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Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability

Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability

by John Semley

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A timely manifesto urging us to think critically, form opinions, and then argue them with gusto.

Hater begins from a simple premise: that it's good to hate things. Not people or groups or benign belief systems, but things. More to the point, it's good to hate the things everyone seems to like.
    Scan the click-baiting headlines of your favorite news or pop-culture website and you're likely to find that just about everything is, supposedly, "what we need right now." We are the victims of an unbridled, unearned optimism. And our world demands pessimism. It's vital to be contrarian--now, as they say, more than ever. Because ours is an age of calcified consensus. And we should all hate that.
    In this scathing and funny rebuke of the status quo, journalist John Semley illustrates that looking for and identifying nonsense isn't just a useful exercise for society, it's also a lot of fun. But Hater doesn't just skewer terrible TV shows and hit songs--at its core it shows us how to meaningfully talk about and engage with culture, and the world. Ultimately, Hater is what we actually need right now.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735236172
Publisher: Penguin Canada
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 889 KB

About the Author

JOHN SEMLEY is a pop culture and media critic who regularly writes arts features and reviews. He is a film and TV columnist for CBC's q, and frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail and Maclean's. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The A.V. Club, Salon, Now, The Walrus, Toronto Life, and more. He is the author of This Is a Book About Kids in the Hall. He lives in Toronto.

Read an Excerpt

The stupidest fight I’ve ever started erupted in late August 2017 when, while distractedly switching between Twitter and a PDF of Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography, Yes I Can, and listening to heavy metal music on YouTube, a random thought occurred to me, and so I tweeted:
“why?” > “smalltown boy”
The songs are both singles from British synthpop trio Bronski Beat’s 1984 debut record, The Age of Consent. Neither song, it’s fair to say, is especially well known to a general audience. Nor were they smash hits (though “Smalltown Boy” got to #1 on the charts in a few Benelux countries). They’re relatively minor songs by a relatively minor group, and the idea of suggesting that one is better than the other (especially the one that’s least well known of the two)—more than thirty years after their original release—had all the marks of a hollow provocation.

As they say, I know whereof I speak. I’ve been in some totally pointless, idiotic fights—fights that ran the gamut from self-defeating to smugly self-affirming.

I once tried to stir up an argument by asking, halfway honestly, who would win in a full-out, drag-down fight between the anthropomorphic bad-boy baseball from the VHS cover of the 1989 baseball comedy Major League and the anthropomorphic good-ole-boy football from the VHS cover of the 1991 football comedy Necessary Roughness.

In Grade 7 debate club, I fiercely led a rebuttal against the ludicrous resolution that Barq’s Famous Olde Tyme Root Beer possessed, per its ad campaign, “bite.” I once vexed someone, largely for my own amusement, by mounting the argument that “musically, everyone agrees that Iron Maiden is the best band, music-wise, in sheer terms of the music.” I have defended the Lou Reed/Metallica team-up album Lulu, which everyone hates, in part just because everyone hates it. Because if I don’t, who else will? (Also, I sincerely stand by Lulu’s howling opener “Brandenburg Gate” as being a very interesting hard rock song, if not necessarily a conventionally “good” one.)

Those were good fights, in their own way. But of all the dormant beehives to kick around for sport, this would-be contretemps about the songs “Why?” and “Smalltown Boy” was no doubt the stupidest. It’s pretty much a joke at the expense of the idea of even having an opinion about anything at all. But it proved to be the most revealing. Because somehow, it worked. Someone took the bait. A few people, even.

One Twitter follower immediately told me to “stay in my lane.” Another chimed in to say that both songs are timeless classics, a sentiment that carried with it the assumption that pitting one against the other was a futile exercise. Yet another interjected to mention The Communards, another British synthpop duo carried by the piercing falsetto of Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville.

Granted, the back-and-forth was never elevated to the level of a true argument. Nobody discussed how the experience of being a young gay man in the early 1980s is framed differently in each song: the fantasy of escapism and retreat from oppres- sion and familial rejection of “Smalltown Boy” weighing against the more upright, defiant tone of “Why?” with its imperative call for an explanation of oppression and hate (“Can you tell me whyyyyyy-auuuuurrrrghhhhh?!”).

But more to the point, this exercise cut to the heart of a deeper instinct. Starting a fight on social media about two singles nobody really remembers by a band nobody really cares about? This is the essence of the contrarian impulse.

And it is at the heart of what it means to be a hater.

In 2009, the word hater found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, which is pretty much the dictionary you want to be in if you’re an aspiring Legitimate Word. Here’s how the English-language gatekeepers at the OED define it:

hater n. a person who greatly dislikes a specified person or thing: a man hater | he’s not a hater of modern music.

informal a negative or critical person: she found it difficult to cope with the haters.
The Oxford folks, as is often the case, were merely playing catch-up, well after the word had already gained purchase in the everyday parlance. A top-rated entry on the website Urban Dictionary dates back to 2005 and defines hater on a slightly different axis, more attuned with the OED’s informal definition (itself formalized by virtue of inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary). Here’s their definition, all typos and grammatical eccentricities sic:

A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person.

Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt [sic] really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock somelse [sic, again] down a notch.

Susan: You know, Kevin from accounting is doing very well. He just bought a house in a very nice part of town.

Jane (hater): If he is doing so well why does he drive that ’89 Taurus?
This book, Hater, is preoccupied with these latter, informal, somewhat clumsier definitions. It’s not about hating as a matter of preference, as one might hate (per the OED’s example) modern music or (per my own) corn on the cob.

And—I feel like maybe I should bold, italicize, ALL CAPS and UNDERLINE this bit, lest anyone miss the point, though I bet some are bound to deliberately miss it anyway—it is most certainly not concerned with the kind of hatred that is truly repellant, as in an aversion to a person or group of people that emerges from some perceived (and often entirely preconceived) difference in identity, gender, ability, sexuality, race, religion, color, creed, ethnicity, etc., etc.—I’m sure you get the idea. This is not about justifying that kind of prejudice. Like, at all.

This book concerns hating as a cultural practice, and being a hater as an expression of cultural identity. It’s about being the person who stands up, who is willing to make every modest protuberance in the pop cultural landscape a hill to die on, who kicks the stupidest conceivable beehives. Because for a while now (since at least 2005, if we’re to take the online Urban Dictionary as a relevant reference point), hating has entrenched itself in the cultural firmament. The “hater” has become a cultural archetype: contemptuous of seemingly everything, dismissive of everything else, wholly unimpressed, eyes caught in an exaggerated roll, lip half-snarled, locked in a perpetual sneer. Hating has likewise become a common attitude in contemporary Western culture. And, when done right, I think it’s a defensible one.

This book sets out from what I’ll admit is a somewhat smugly contrarian premise: that hating is good.

If we’re constantly leaned on by the gentle pressure to nod and smile and agree upon the ever-expanding constellations of cultural consumption and appreciation, then disagreeability, scowling, and shaking one’s head feels urgent, and even necessary. Our culture seems largely defined by either an overstated performance of enthusiasm or a painfully convoluted different kind of enthusiasm. Take so-called think pieces, like “Why Game of Thrones Is About Single Payer Healthcare” or literally whatever. That’s a lot of effort going into intellectualizing something because it’s popular. But where is the conversation on whether it is even any good? In this environment, being smug, annoying, and contrarian strikes me as having an inherent virtue.

The content and character of that virtue may not be immediately apparent. It certainly won’t make you a hit, especially online. I can’t estimate the number of articles and opinions I’ve purveyed as a writer and critic that are met with their  own smug dismissals, usually phrased along the lines of “You must be fun at parties.” But to cop the parlance of the endless parade of competitive reality TV shows we’re all expected to keep abreast of, I didn’t come here to make friends. And, more to the point, if picking at assumptions and the taken-for-granteds of culture, of the way we all relate to everyday life—if only by stirring the pot, and staging arguments about Bronski Beat singles for no real reason—is deemed un-fun by people at parties . . . well, then you’re probably going to the wrong parties.

This book aims to make the case for haterism as both a symptom of and potential cure for the current cultural climate. After all, in order to repair the rot and decay worming through our culture, the same rot/decay must be (a) addressed, with righteous vehemence, and then (b) rejected, with an even more honest anger. This book also aims to reclaim the hater mantle from the wing-nut pretenders of contemporary contrarianism, those who use dissent not to challenge or clarify reality, but to further obfuscate it.

We need to take hating back. Why? Because criticism is vital for shaping, and sharpening, that shared cultural world we all waft through. When done well, it opens a dialogue, facilitating a give-and-take. And even when it is done reflexively, it serves a meaningful symbolic function, as it dares to howl “NO!” in the wan faces of grinning agreeability. Even in its most performative, utterly insincere iterations, hating offers an alternative, piercing the fog of consensus and lighting the path of a new way forward.

Life, after all, is a struggle against not just the rushing tide of inevitability but also the seductive whirl of conformity. We’re like . . . what did Fitzgerald say? Boats against the dang current? If we can’t preserve the necessary muscle memory to keep beating on, then we risk drowning in the deluge of damnable sameness.

So, raise a tall glass of triple-proof Haterade. Here’s to keeping our heads above water. And to acquiring the critical muscles necessary to jam a pointy finger into the soft solar plexus of the flabby culture industry and undermine its assumptions, its fundamental laziness, demanding, in shrieky, self-consciously annoying faux falsetto, “Tell me whyyyyyy-auuuuurrrrghhhhh?!”

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