Use Your Words, Not Your Label-Maker

Jul 9, 2021 | Op-Ed

We need better ways of saying, “I’m not against whatever group it is you identify with, I just dislike you, personally.” It’s important to be clear on this point: disliking someone in particular does not make a person racist, sexist, ageist or any other -ist, but our failure to communicate insult when it’s intended and our reluctance to specify exactly why and what we dislike about the person in question often makes it seem so.

We are conditioned to avoid any display of genuine emotion or feelings. We are taught never to say “I hate you,” because “hate is too strong a word.” Acted upon, with violence, it’s a crime. But even just expressing disgust or strong dislike is now treated as a loss of emotional control, a weakness to be judged as harshly as crying or having a temper tantrum in public. Normally polite people, we are made to feel ashamed of thinking, let alone saying out loud, “I don’t like you.” We’re not taught to say, “I don’t like you when you [do this thing],” or even just, “I don’t like this thing you do, and when you do it, I don’t want to be around you.” Under a constant barrage of mustn’t-judge-each-other, I think we end up simply disliking and avoiding each other even more.

We habitually say “nothing personal” or “no offense,” deflecting our anger or disgust at some caricature, some abstraction, some stereotype, when what we have to say is, in fact, very personal. We don’t really mean “no offense intended,” we just don’t want our front teeth knocked out and don’t trust the listener to receive criticism or negative opinion like a mature adult.

By the time we’re ready to voice our criticism, it has been bottled up for so long that it surely feels like an assault. It explodes like a soda can dropped from the roof and gets negativity all over everything and everyone in its purview.

How ridiculous it is to dislike anyone based on the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, their choice of body art, or the nation in which they were born! How ridiculous it is to dislike someone for whom they love! What business is that of ours? How does it affect the quality of our lives at all? It is lazy shorthand for any rational reason to dislike anyone – and there are plenty of those when we get specific.

But try these on for size:

  • “I dislike you because you think for yourself and disagree with something I have said.”
  • “I dislike you because you don’t agree with me that I am better than you are.”
  • “I dislike you because you don’t obey me.”
  • “I dislike you because you have your own religious opinions and refuse to be converted by me to my beliefs.”
  • “I dislike you because you were born in another country.”
  • “I dislike you because you have green eyes.”
  • “I dislike you because your skin is a different shade of beige or brown than mine.”
  • “I dislike you because you speak more than one language. But I’m better at English than you are, so nanny nanny boo boo.”
  • “I dislike you because you speak my native language better than I do.”
  • “I dislike you because I am envious of the variety of colors and styles that look good on you.”
  • “I dislike you because your body art disturbs me.”
  • “I dislike you because I think your clothes are ugly.”
  • “I dislike you because your body art makes me question my own ability to make a long-term commitment.”
  • “I dislike you because you’re not having sex with a person I think you ought to be having sex with.”
  • “I dislike you because you are having sex with someone not of my choosing.”
  • “I dislike you because you choose not to procreate.”
  • “I dislike you because you choose to procreate and your children are annoying to me.”
  • “I dislike you because another [man, woman, child] hurt me in the past, but I can’t hurt them so you’ll do.”
  • “I dislike you because you don’t accept that a man has the God-given right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her own body.”

These reasons are pretty ridiculous reasons to dislike people, and don’t hold up to scrutiny in the light of day, do they? Still, they are more honest than the ones people often use to justify their hurtful attitudes and behaviors towards others. Looking these real reasons in the eye, how can we not laugh at ourselves and re-examine our relationship with ourselves and others?

