Dissent Suppression: How Labels Teach Us to Keep Criticism to Ourselves

Megan Caitlin Evans


The strength of a civil society has long been born of the freedom to speak out – to dispute, to disagree and debate.  In such action lies the power to listen to differing views, consider other opinions, and grow together to become better.  It is a fundamental element for success as a community, country and people, and it has been documented time and time again the fallout that occurs when limitations are imposed on such freedoms. 


However, it is easy to identify and condemn the suppression of speech when it is blatant.  What happens when suppression takes a more subtle form, such as the simple semantics of social labeling?  On the surface such rhetoric seems benign, even useful when used appropriately.  But insidiously and with increasing frequency, labels are being used not only as blunt instruments to actively influence, contort and control public behavior, but are also quietly engineering the psychology of society to make blatant suppression unnecessary because individuals begin to censor themselves.  


Labeling is a social construct.  Words derive their strength only from the power given to them by people, but the implication of an empathetic void or even malicious intent for fellow members of society elicits a visceral and very human response from target and spectator alike.  It is used by varying entities consciously and unconsciously, offensively and defensively, but on all fronts requires little effort to create, is self-sustaining and occurs virtually unnoticed.  Worst of all, regardless of impetus, it effectively and devastatingly weaponizes what is in fact people’s greatest asset – their own humanity. 


In many arenas, labeling and the ensuing social stigma it creates have long been direct tools in the offensive arsenal of manipulation.  Typically enacted for political, military or financial gain, the motivation regardless of the offending entity always lies in furthering a specific agenda with less opposition.  On a small scale, such diminutive rhetoric often blatantly resembles what used to be properly identified as a vapid, juvenile schoolyard brawl – however, what was in young years simply dismissed as divertive name calling is today a widely accepted adult method of filtering information. 


Derailing the public’s attention by invoking the intimate but irrelevant spectre of social injustice, it clouds civil judgment and is a sadly effective strategy in protecting the subject from what should be, in a functional society, necessary exposure to personally undesirable but publicly imperative information.  It is effective not only as a red herring to discredit the current dissenter but also to dissuade future opposition from embarking on what has clearly become a journey of futility.  


Prolific in any climate where power is being challenged, the current American presidential race happens to provide a stellar example.  In the last few months alone, accusations such as “slanderer,” “libeler” and even “sexist” have been flung in every direction as a method of such deflection. 


Becoming more malevolent as it grows, labeling has also begun take the form of what has already occurred many times throughout the course of history –  a slow, yet certain shift in rhetoric that quietly develops into a chiasmic void of accountability and causes the balance of the social structure to tip dramatically.  Employed often by governments and other large organizations, those who dissent against policy, show concern regarding policy, or question the actions of an entity often for any reason – even with extreme justification – are painted thoroughly with scarlet labels.  


Disputing the constitutionality of the reach of the U.S. National Security Agency gets an individual labeled “unpatriotic.”  Expressing concern regarding humanitarian issues relating to Israeli foreign policy garners the accusation of “anti-Semitic.”   If an individual deigns to go so far as to join the ranks of whistleblowers, whitehat hackers, or even deviant members of the press, they reserve of some of the most favored labels in today’s war on people everywhere – “terrorist,” “traitor” and “treasonous.”  



For the individual, the fear of such labels can simply cause them to self-censor, thereby removing them from harm and allowing more powerful entities to do as they please.  More frighteningly, such social stigma assists in garnering public support for dubious legal allegations leveled at dissenting individuals under the guise of equally dubious legislation.  Loose definitions in articles such as the Patriot Act and E.U. Working Definition of Anti-Semitism allow labels the power to become verdicts without due process.  Governments begin to take control of their people and victims become aggressors.  The witch hunt is one of the easiest, most effective ways to ensure dissenting voices will remain silent, and in the void created by the silence entities are afforded the freedom to do whatever they wish – all with a few well-placed words.


In what would seem a world away, labeling as a defensive, but equally destructive form of suppression is implemented in a less conscious process.  Born of out fear, the reactionary nature of a group or individual who has been wronged in one way or another triggers the utilization of labels as a well-intended but haphazard form of ammunition wildly flung at perceived threat as readily as real.  Politically correct, but stringent and counterintuitive guidelines of speech create a land mine-like climate ripe for labeling in the event of a verbal misstep.  Even those with the best of intentions decide it is safer to remain silent than attempt to cross and potentially positive discourse is quelled as efficiently as negative. 


Labels emerge this time in the form of scary straw men, quashing discussion of valid issues by proximity and causing statements of fact to be mistakenly viewed as the tip of a malicious iceberg.  At best, progress stagnates indefinitely.  The separation of society grows, drawing people away from one another as simultaneously the use of such labels attempts to implement the very respect each feels they need in order to function as a whole.  At worst, a process occurs by which the blind defense becomes habit, reacting to quash even constructive or viable criticism by default and tragic irony becomes ironic inequality as the pendulum swings forcibly in the opposite direction. 


A parent raising concerns regarding the misuse of a transgender bathroom is labeled intolerant.  An individual citing statistics in an effort to decipher the cause behind increasing violence is labeled racist.  When the habit evolves into entitlement, the use of labels also assists in monopolizing the role of victim as a protected status, as with the humanitarian advocacy for Palestinians across college campuses being quelled as anti-Semitic.  What righteously but overwhelmingly deigns to protect a few from the recurrence of atrocity in fact endangers all from atrocity in the making and regardless of the form it takes, the greatest travesty of all lies in the fact that the use of labels as a protective mechanism ultimately rends apart the very fabric of society it intends to repair.



Used properly, labels highlight members of society who threaten the wholeness of a community, and are identifiers that can elicit awareness and positive change through subsequent discourse regarding what behavior should or should not be acceptable in a tolerant environment.  Used negligently, judgments such as “racist,” “anti-Semitic,” “homophobic,” “xenophobic” and the myriad of others in use today all have the potential to become weapons that obliterate both sides.  While the presence of fear may be a more human impetus for suppression, the blatant disregard for the devastating effect it has upon humanity, curated by this continued use, is not. 


Offensive tools are effective and defensive habits are detrimental only as long as they continue unnoticed.  When the fear-mongering that is labeling is cast aside, discourse can begin again.  Social labeling is a social construct.  Whether discarding the spectre of judgment when necessary to discover the truth or simply to stand together as a whole, society can choose to reclaim its humanity – and progress together, rather than allowing words to fracture the greater strength they have as not labels but people.


Author Bio:


Megan Caitlin Evans is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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