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Avoid Contentious Terms (jefftk.com)
95 points by apsec112 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 124 comments



This is something that's been on my mind for years. Some words or turns of phrase identify you as a member of a group[1]. If someone has any amount of hostility to that group, then using these terms is going to cause them to get angry/frustrated with what you have to say instead of actually listening to your argument on its own merits... or at least that's what I've noticed about myself. For a long time, certain terms or expressions would irritate me so much that I'd ignore what the person using them had to say, even though afterwards I found I usually agreed with much of it. Even knowing now that I have this response and actively trying to avoid it, it's still difficult to ignore.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibboleth


It's also frustrating that every common term for some concept can easily acquire connotations that suggest a particular affiliation. For example, there's no easy way to refer to people who are present in a country in violation of its immigration laws without either conveying a connotation of sympathy or hostility toward them. "Undocumented immigrant" is criticized by anti-immigrant groups as (maybe intentionally) implying that someone's unauthorized immigration status is a mere bureaucratic oversight or accident, while "illegal immigrant" is criticized by pro-immigrant groups as (maybe intentionally) denying someone's personhood or inherent worth (as if there were something inherently illegal about the person).

I think I've seen someone try to use "unauthorized migrant" but there is even a prospect of getting pushback from people who hear this and assume that it must have been chosen in order to avoid showing support for their own "side".

This difficulty repeats itself a lot!


> It's also frustrating that every common term for some concept can easily acquire connotations that suggest a particular affiliation.

Upvoted, but for sake of example I'll mention that your use of "anti-immigrant groups" can be one of those loaded terms. While there likely are some people who are actually against all immigrants, the more common position is to support legal immigration (with differing opinions on how restricted this should be) while being against illegal immigration (with differing opinions on how those who break these laws should be treated).

Since there aren't mainstream groups who think of themselves as universally "anti-immigrant", it tends to be used only as a pejorative. I think a reasonable general principle is to try to use terms that people choose to apply to themselves. On the other hand, I don't know that there is an equivalent descriptor that everyone would consider fair. Language is hard!


Yes, I realized that this was also a problem but couldn't think of a better way to refer concisely to people who favor more enforcement of immigration laws! I understand that many people favor immigration but also want laws that restrict it to be enforced.

I was thinking of giving an example about abortion and realized that even talking about "pro-abortion people usually call themselves 'pro-choice' and anti-abortion people usually call themselves 'pro-life'" would also have the same problem, because some people who favor legalized abortion also want to discourage abortion or reduce the number of abortions that occur, so they don't agree that they are "pro-abortion".

In college I strongly favored drug legalization while also strongly opposing drug use, which makes it unclear to what extent it would have been appropriate to call me "pro-drug" or "anti-drug".


The suggestion made in the article is to ditch the bid for brevity and just use the more verbose forms, i.e. “people who favor more enforcement of immigration laws” or “people who are present in a country in violation of its immigration laws.”

The idea would seem to have merit as you ended up needing those anyway when the more concise forms were inadequate.


> I understand that many people favor immigration but also want laws that restrict it to be enforced.

Too often the xenophilic restrictionists are left out of the conversation of immigration and coerced into one camp or the other.


> While there likely are some people who are actually against all immigrants, the more common position is to support legal immigration (with differing opinions on how restricted this should be) while being against illegal immigration (with differing opinions on how those who break these laws should be treated).

Isn't this a bit like saying "I'm for medical marijuana being legalized, but meanwhile I support any and all enforcement of marijuana prohibition and I don't want anyone to receive medical marijuana"? I would describe such a person as being opposed to medical marijuana.


> Isn't this a bit like saying "I'm for medical marijuana being legalized, but meanwhile I support any and all enforcement of marijuana prohibition and I don't want anyone to receive medical marijuana"? I would describe such a person as being opposed to medical marijuana.

No, it's really not like saying that at all. Acquiring marijuana is something fundamentally different from immigrating to a country. Assuming your argument is actually in good faith, I'll explain how someone can be anti-illegal immigration but not against immigration per se.