It is difficult to express strong opinions honestly and directly, using straightforward language rather than trendy or pretentious psycho-social babble. We speak of “intersectionality” when what we really mean is, “Don’t pigeonhole me with your stupid stereotypes!”Β Stereotyping and lumping people together in groups is something anyone over the age of 40 had drilled into their heads as wrong, wrong, wrong. Individuality is to be celebrated! Until it’s not. Until it somehow threatens the homogeneity of the herd. So of course when criticism is leveled at us – say, at “white people” or “men” or “Boomers” or “cis-gendered, heteronormative Christians” – it feels hurtful. But if the shoe fits…

Consider how long some of these groups – white people and men, in particular – have been doing just that, to others. So of course it’s #NotAllWhitePeople (and everyone knows that, except that ones feeling overly defensive because they know there’s a grain of truth in the stereotype). Of course it’s #NotAllMen (except for the ones it is). What happened to the old fallbacks of, “I wasn’t talking about you, you know that!” or, “Oh, lighten up, Blondie!” and “Have a sense of humor!” boys? If you can’t just scroll on by, certain that the criticism doesn’t apply to you at all, or look inward and really think about how it does apply to you, personally, when it’s your group coming under fire, maybe think twice about ever doing it to others. It hurts when the tables are turned, doesn’t it? Doesn’t feel fair, does it?

Why aren’t there more jokes about white men? Oh, right – they’re not funny.Β 

The larger point is, if it stings – go talk to your fellow “white people,” your network of “men” or “Boomers” or “cis-gendered, heteronormative Evangelical Christians.” Work to fix the nasty little underlying truths of the stereotypes from within, because maybe it’s not a group you chose membership in and it’s not a group you can easily leave, but it is a group that you are best suited to talk to in terms it will understand.

That said, we also have too many performative, wannabe allies whose only contribution to anti-racist discourse is to try to outdo one another in their sanctimony as they stoke the fires to burn their own groups in a sort of auto-da-fΓ©. They demand forced apologies and public struggle sessions, without allowing for real change in thinking or hope of redemption. They are almost as tiresome and exhausting as the disingenuous bigots who just need it explained to them one more time that racism still exists in the world.

Well, almost as tiresome and exhausting.

You know what’s hard? Loving the “unlovable.” Forgiving the “unforgivable.” It’s an aspirational goal; few of us will ever get all the way there. But let’s not turn every error in thinking, every slip of the tongue an “unforgivable” crime of the “unlovable.” No one’s going to pass that purity test when the spotlight is turned on them. There is a reason psychologists urge parents to focus on the unwanted behavior, and not on the person or their immutable characteristics.

A friend once introduced me to the term “misanthropic humanist.”

Misanthropic humanism is a useful term because it explains how a body of work can seem committed to a radical project for progressive sociopolitical change, while simultaneously holding forth a constant reminder that cruelty, injustice, stupidity, and death are inevitabilities that strike at all in the end.

I think I’ve found my people.

Now, do I hug ’em or shove ’em off a cliff?Β 



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Cathy Miller

    Love this, Holly. I soooo detest labels (even though I am really good at self-labeling – yes, boomer and middle child of 7. πŸ˜‰ While reading your “I dislike you…” list, one thought popped into my head.

    I dislike you because I dislike me.
    Cathy Miller recently posted…When Success Loses CustomersMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      But Cathy! I don’t dislike you at all! πŸ˜€

      In all seriousness, that’s a legit reason, in my book. I tend to think of disliking someone as temporary. There have been times I have disliked family members and close friends. We go to our neutral corners and think about it. And that may be an important point that gets buried, here – “I don’t like you” doesn’t mean “I don’t love you,” any more than “I like you” means “I LOVE you.” They are distinctly different – nice if they coincide, but they don’t have to.

  2. Cathy Miller

    Excellent point, Holly. πŸ™‚

    P.S. I feel so much better now that I know you don’t dislike me (at least right now). πŸ˜€
    Cathy Miller recently posted…When Success Loses CustomersMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Muahahahahaha… let’s keep it that way, shall we? (I do hope any temporary anxiety I may have created by not being crystal clear about that, sooner, did not cause you to dislike me – or if it did, you’ve forgiven me and like me again. πŸ˜€ )
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…Use Your Words, Not Your Label-MakerMy Profile

  3. Mitch Mitchell

    First, I have to say this reads like a New York Times movie or book review! lol

    Second… I couldn’t imagine ever saying anything like this to anyone for more than one reason. One, I’d rather walk away. Two, I’d rather hit them. Three, if they’re not close enough for me to do the first two I’d rather ignore/block/ban them and move on with my life. It’s hard enough to keep my anger under control when things like that happen, let alone think about telling someone something like “I hate you”. Why would they care? For that matter, if someone said that to me why would I care, since I probably already hated them and wasn’t around to her them say it to me?

