Don't Hate the Hater

This week's controversy over a BuzzFeed list brings to light the tenuous role of the hater in popular culture.

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Earlier this week, the writer Joe Veix posted a listed on BuzzFeed, which the site allows users to do on its Community Post page. The list was called “The 10 DUMBEST BuzzFeed Lists You’re EMBARRASSED To Say You CLICKED,” poking fun at the site’s propensity for lists that combine pop culture trends with commentary on current events. The post might have disappeared, except that BuzzFeed, calling the list “mean-spirited,” removed it from the site. Veix had apparently violated BuzzFeed’s famous “no haters” policy.

Veix’s list, reposted on his own Tumblr, went viral shortly thereafter – partly because it was funny, but partly because of the controversy it engendered (and BuzzFeed was already in trouble for explaining the turmoil in Egypt through Jurassic Park GIFs). Eventually, BuzzFeed relented and reposted Veix’s list, with BuzzFeed editorial director Jack Shepherd explaining, “By the old rules of Community, you’d always remove someone who is toxic and only contributing negatively, but after some thought, we’ve updated our No Haters policy with an exception to allow people who want to hate on BuzzFeed itself.”

Though belated, the move was bold. And it brings to light the tenuous role of the hater in popular culture – an entertainer who is also reviled, the jester who sometimes plays the executioner and is then often executed himself.

Urban Dictionary defines the hater as “a person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success,” though a subsequent definition hates on the very notion of having to define a hater, which is its own odd form of meta-haterism:

The most non-insulting ‘insult’ in existence. It's a waste of breath to say it and a waste of energy to type it. This term is often used by pre-teen girls whenever someone insults their favorite teeny bopper singers. If you ever call someone a hater, find the nearest knife and use it pierce your lungs for polluting our air with that fucking stupid word

But is the hater of 2013 really so different from the critic of the past? In a more eloquent time, might not the hater have been a public intellectual of the skeptical bent, of the sort exemplified by Jacques Barzun? Isn’t haterism just a neologism for strident critical thought?

In defending haterism, I am in no way endorsing actual hatred. Criticism motivated by animus – racial, gender-based, whatever other kinds exist – is abhorrent, as are ad hominem attacks. And I have written elsewhere about my own desire not to publish criticism motivated by petty jealousies or rivalries.

At its finest, haterism is what Ralph Waldo Emerson called non-conformism in his essay “Self-Reliance.” His self-reliance refuses to take things at face-value; haterism goes further, exposing for others what the critic already knows to be self-promoting, false and ridiculous. Emerson approaches this when he writes, “Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times.” That reprimand made public is at the heart of haterism.

Besides, at least far as culture is concerned, haterism often serves as a necessary corrective to the stultifying echo chamber of adulation. In the book world, much of the current great-job-kiddo spirit can be traced back to a 2003 essay by the novelist Heidi Julavits in The Believer called “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!,” in which she suggested that book reviews had become too snarky and asked the literary community to “give people and books the benefit of the doubt."

It goes without saying that Julavits is not alone in stigmatizing haterism as incurious snark – she was merely an early bellwether of the “no haters” notion propagated by Buzzfeed, which holds that because the world is cruel, our discussions about that world should be nice.

So, for example, after William Giralidi eviscerated two books by Alix Ohlin in The New York Times, he was widely criticized for the same trait BuzzFeed accused Veix of harboring: mean-spiritedness. Gawker’s war on the writer Katie Roiphe has been waged with such vigor, that she actually took to Slate to respond (it didn’t work, of course).

I don’t necessarily agree with these attacks, but I do appreciate their vigor, their chastening earnestness. Haterism is a form of tough love, harsh cultural corrective – a note home from the teacher for the whole family to see. Is it possible that Veix posted his BuzzFeed list purely out of spite? It certainly is, though he doesn’t strike me as a spiteful guy (I judge him purely on his Tumblr). As such, his haterism – and that of others – is a call to do something better, not to cease doing it altogether.

It is strange, after all, to live in a world of only “like” buttons, which is why I suppose there’s an app called Hater. As the critic Jacob Silverman has pointed out, the “epidemic of niceness” has corroded our critical faculties. What the world of culture needs now is a measured does of haterism.

Photos: Tumblr; Flickr, by Allan Ludwig.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.