A lot of people work very hard to immigrate to the United States using the legal channels. They pursue rigorous education, become proficient in English, and develop in-demand skills in order to find a US-employer. It doesn't really seem fair to these people if illegal immigration is allowed to run rampant.

If we have to use a medical marijuana example, then let's say medical marijuana is legal but somewhat limited in supply. For that reason, medical marijuana users must have a valid medical condition to acquire a medical marijuana card. However a large number of people without medical conditions make fake medical marijuana cards and buy from dispensaries for recreational use, thereby reducing how much medical marijuana is left over for legitimate medical marijuana users. It's not a great analogy, no, (since the type of jobs, residences, etc. occupied by legal vs illegal immigrants often differs) but again that's because immigration and marijuana are two very different things.


> I'll explain how someone can be anti-illegal immigration but not against immigration per se.

When I say “anti-illegal immigration” I mean “in opposition to immigration which is currently illegal,” not “in opposition to immigration that would be illegal if the laws were exactly how I think they should be.” That last one is essentially tautological, but seems phrased to deliberately obscure intent. It would be like saying “I’m against illegal homosexuality” but then adding “oh but I think homosexuality should be legal.”

I completely agree with the appropriateness of your analogy, but I remain consistent: I disagree with the people who oppose breaking the law to get medicine, and I instead oppose those who create and enforce the laws restricting access to medicine.


"Illegal immigrant" is quite plainly an anti-refugee phrase that was invented to criminalise people seeking refugee status. It's never been used otherwise.

"Undocumented immigrant" does technically describe a person's status but it's only used in relation to certain types of foreign visitor. Across the white English speaking world we'll almost universally use "undocumented immigrant" to refer to brown-skinned people, while we use "visa overstayers" to refer to white-skinned people.

Some guy from India comes to work for a cousin's business on a sponsored work visa and stays a week too long? Undocumented immigrant.

Some white woman from the UK comes to work for a major tech company and stays a few years too long? She just overstayed her visa.

Then to round of the discussions about words changing in meaning over time, remember when holding thumb and forefinger together in a circle was just "the game" and you'd do things to get your friends to look — at which point they'd lose "the game"? But these days, it's only a white power symbol, thanks to some anonymous idiot on 4chan.

It's a crazy world that changes so quickly. I can understand why some people want the world to stay just the same for a decade or two. But that can't be done. We have to adapt or die.


> It's never been used otherwise.

Absolutism will not get you anywhere. You're not omniscient, and do not know the minds of (literally) millions of people who use the phrase.


> “is quite plainly an anti-refugee phrase”

legally speaking a refugee is not illegal, “illegal immigrant” is just a term for a person who enters through the border illegally in a country where there are both lawful and unlawful methods of entry, refugees are accepted by law also, and if accepted through the defined process of law are not “illegal”


But we're talking about vernacular usage, not legal.


Although I think there’s some merit to your comment, I don’t think it’s racial, I think it’s cultural or classist.

A black English actor (like Idris Elba) would be “overstaying his visa” as would a wealthy Indian tech CEO.

People coming from another country in the anglosphere are viewed differently because there is a shared culture. There’s a huge venn overlap in race between these countries but that’s because they were English colonies.

All-in-all your comment seems a little hostile. We’re all learning. Even you don’t have all the answers, surely.


I think class is part of it, or it makes us assume motivations, but I think the differences in terms actually describe what's being done. If you move to a country to live there from now on, in violation of the law, you're an illegal immigrant. If you visit temporarily with a visa, but overstay or violate the terms, without intending to become a permanent resident, then you are overstaying your visa.

We probably assume something about the rich actor versus the poor janitor, but if we knew their intentions I think we could describe them accurately.

I also don't think there is anything wrong with the term "illegal immigrant". We have terms for crimes that are frequent or frequently talked about, e.g. drunk driver, deadbeat dad, arsonist, whatever. Immigrating, in violation of the law, is illegal and the people who do it are fairly called illegal immigrants to differentiate them from those that don't violate the law. I think insistence on "undocumented" is more of a rhetorical use from people who think immigration should be more permissive.


The common objection to "illegal immigrant" is of course to say that "people are not illegal", and strictly speaking a more grammatically correct term would perhaps be "illegally immigrated".

But this is a mostly irrelevant objection, the same construction is used in other phrases, including "undocumented immigrant". It's not the person that is necessarily "undocumented", it's their act of immigration, and everyone understands that.


That is commonly what people say, but as you point out I don't think their objection is consistent. You might call someone who perpetrated an act of violence a "Spouse abuser" even if that person spends 99.9% of their waking hours not beating up their spouse.

Calling someone a spouse abuser, drunk, jaywalker ("Nobody actually walks jays!"), illegal immigrant, whatever doesn't at all imply that you are summing up the totality of that person as all and only that appellation. It just means you think they've committed the associated crime. It would be rude to call an illegal immigrant an illegal immigrant at every opportunity, but it is just dishonest in my view to assert that they are not an illegal immigrant.


> Some words or turns of phrase identify you as a member of a group

Sometimes readers jump to that conclusion, but it's frequently or even usually untrue, while a shibboleth conceptually is something that can only be done by a member of a certain group. Contrariwise, for example, both feminists and anti-feminists could use such "group identifier" terms as cited in the article ("patriarchy", "emotional labor", et c). Using those terms absolutely does not denote to anyone which group you are in, and people who continue as if it does are clearly making an error.

I am a big fan of using contentious terms but then in close proximity expressing views slightly incongruent or even outright contradictory to those held by a stereotypical member of one of the term-using group, to get readers to question the usefulness or applicability of their stereotypes. I have no idea if I achieve my goal or if I just confuse people. Having read your comment, a lot of my writing exists to trigger[1] people who take your view (in addition to conveying useful information for the people who don't fall for the stereotype trap).

I reject the entire idea of the concept that using a word makes you a member of some group and thus permits a word-reader to infer some information about you. That's just bias, something we should all be looking out for and frustrating when possible.

[1]: this one wasn't planned, but is funny nonetheless.


> I reject the entire idea of the concept that using a word makes you a member of some group and thus permits a word-reader to infer some information about you. That's just bias, something we should all be looking out for and frustrating when possible.

I agree, and I should've made that clear in my comment. Word usage doesn't guarantee group membership, but they can still lead to someone assuming you are a member of this group. I don't believe it makes a difference to what I'm saying if a stereotype is accurate or not, but rather whether your conversation partner thinks it's accurate. Should people do this? No, probably not. Do they? I believe so.

To abstract my argument further, when we converse, we speak words which convey information. Some of that information is intentional on our parts (we choose words to make our point), and some is unintentional (others interpret words counter to how we meant them). It's probably impossible to avoid transmitting unintentional information completely, but attempting to minimize it seems like a useful goal, especially when we think our information is important enough to spread to others.

> I am a big fan of using contentious terms but then in close proximity expressing views slightly incongruent or even outright contradictory to those held by a stereotypical member of one of the term-using group, to get readers to question the usefulness or applicability of their stereotypes. I have no idea if I achieve my goal or if I just confuse people.

I don't know either, but I think this approach has value.


I think that's one of the main points of the article. And arguably, a point that perhaps every reader should take with them after reading it.

Not that "using some words give the listener implicit information about you", but that if some words activate some bias in the listener, than perhaps is better to avoid them, only for a while. Maybe wait until a common set of understanding has taken root before taking out the lingo.

This is only relevant if your intent is to actually reach across the aisle and understand where the ignorance/hate/whatever comes from; in essence to engage meaningfully for both parties, not necessarily convince.

If that's not your intention, then probably you'll feel offended at the discouragement of using some words. I'd say bias is the ultimate enemy here, and unfortunately, it's very hard to defeat bias head on, it's easier to lay a trap for it and slowly chip it away. I wouldn't say "patience" is a quality of any kind of discourse nowadays, from any "side".


> I am a big fan of using contentious terms but then in close proximity expressing views slightly incongruent or even outright contradictory to those held by a stereotypical member of one of the term-using group

If done well it can induce some cognitive dissonance in the reader and really make them question their positions. It's also a good way to weed out people who you couldn't have a conversation with in the first place. IE: if someone will reject your entire point because you use the phrase 'intersectional' while making an argument, then chances are they're more emotionally invested than intellectually invested in the ideas. At which point you're working with an ideologically driven reader. They tend to be more unwilling to reconsider positions.


