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Hater: How We Police Ourselves


A good number of well-written articles have appeared over recent years about the term hipster, and how it is more or less an empty token that ultimately serves to maintain the status quo of middle-class, Walmart culture. But to my surprise, a related term, hater, has not received as much attention. Yet, this is not for lack of use or popularity. Google Trends indicates that the expression "haters gonna hate" had another "breakout" year last year, even though, at least according to Knowyourmeme.com, the expression has its origins over a decade ago. And a nifty Google Ngram search on the word hater shows that it reached its all-time low usage in 2000 (in American English), after which it started to slowly climb up in the zeitgeist.

An Ngram graph shows similar results for the term hipster: mid-20th century it reached a kind of peak, and by the late 80s it was on its way out of our collective vocabularies. But by the mid-90s it started to climb again, like its cousin hater. I say cousin because the two terms seem to come from a similar cultural space. It's no coincidence that their rise in the mid- to late-90s co-occurs with the rise of the Internet. And while a hipster is someone who likes something because it is relatively unknown, a hater, the hipster's inverted twin, hates something because of its success. On this view, the hipster and the hater can very well be the same person.


What is interesting for linguists and culture-watchers alike is why exactly would something like the internet allow for the spread of these two words. After all, the internet is precisely the kind of place where we would expect both niche cultures (see Bronies) and mass cultures (see Dr. Who) to exist and make themselves known and accepted. One may argue that part of the promise of the internet is precisely this kind of cultural interlacing, a kind of interlacing that (one would hope anyway) would make concepts like the hipster or hater antithetical to the whole program.

But perhaps that is idealistic. There is another side to hater that is cause for concern. According to Google's definition, a hater is simply "a negative or critical person," while the forum users at Yahoo Answers suggest that hater means simply a jealous person. At least in its wide-spread use, both definitions are helpful. But my concern is not exactly with meaning but rather with usage: hater is a retort, a second pair part in some kind of cultural adjacency pair. It is a reaction to an accusation, a protest, a gripe, a statement, or an evaluation.

"I don't like that new Beyonce song."
"You're just a hater."

As though we were, in fact, meant to like and accept everything (or shut up about it). And this speech-strategy came about on the most open and versatile speech-arena ever invented by humanity.

Almost hourly we hear about the importance of free speech. We celebrate our rights to say what we want politically and artistically. But it seems to me that freedom of speech actually has a far deeper meaning, and that is the right to criticize. Because it's only when words are truly threatening, as they always are in criticism, that they really count. But somehow we seem to have gotten it wrong: we confuse criticizing with policing, and so there's no reason to have police since we are self-policed. To borrow lines from Martha Nussbaum, the accusation of being a hater is "a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realizing justice in America. But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil."