From my first year of teaching, I recall a student I’ll call “James.” He was probably around 50, with a bowl cut of stringy hair. Stooped, he wore the same plaid shirt each day, the same pants, the same slightly sullen expression. Given his pungent body odor, students gave him a wide berth. When he would stop by my office, I would always spray a cloud of air freshener after he left. He crammed his handwriting into lined paper, two lines of writing squeezed into one and even wrote in perpendicular lines in the side margins, unlike the other students.

Why the exception?

Right or wrong, I made an allowance for tragedy. Before the term began, I was told James had been misdiagnosed as “mentally retarded” as a child and spent his life institutionalized, perhaps because he was unconventional. Perhaps he was “on the spectrum” for autism. For whatever reason, he received a destructive label, despite being a bright man, an excellent writer who wrote a memorable paper comparing the human circulatory system to a system of rivers and tributaries. He was robbed of high school proms and football games, robbed of a career and family, during years of condescending smiles. Years later, I saw him standing in the hall, bent over like a Swiss army knife, wearing the same clothes, now shredded over his torso. A label had destroyed his life.

Just a few years ago, many warned against bullying; now the reversal. Words are often weaponized. Maturity meets an eraser. Not necessarily with lies, but labels that harm, that “poison the well,” quash conversation and even endanger lives.

I hear people slapping around negative labels – mental illness, treason. A 16-year-old Greta Thunberg is repeatedly referred to as “mentally ill” because she fights climate change. This is especially insulting as Thunberg is “on the spectrum” of autism, a condition she shares with actor Dan Aykroyd, singer Susan Boyle and probably Bill Gates.

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Recently, here in Fargo, one columnist referred to gun control advocates as “showing clear signs of mental deficiencies.” Does this statement mean that the 90% of Americans who believe in background checks or the 57% who support a ban on assault weapons need meds or remedial tutoring?

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Now those involved in the impeachment inquiry are referred to as “traitors” when impeachment is enshrined in the Constitution, and, unless I am mistaken, neither President Nixon, nor President Clinton used such a label when they were subjects of such an investigation. As a result, some are receiving personal threats.

I could go on and on with examples, from liberals and conservatives, that, in the end, dismiss opponents as failing to be “real” Americans or “real” Christians or turn a man who touches a woman’s shoulder into a “sexual harasser.”

Thankfully, Fox News just dismissed a host who “agreed” that Democrats are all pagan worshippers of Moloch.

The stench of negative labels is sometimes far worse than the scent that wafted in when James entered my office. It’s time for air spray.