Two phenomena have made understanding of the law, and discussion about the law, very difficult over the past decade. The first involves words which are untethered from discrete definitions such that they encompass vague senses of what they mean, maintaining their negative connotations while becoming sufficiently meaningless to encompass whatever a person chooses to impute into the word. “Rape” is the foremost example of this phenomenon.
The second is the manufacture of words and phrases that never before existed, have no cognizable definition, but create the impression of a meaningful word or concept when it provides no parameters, no hard limits, to what it means. Examples of this range from “systemic racism” on the left to “critical race theory” on the right, and “woke” on both sides.
This is normally where some midwit will chime in with what they consider to be the definition, demonstrating their combination of narcissism and idiocy. Even worse, regurgitate some academic’s explanation that no one else agrees with or accepts, but creates the secondary appearance of credibility because someone with a title of minor authority said so.
No, it doesn’t mean what you want it to mean, random pimpleboy, and no, it’s not something to debate because you said so. Many people string words together in the desperate hope that they have either captured the definition of meaningless words and phrases, or can dictate new definitions to the universe while claiming the words here merely “evolved.” Evolution doesn’t mean you get to ram it down other people’s throats. Or does it, now that the word “evolve” has “evolved”?
At Persuasion, Seth Moskowitz recognizes the “violence” being perpetrated on words and phrases, and hence the concepts for which they exist, and offers a way in which to characterize the damage.
A useful term for this phenomenon is “concept creep.” This idea was first explored by the social psychologist Nick Haslam, who defines it as “the gradual semantic expansion of harm-related concepts such as bullying, mental disorder, prejudice, and trauma.” Concept creep has been especially prominent in psychology. For example, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was once a narrowly defined mental health problem that people experience after a life-threatening experience—usually war. But now, psychologists have expanded the category to include life experiences like childbirth, sexual harassment, and infidelity, that may be physically or emotionally painful, but are far afield from the traditional understanding of PTSD.
The example of PTSD is curious. Did it go from being a diagnosis to be made by a qualified psychiatrist based upon the DSM to a label random people gave themselves to explain or excuse their traumatic victimhood? Did the concept creep, or did psychologists, not known for their intellectual fortitude, acquiesce to the pop claims of random twenty-somethings who desperately wanted to wear some mental infirmity on their sleeve that didn’t taint them as being inherently nuts, and PTSD suited the bill?
And the idea of concept creep also applies outside psychology. Consider a tweet posted by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley in January: “Cancelling student debt is racial justice. Abolishing the filibuster is racial justice. Expanding & protecting voting rights is racial justice. Paid leave is racial justice.” While it may be true that racial minorities would benefit from paid leave or loan forgiveness, these are economic policies. We can debate the merits of rebranding “racial justice” to mean “any policy that I believe will help racial minorities,” but such a definitional expansion is a clear example of concept creep. Many other political terms and ideas, from “eugenics,” “racist,” “colonize,” and “violence” on the left to “wokeness,” “communism,” and “Marxism” on the right, are often distorted in similar ways.
I might have gone with “caregiving” is “infrastructure,” but “racial justice” works too. Or there’s “words are violence” but burning down buildings is not.
But is “concept creep” itself “concept creep,” in that it suggests that the ideas with which words are generally associated have shifted, spread, expanded or contracted as the case may be, within society?
The unsurprising consequence is that words have come to mean different things to the left and the right. That is why, when a recent segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe featured a poll showing that over half of Republican voters would not find it a “major problem” if a “candidate is accused of” making anti-semitic, racist, or homophobic remarks, I was less alarmed than the host, who called these voters “fascist” (itself a fantastic example of a word that has been mangled by concept creep). To be sure, there will always be a small number of voters who will support bigoted politicians. But what I suspect is really going on in this poll is that many respondents have seen terms like “anti-Semitic” or “racist” stretched to include banal or thoughtless remarks.
Not that Moskowitz doesn’t have a valuable point that words no longer mean the same thing to left and right, but he forgets, or ignores, that the world isn’t limited exclusively to those on the left and right. There is, I would argue, a majority of people between the two extremes, who don’t spend their days screaming epithets at the other tribe or writing think pieces about why god loves them more.
It is this vast middle (not, as some characterize them, “centrists” as if they are in agreement beyond not being a member of either radical fringe) that decides whether someone else gets to strip words of meaning, manufacture phrases that say nothing, by adopting that which radicals shriek the most. They demand Hispanics be called LatinX. They demand they be called by their infantile personal pronouns, which either constitutes politeness or rape, according to what best serves their argument at any given moment. And everything for which no actual explanation exists is systemic, when you can count a disparate outcome without explaining any bad thing that caused it.
In combination, the increasing malleability of words and the tendency towards maximalist accusations are degrading our public square. The most extreme activists might find this degradation and polarization good for their ends, but for the exhausted majority, it is a menace. When words lose their meanings, communicating with and understanding anybody on the opposite political team becomes more difficult.
Is “concept creep” the explanation for this untenable situation in which the “exhausted majority” finds itself? This isn’t natural or organic, but the “violent” overthrow of meaning and definition in the service of making it impossible to characterize it sufficiently to criticize it. Creepy, but creep?