The Humanist Dilemma: Is Hate a Four-Letter Word?

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Losing Letters: I was reading an article by the rabbi from the Tree of Life synagogue near Pittsburgh, PA,  written a few weeks after a gunman went on a deadly rampage there. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers proposed treating the word “hate” as an obscenity and substituting it with “the H word.” He explained that “when we tone down our rhetoric…we lessen the emotional impact of our words, and perhaps steer ourselves and others away from the wrong path.“

I’m not sure if I agree with that idea and am wondering what other humanists think.

—Wish It Were That Easy

Dear Wish,

As someone who opposes banning any words, I definitely don’t support this suggestion. There’s no way hate will just retreat from the world if we simply resort to using “H—” in writing and “H word” in conversation. I wonder if this rabbi is one of those who write God as “G-d,” as if including the missing letter is somehow sacrilegious. I’ve known people who were taught it had to be written that way on a blackboard, because otherwise when the board was erased, so was God. Really. I can’t imagine any god could be that fragile, nor do I believe hate—one of the most powerful and universal emotions—can be eradicated, or even diminished, by not spelling it out or pronouncing it. I’m sure there was hate in the world before there was language for it, and it will persist no matter how much we shun the terms we invented to express it.

To me, any suppression of words smacks of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as actual regimes throughout history that have sought to enslave people by stifling speech and thought. When political correctness gets out of hand, the result is group-think and a mob mentality that silences individuals for their choice of words or for airing certain ideas. Well-meaning censorship can morph into dysfunctional constriction.

I for one will not be avoiding the word hate. On the contrary, I believe we have to face it and grapple with it. Those who hate are not going away just because others opt to delete three letters.

Although the rabbi’s essay is impactful and his ideas worth considering, I don’t have any intention of redacting any letters or words, nor do I believe such euphemistic approaches can have any significant real-world impact. Maybe a little more effect than thoughts and prayers, but that’s about it.