I own a Taylor Swift album. That information falls under the category, “Things I tell people to help them hold me accountable for arrogance,” right next to my 3 year membership in a bowling league. Anyway, I’m not a “hater” of T-Swizzle. I enjoy a good deal of her music; her early hits are sweet and innocent and buck the sexual nihilism of most pop music.
Alas, her latest single dares me to soon patronize the Used Book and Music Exchange. I understand the appeal of its bouncy rhythm and Pharrell-inspired (=plagiarized) music video. And of course it will continue to be a huge hit, since there are levels of celebrity that renders one’s sales invincible. I’m not too apprehensive about that, so don’t hear me declaring scorched earth when I say there’s a meme in “Shake It Off” that is quite common in American conversational culture and quite deleterious to it. It’s the “haters gonna hate” meme.
Now Swift certainly didn’t coin the phrase. According to the invaluable resource Know Your Meme, “haters gonna hate” was heard in pop music as early as 2000. The difference between then and now is that “haters gonna hate” has become more than a clever backhand to would-be judges of lifestyle. There are far too many people who really believe that “haters gonna hate”—or a more grammatically respectable equivalent—is an appropriate response to voices that express criticism or questioning.
What does the phrase mean? For one thing, it means the words of the “hater” are as irrelevant as a dog’s barking. It’s just noise, not anything worthy of consideration, but empty “hate” produced by a “hater.” Unfortunately the meme hits on something that is often true; we are a generation specializing in inarticulate outrage. Still, anything that is worth saying or doing should be defensible with words and ideas, not just immediate dismissals that use fallacious reasoning such as: “You said negative things about what I just did. Trolls also say negative things; therefore, you are a troll.”
This is important, not because people look to Swift for intellectual guidance, but because when this mindset is adopted, the source of truth becomes the majority. Think about it as an internet chat room; if Jeff says something that Jill doesn’t like, who determines who the “hater” is? The chat room does. If people like what Jeff said, then Jill is the troll. If they favor Jill’s point, then Jeff is the troll. Give it a more meaningful context and the seriousness becomes obvious. In a town hall meeting Betty says something that Bob disagrees with. At this point Bob has a choice: He can express through reasons and ideas why Betty is wrong, or he can say she is being unkind or unfair. If the gathering does not properly value truth, but instead carries vague ideas that rely on buzzwords like “intolerance,” then his choice is obvious. He can avoid making any sort of argument and instead paint Betty as a “hater who hates.” Why listen to a hater?
The oft-unspoken conclusion to this line of thinking is called the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy appeals to the source of a claim in determining its validity. “Consider the source” is often used to disarm an argument based on the person making it. Yet this is not a valid way of judging ideas. If a person is shown to be a troll, that just means he is a troll; it doesn’t make what he says false. That’s just as true if we substitute the word “fundamentalist.” “Stop being a fundamentalist,” or, “I heard the same thing from my fundamentalist church” is frequently advanced as evidence that an argument about biblical gender or inerrancy should be dismissed. Yet even if the source of the argument is a fundamentalist, or shares beliefs with other fundamentalists, that doesn’t have any bearing on the validity of what he is saying.
The utilization of the genetic fallacy is widespread, especially among those who ought to know better. In February a doctoral student at Harvard wrote this essay, urging her university to shelve “academic freedom” in favor of “academic justice,” by which she meant being willing to censor certain ideas or people from campus if judged to be contrary to Harvard’s sensibilities. The argument shows a total acceptance of the genetic fallacy; it is not necessary to demonstrate why something is false, only that it is icky or its proponents rude. Haters gonna hate.
New Atheists have picked up on this, too. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris famously slandered religious people with being either open or closeted homicidal fanatics. This allowed him to sidestep the hard philosophical work of considering religion’s metaphysical and anthropological claims; once he established that religious people are monsters, there’s no need to listen to their arguments. Murderers gonna murder. Fortunately for New Atheism there are more sophisticated manifestations than that. Pascal Boyer scintillatingly titled his book Religion Explained, which used a discipline called cognitive science of religion (CSR) to show that religious belief is generated by evolutionary processes and mechanisms that are sensitive to finding meaning and patterns. Michael Shermer gave this argument popular expression with How We Believe, which concluded that religion cannot be true because it is not based on evidence but under-evolved biochemical impulses. Believers gonna believe. These arguments have been persusasive for many of the same people who rally around the kind of ideas in the aforementioned Harvard Crimson piece.
In sum: Human flourishing depends on honest evaluation of ideas for their truth and goodness. Building little orthodoxies and excluding from it the “haters” who “gonna hate” is the antithesis of a civilized culture. Of course that’s not what Taylor Swift is trying to do; she’s trying sell records. Still, it’s a point worth making.