Not every position needs to be reconsidered. There are positions that stand up to scrutiny and there those that don't. At some point, one reaches a conclusion. The goal of debate shouldn't be endless conversation. It's to arrive at a common understanding (ideally, a truthful one). That necessitates convincing.

While I agree that immediate rejection on the grounds of one word is a fallacy, many arguments fold like paper mâche because the one word/concept that ostensibly justifies the argument is based on a false/ill-defined/hidden premise. That premise, once rebutted/revealed, could no longer be defended without engaging in cognitive dissonance or defending the indefensible. After that, the rest of the argument comes crashing down.

Ideology isn't the only - or even major - motivating factor for sticking to one's positions. In a proper debate, the burden of proof rests on the person making the affirmative claim. More often than not, the claimant fail to clear the bar of proving their point.

Reconsideration isn't a concession prize. It's won or not at all.


Precisely. I'd prefer that those who can't appreciate nuance just get annoyed or confused and go watch TV or something instead of trying to engage with me or my ideas.


> [1]: this one wasn't planned, but is funny nonetheless.

Can you explain the joke for me? I’m not sure I get it.

Edit: To be clear, I understand what the word “trigger” means and its connotations.


"triggered" is one such potentially-but-not-really "group identifier" loaded term used in the ongoing American culture war between the vaguely-political-party-aligned opposing teams.

Not belonging to either of those groups, nor being interested in that culture war very much, my use of such terms is occasionally fraught because of the likelihood of culture war brawlers to, well, brawl.


I understand that part, but not the joke. Could you explain the joke?


Because sneak sometimes consciously uses loaded or contentious terms in order to make people rethink their associations, but here accidentally used the word "triggered", not for that reason.


I accidentally used a contentious word in an explanation about how I intentionally use contentious words. Trolling whilst not trolling explaining my trolling.


> Trolling whilst not trolling explaining my trolling.

The elusive meta troll.


I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Are you saying that it’s funny to use contentious words?


Are you familiar with the term sealioning?


Because "trigger" itself also has a meaning referring to "being triggered" or requiring "trigger warnings", which is itself mostly a concern that's expressed using those terms by a particular group or subculture.


The media's helped with that, and the meme-ifcation and the 'mic drop' one-liner culture of social media. If someone's trying to lay out a nuanced argument, or even discussion point (even if they show no preference towards one side), a magic word will cause many readers to make drastic assumptions about the speaker/writer's state of mind and intentions.

There's this embedded pseudo-psychoanalytic aspect in people I never saw before the last few years. We know it well with people we KNOW, our family or friends, and in arguments, but the fact that it happens with complete strangers is ..really weird!

Then add partisan politics and it's a giant weird nightmare to have conversations with people who are over-excited with lower attention spans.


There's one term I always avoid in discussion, and that's Privilege.

Beyond the dictionary definition, privilege already had widely used emotional connotations that made it an insult to call someone privileged. Which means when you try to talk to people about their White Privilege or Male Privilege, you're alreday starting with a penalty and need to assure them that you're not trying to insult them.

Much easier to have a discussion about the concepts encoded in the terms when you don't use them. I find most people find them quite intuitive and it helps create some empathy, which is usually the point of the exercise


The problem with words coming from some, uhm, ideological framework, is that by using them you kinda implicitly accept the framework. Which some people refuse to. To imagine how it feels like, try using words from a framework you strongly disagree with -- even if you construct a sentence you technically agree with, it just feels wrong.

Sometimes the words become a part of common vocabulary so much that people talk about e.g. "third-world countries" without necessarily accepting Mao Zedong's Three Worlds Theory (or even being aware that such thing exists). Words like "privilege", however, still have their origin obvious.


What do you use instead?


It's context dependent, but I do like the difficulty setting analogy. Like the pact of punishment in Hades, except you don't get extra rewards.

In one abstract example there'll be a discussion of why x group are so sensitve about y. Instead of saying "check your privilege" I say something like "maybe their tired of having to worry about z? When was the last time you had to think about z on a day to day basis?", asking genuinely and waiting for response, not just asked rhetorically.


