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Recognize Counterspin

When our efforts to support peaceful change are effective, very predictably they stimulate a negative response from those who have a vested interest in the status quo. One of the most common tactics is labeling. It is essential for those working for change to learn how to recognize that this is happening and effectively respond.

Throughout history, all sorts of derogatory labels have been used to suppress social justice movements. They serve to draw public attention away from the new ideas and hidden truths being brought to light by calling into question the character of those who dare to do so. But in this case, the words used by some to discredit and discourage those who question the humane myth not only serve to quell dissent within the animal advocacy movement, they also damage the quality of public dialogue. By feeding into the stereotyping of animal advocates that the animal-using industry has been propagating for decades, they not only degrade the messenger, they also distort the message.

The labels fall roughly into five groups:

Label #1 Purist
What better way to put down a person who tries to live by a code of ethics or chooses to follow principle than to label that person as "purist" or "all or nothing" or "a black-and-white thinker" or "self-righteous." The goal here is to suggest that adhering to principle is really just a cover for arrogance and pride, and that those trying to uphold a value are self-absorbed, and think of themselves as better than others. When this label comes into play, the discussion is deftly shifted away from the principles and values under consideration, away from the truth or falsity of the facts being presented, and toward the supposed character flaws of those carrying the message.

Label #2 Marginal
If a person's ideas can't be overcome with a logical argument, public attention can be directed away from the substance of the issue by suggesting that those advancing such ideas are not the sort that "people like us" want to be associated with. It's far easier to stigmatize people bringing forth new ideas or factual evidence as "marginal," "fundamentalist," "radical," or "extremist," than to address the corruption and conflicts of interest that have been exposed. The underlying goal here is to make the message disappear by conjuring disdain, or even fear, at the very mention of the messenger. On top of that, a not so subtle warning is being sent, as if to say, "If you dare to entertain these ideas or even to consider them worthy of serious evaluation, you too will be marginalized." The fear of social isolation is so strong in human beings, it can easily overcome both reason and principle, making this an extremely effective technique for suppressing dialog and dissent. 

Label #3 Artists, intellectuals and naysayers
When it becomes impossible to dismiss principled and well-informed critics, it can be very effective to suggest that they are ivory tower intellectuals, or artists lost in the imaginary world of their creations, or perhaps just people who are against everything. And if none of these labels does the job, it can be insinuated that those who make challenging criticisms are simply "do nothings" or "know it alls" who stand on the sidelines and pass judgments on those with the real knowledge, those who do all the real work. Once again, the goal here is to draw attention away from the substantive issues being raised, and instead, make the debate be about the character of the people bringing the challenge.

Label #4 Unrealistic
And when it is not possible to completely marginalize those revealing an inconvenient truth, the next best thing is to suggest that they are well-intended, but out of touch, neutralizing their effectiveness by labeling them as "unrealistic," "impractical," "naive," "sentimental," or "utopian." The underlying message here is that, even if what people have to say seems to be supported by overwhelming evidence, or that the vision they offer is quite compelling, it is based on a lack of understanding of how the "real world" actually works. Those bringing hidden truths to light  don't "get the big picture." Those offering a vision of a better world are actually offering false hope. The goal is to discredit, and by contrast, to build the status and power of those who "get it" and are "willing to make the hard choices necessary" to achieve what slight improvements are actually possible in this troubled world. As a result, a climate of cynicism and hopelessness is cultivated, making it far easier to control people.

Label #5 Divisive
When all else fails, it can be effective to label those with founded criticism as agents of division, perhaps even as self-serving saboteurs who are pretending to care about a cause or serve principle, but are actually deliberately trying to sow discord in order to advance their private agenda. For example, labeling someone exposing a conflict of interest in a social movement as "divisive" distracts from the question of what is actually causing division. Is it coming from the violation of the movement's values, or the act of pointing out that violation? Labeling whistleblowers as divisive creates a climate so negative, so depressing, that many well meaning people throw up their hands and walk away, demoralized by "all the squabbling." Once again, the facts, and the principles needed to usefully interpret those facts, are lost in the shuffle.

What is perhaps most amazing about these types of labels is their timelessness. Virtually the same labels have been applied to those working for every social justice cause throughout history. And as the labels are timeless, so is the antidote. The first step toward transforming the use of such labels into an opportunity to teach critical thinking is to learn how to recognize them ourselves. The second step is to teach others to recognize them. The rest tends to take care of itself!

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