about it and examine your own attitudes and assumptions that you have been operating with.
“Snarl words,” a term coined by linguist coined by linguist S.I. Hayakawa in his book, Language in Thought and Action, refers to words or phrases that are intentionally used to convey strong negative emotions or provoke a negative response in the listener or reader. These words often carry a strong emotional charge and serve as containers to express contempt. However, it is worth noting that snarl words typically have very little, if any, actual content or meaning. They are designed more to evoke emotional reactions rather than to convey specific information or ideas.
Sometimes, the main purpose and intent of using snarl words is to manipulate or influence others by associating negative emotions with certain ideas or concepts. Due to their intense connotations, ambiguous nature, and strong emotional charge, snarl words can trigger powerful emotional reactions in people, and are therefore best avoided.
Does this mean I, Rex, never resort to labels? Am I never tempted to do so? Do I feel guilty when I occasionally lapse into name-calling, either in thought or speech? No, it doesn’t! I strive to avoid being overly critical of my language use, just as I refrain from being overly critical of others. I may not always succeed, but it’s a worthy goal that I pursue, and would encourage you to pursue as well.
To protect yourself from the damaging effects of name-calling, remind yourself of its true nature whenever and wherever you encounter it. It’s an empty vessel, a less-than-desirable tool for expressing contempt. This understanding can help you avoid the temptation of becoming a “word Nazi” toward others as well as toward your dear, sweet self. It will serve as a powerful antidote to the toxicity of name-calling, will make you considerably less disturbable, and may powerfully enhance and enrich your interpersonal relations.
In short, think for yourself!
Khon Kaen, Thailand
6 Oct 2023