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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

When Harassment Masquerades as an Opposing Opinion

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 5

A woman with long blond hair with a black eye and bruises on her cheek and upper lip. She is wearing a flannel shirt over a black t-shirt.

Another common form of minimizing language is the mislabeling of harassment as a mere "difference of opinion" This linguistic framing obscures the reality of targeted, abusive behavior and makes it seem more benign than it actually is. To understand the impact of this minimization, it's important to clearly differentiate between disagreements and harassment.

Differing opinions or perspectives are a normal and healthy part of discourse in society. When people have differing opinions they may debate ideas, criticize each other's arguments, or strongly oppose specific positions. But there's a fundamental respect for the basic humanity and dignity of those on the other side, even amid intense disputes.

Harassment, in contrast, involves aggressive pressure or intimidation directed at an individual or group. It's a form of verbal or physical conduct that aims to demean, humiliate, threaten, or undermine the targets. Harassment often involves repeated personal attacks, abuse, and attempts to shame or silence an individual or group.

The truth is that harassment isn't actually about the substance of ideas at all. It's a form of abuse aimed at attacking people rather than engaging with their arguments. It singles out individuals, often due to some aspect of their identity, and subjects them to vitriol and aggression. The goal is not to convince, but to wound.

When harassers and their defenders cry "it’s just an opinion," it masks the cruelty of their conduct in the garb of intellectual exchange. It makes a bad-faith claim to the norms of respectful debate, even as those norms are being grossly violated. It's an attempt to deflect criticism and accountability by pretending that harassers are simply participating in a mutual, good-faith discourse.

The impact of this framing is to minimize the realities of the harassment and the harm done to the targets. If it's all just a "difference of opinion," then there's no clear wrongdoer, just a both-sides dispute. The focus shifts from the harassers' inexcusable conduct to the fact that there's a point of contention. It becomes harder to criticize the harassers without seeming opposed to the expression of "different opinions."

This false characterization of harassment as just expressing a difference of opinion or “being honest” often taps into long-standing biases and power dynamics. Harassers who are members of dominant groups get the benefit of the doubt that they are "well-meaning" participants in the discourse. Meanwhile, marginalized people who are targeted often face skepticism when they name mistreatment. Their objections can be dismissed as oversensitivity or unwillingness to debate.

This is why it's so important to accurately identify harassment when it occurs and label it clearly and specifically as harassment. We must reject any attempt to disguise it as mere disagreement. Journalists, responsible public figures, and allies must all be willing to say directly: "This is not a good-faith exchange of ideas. This is harassment or abuse."

Only by being clear that the harassers' conduct is unacceptable can we disrupt their narrative that they are simply expressing an opinion. Only by putting the focus on the harassment itself, in all its ugliness, can we harness public sentiment and demand accountability.

Allowing harassers to cloak themselves in the language of just having a "difference of opinion" only enables further abuse. It's a form of complicity. We must be vigilant about identifying and rejecting this linguistic shield. Harassment must be named and denounced, clearly and consistently, if we are to protect the targets of harassment and ensure respectful treatment for all.

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