Keith Kloor’s weblog Collide-a-Scape is a place I hung out in for a couple of years between my own blogging experiences. For a while, Keith was pretty focused on climate issues–he got picked up by Discovery and has (much to his relief, I’m sure) widened his scope significantly. He has run one of the best blogs in the biz for several years now and more power to him.
Keith returned to the subject of labeling recently, specifically the new craze for calling your political opponents anti-science. In the climate change debate, it’s not unusual for either side to employ as the epithet du jour. However, I’d like to focus on the more common term used by climate activists against their opponents–the word (and its variants) ‘denier.’
It gained currency after the journalist Ellen Goodman used it about those skeptical of climate change, likening them to skinhead neo-Nazis in the UK who, among other nastinesses, staunchly maintained that the Holocaust never occurred. It became and still is popular.
It’s obviously hate speech, of course, but a surprising number of climate activists can’t let go of it. They use all the tired defenses of the term that were used by those who thought it was okay to call black people the ‘n’ word, Jews kikes, Hispanics spics, ad nauseum. (I am not for a second saying the term ‘denier’ is anywhere near as harmful or hurtful. It is not. But the process works in the same way.) They said the word antedated its hijacking. They said that it was the plain truth. They said that some of those so accused had embraced the term.
They didn’t seem to accept the modern truth that those who use derogatory language are not the ones who can define its level of vitriol and hatred. That is better left to those on whom the label is used.
But the term ‘denier’ goes beyond insult. It is part of a code that very consciously defines the user. There is a structure to the writings of climate activists, from the speechifiers like Al Gore or Bill McKibben to the bloggers like Eli Rabett and Joe Romm to the various commenters that serve as their shield and sword. It includes pseudo-scientific terms such as the Overton Window and the Dunning Kruger syndrome and is populated with references to pop culture. There was a time when you couldn’t get through a comment thread without being exposed to at least one YouTube clip of Monty Python.
Their communication is to a surprising extent aimed at other members of their tribe–they’re not interested in converting the wicked skeptic or engaging in the occasional newcomer to the debate. They are essentially counting coup. If you wander from blog to blog, as I do, you would often see commenters and even bloggers recounting their confrontation with evil skeptics in prose somewhat more breathless than deathless.
As a form of self-validation I suppose it works. It is an accepted symbolic structure that marks the user as part of a tribe, someone who shares the values of those back at the activist blogs where the user will return. It’s an effective symbol for many, which I guess is why it’s still in use.
But it says something about the mindset, the level (or lack thereof) of humanity inherent in this tribe, that they would be so happily ignorant of the actual meaning of the word or its effect on its targets.
As others have often asked, what is it that skeptics are held to deny? The existence of climate? Climate change? Human contributions to it? The greenhouse effect? Its magnitude, consequences, duration?
Why is it a blanket term applied to people with extremely diverse views, ranging from Nobel prize winners to distinguished physicists to Monckton and Morano to even, well, me? If you looked at all those tarred with the term you would quickly see that the only thing they hold in common is a belief (in varying degrees of strength) that the science isn’t settled, that the consensus has tried to rush to judgment, that we don’t know as much as some have tried to tell us we do.
It’s a nasty word used by nasty people to deliberately insult and demean those on the other side of a political issue.