Embrace your inner Grinch: A hater's case for pessimism and contrariness

If the mere mention of Black Friday, let alone Christmas or Hannukah, makes you cringe, culture writer John Semley says it's actually good to hate things — especially if everybody else seems to like them.

'It is OK and even valuable and virtuous to be a hater,' says culture writer John Semley

John Semley is the author of Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability. (Arden Wray, Penguin Random House Canada)
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by Brent Bambury

In his manifesto Hater, John Semley argues that vigorous and disciplined contrariness can bring about a better world. Here's a partial list of the famous or historic grouches he cites with approval: Shopenhauer, incendiary film critic Armond WhiteHenry James, Elizabeth Wurtzel, H.L. Mencken, Jello Biafra, Melville's Bartleby, Jay Sherman from The Critic and Christopher Hitchens.

But it is the exiled, bedraggled philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, who emerges as a kind of holy vessel of bitchiness in Semley's well-argued and warmly rendered plea for disagreeability.

"Diogenes was a guy who totally admonished pomposity," Semley told me on Day 6, gearing up to launch into a story about his favourite classical badass.

"A rich man invited him to a party at his house," Semley said, "And Diogenes spat in his face."

"And the guy throwing the party said, 'What are you doing spitting in my face?' And Diogenes said, 'Well, it was the only dirty surface in the house I could find.'"

It's not that I don't like Beyoncé, it's that I think that there's a certain way that we're expected to like the sort of superstars that I find a little superficial.- John Semley, author of  Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability

Harsh. And, unhygienic even by ancient standards.

But Semley says there's an important lesson. In his life and deeds, Diogenes wasn't just spitting in the wind. He afflicted the powerful.

"He did this in a way where he was pointing out the hypocrisy in the pomposity of people around him," Semley said.

"If you can't be the most powerful person in the world, you can be the person who afflicts that power and have just as much power."

It's the power of the hater.

'Ruthless criticism of all that exists'

Semley doesn't come off as a hate-filled man.

He presents as convivial, gregarious and polite — "I'm not saying you've got to go around spitting in people's faces," he cautioned.

And while Diogenes — whose face Semley wears as a tattoo on his right arm — lived in exile, Semley's book, Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability, is an entreaty to engage. It's a passionate attack on cultural consensus, packed with references to criticism, literary theory and pop culture.

Semley wears a tattoo of Diogenese on his right arm. (Submitted by John Semley)

In his writing, Semley is as comfortable citing Marx — "'Ruthless criticism of all that exists.' It's so damn good that every time I read it I want to pinch my fingers to my thumb and blow one of those satisfied chef's kisses," — as he is dissecting Nickelback: "They're the hard, inedible lump of Yorkshire pudding at the cultural omnivore's pop buffet."

But Semley's not piling on Nickelback — he's piling on the pile.

"It's not just an index of my gripes or the things that make me upset or anything like that. I try to think through certain ... accords that have been reached culturally and try to sort of poke holes in them a bit," Semley explained.

"It's not that I don't like Beyoncé, it's that I think that there's a certain way that we're expected to like the sort of superstars that I find a little superficial. And if you dare to sort of go against it people say, 'Oh you're just a hater.'"

Be a hater, not a troll

Semley knows how powerful the label of hater can be and he warns people not to be intimidated.

"The animosity thrown back at the hater … speaks to a deep-seated conservatism and conformity of thought," he writes.

He's not advocating for trolls. He knows there are toxic individuals spewing hatred online and in the public sphere; he says they're banal.

"The thing about trolls is they often don't actually have radical propositions or new interesting beliefs. They usually use rudeness and obstinacy to uphold the lamest, worst, most destructive beliefs," he said.

"And that I think is the difference between the figure of the hater, which I value, and the figure of the troll, which I despise."

In Hater, Semley questions why we should blindly love superstars like Beyonce. (Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images)

In Semley's world, hatred has no meaning if it's not being used for good.

"Remember that challenging convention, and idiocy, should proceed from a place of kindness and resounding fellow-feeling," he writes.

In a metaphysical analogy, Semley defines hatred as dialectic to love.

"There's a sort of view that love and hate are kind of opposites. But I see them as entwined. I think the analogy I use in the book is, you know, you get your bud headphones all tangled in your pocket," he explained.

"That's the degree to which hate and love are entwined. And I think hating on things or sort of challenging things or criticizing things — it also creates an opportunity to see what you don't value and then contrarily what you do value. You learn to create a set of values that can be used more productively."

A radical pessimism

If Hater is a manifesto, Semley is way more cautious than Marx. ("I get anxious being overly prescriptive," he writes.)

But the book is an unmistakable call for a new scepticism, a disciplined interrogation of one's own ideas and courage to express them despite the crushing pressures of conformity or indifference.

Semley describes Canadian pop-rock group Nickelback as, 'the hard, inedible lump of Yorkshire pudding at the cultural omnivore's pop buffet.' (Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty)

Semley calls it a radical pessimism.

"As an idea becomes stable, you have to challenge it," he said. "The philosopher Karl Popper talks about this with science, he says that ideas are only good so long as they're falsifiable." 

"We can have a theory and we can have a belief, but we always have to be trying to falsify that belief. If we can't falsify it then we know it's good."

Feel free to disagree.


To hear the full interview with John Semley, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.