    Third, my way I can imagine for the rest of my life that they suffer a bit of Schadenfreude; I’d like that (especially if I helped cause it… which I’ve done in the past… lol
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…20 Business Stories For My 20th Business AnniversaryMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Exactly, but of course my point was that we ought to be specific and not take whatever our issues are with a person or three out on whole groups of people. And that maybe if we examined those issues honestly, we’d see how stupid they sound when expressed like this.

      • Mitch Mitchell

        Which is always a valid thing to talk about. However, as last year proved, even when you address issues that only one group of people are doing, and you happen to name that group, people who know they’re not the ones being talked to decide to jump in and have their say, and they bring vitriol upon themselves because they almost always respond badly. Maybe instead of telling people how to say “I hate you” we should teach them out to be more perspicacious in what they’re responding to.
        Mitch Mitchell recently posted…The Ethics Of Exclusion By Women And MinoritiesMy Profile

        • Holly Jahangiri

          It’s hard not to, isn’t it? I mean, what would happen if I started a sentence with “Black men…” and said something negative? If I start that same sentence with “Mitch Mitchell…” then odds are a lot better I’ll have to focus on you, personally, or your behavior, and only you and your closest friends are likely to jump down my throat. It also means I have to examine WHY I’m being critical. It’s like an arrow vs. a shotgun. I can spray a whole crowd of people with pellets from a shotgun or I can aim better and get you, and only you, with a poison dart.

          I dunno, but personally, I’d rather just take out my intended target (not you, of course – this is just a hypothetical “you”, duh! πŸ˜‰ ) than to wound a whole angry crowd of people and leave them feeling righteously indignant, when I what I really want to do is give you a piece of my mind, because I am angry with you (this is a rhetorical second person “you,” Mitch – #NotAllMitchMitchells – you know I truly like you!) But you know what I mean. Anyone who takes the shotgun approach is stupid. But we’re all becoming weirdly afraid to use our words to say exactly what we mean, and sometimes, I think that’s because we know how stupid and childish it would sound if we did say exactly what we mean.

  4. Mitchell Allen

    The saddest thing in this world is that everyone doesn’t default to rational thought. The concepts behind your well-reasoned essay need to be amplified, adopted and enforced in all societies.

    This requires an evolutionary reboot, as it is unlikely that the effects of thousands of years of judgement can be undone.

    Thanks for sending me to the dictionary, too! LOL


    Mitchell Allen recently posted…Hell’s KitchenMy Profile

    • Holly Jahangiri

      I sent you to the dictionary? You?

      I’m just going to sit back, now, feeling all smug and accomplished.

      You’re right, and I worry that we’re standing at the cusp of what it might have felt like as civilization entered the Dark Ages. I don’t say that to sound melodramatic – don’t imagine me over here wringing my hands – because we all know that didn’t last either, and we saw what came out of the Renaissance. But why must we go through cycles like that? Why can’t we hold the ground we gain? Why can’t we move forward, onward and upward, better and better, always? Maybe the progress outpaces our humanity and our kindness and our ability to appreciate it.
      Holly Jahangiri recently posted…Movement: Mind and SoulMy Profile

  5. Jill E Ebstein

    Holly, what I particularly like is the passion and the concreteness of your message. You take it down to a level that is relatable and you deliver an important message that challenges the reader to look within. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t challenge an occasional line. There are plenty of jokes about white men, for example.

    Great job though!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Thank you, Jill. I couldn’t urge people to speak plainly and not attempt to do the same, myself.

      And I’m sure there are plenty such jokes. But… are they funny? πŸ˜‰

  6. Rizwan

    Hi Holly Jahangiri
    thanks for sharing this.
    I just read this in which you well said seriously
    in the whole world, the criteria of the people to judge someone is selfishness .
    because if someone doesn’t like us then it’s hard for us to improve good in front of the people who hate us even though we do everything for those people. hope people will get rid of this and see people from a different point of view


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