Oh, I see. I was thinking you had a different word. But you’re not using another word, but rather getting into analogy or explanation.

I like it. “Privilege” means different things to the speaker and to the listener, so skip the label and delve into the thing that you mean instead.


Advantage has worked for me. I mean someone saying that to me instead of privilege.

Privilege just invokes the idea of 'fat cats' in a dark hunting lodge smoking stogies and sipping whiskey, complaining about commoners.


I try to avoid jargon when I'm not operating with the audience that understands this.

On a blog, that's hard, because your audience is infinite and when you share that you want to "kill all the apaches" maybe your audience will understand that you want to kill all the apache forked processes but some moron will post it on Twitter as evidence that you hate Native Americans.

Of course, the problem with this is that all the high information conversations are now private. Very few are sharing true insights in public because it's easy to find your audience and then you don't really need everyone else.

This is why I'm personally a huge fan of a personal ban feature on networks with lots of overlap. It's not that I want to ban people (though I do want to). I want people who don't like reading my thoughts to ban me.

If a HN user who doesn't like me never sees my comments again, that's a good thing.

Ideally, I could reach only my people so we can talk and everyone else would exclude us.


However, are "your people" actually transitively closed? My impression is this isn't really the case for most people (or at least not if you like to talk about more than one thing).

I'm reminded of this article I saw several years ago

https://plausiblydeniable.com/five-geek-social-fallacies/

which suggests that we shouldn't assume friendship is transitive.

I know I have friends whom I would never want to introduce to one another or have in the same conversation or social gathering!

I agree with your suggestion that being able to ignore someone easily could make communications environments better; it seems like there was probably a lot of direct and indirect benefit in USENET killfiles (although I'm not such a fan of how people used them performatively, publicly announcing that they had killfiled other people -- usually by writing "PLONK!" at the end of a long rejoinder).


No, you're absolutely right. The closure of anyone over friendship is likely all people.

But I think there's a scoring mechanism that's possible using a graph model that can usually reveal whether you want to see a person's comments or not.

For the moment, I just settle for the opposite bias: there are people who I want to read what I say, but I don't let them. Instead I just settle for a group that most of the time also feels that way.


"The closure of anyone over friendship is likely all people."

Except Ted. Nobody likes Ted, and he has no friends. Yes, you, Ted. You know who you are.

Joking aside, an aggregate measure of proximal association and affiliation is useful, but it is also likely fundamentally incomplete and incoherent over even a small subset of modes of affiliation (e.g. coders, windsurfers, rock climbers, pianists, frisbee players, race drivers, book collectors, DJs, etc).

That said, a heuristic that generally improves the real probability of alignment, enjoyment and engagement is definitely possible. The most entertaining part of this is that, with Aggregability being an NP-Hard problem, there will probably always be room for improvement in this problem category. So game on.


"Keto" and "low-carb" are often met with very different reactions. "Oh, I'm avoiding sugars" is completely reasonable, but Keto, not so much. To be more impartial, 'avoiding sugars' generally implies simple sugars (e.g, candy), whereas on Keto, you also avoid complex sugars/carbohydrates. To get more complicated, you're typically still eating vegetables on Keto, so you are consuming complex carbohydrates, truly 0-carb (versus an infinitesimal amount) would be practically impossible.


Doesn't "keto" refers to a diet that has the goal of putting your body into ketosis? Where it starts using metabolic pathways it doesn't usually use? Simply avoiding sugars or cutting down on carbs wouldn't do that.

On the other hand, I agree that people have associations about the kind of people who choose to do keto, and that's part of what you're getting when you see those differing responses.


It feels to me like the author misses the point somewhat. I think the conclusion is correct, that is, contentious terms should be avoided. However, it seems to him contentious means divisive, rather than terms whose definitions are contended. The terms referred to certainly are divisive, but for good reason: they seem to have many interpretations and, from what I can tell, primarily facilitate equivocation. As in, the point of these contentious terms is not to guide everyone to a shared understanding, but to trick people into agreement to justify some action.


If you're viewing everything through a rational and sterile lens (and probably, a privileged lens), it makes a huge deal of sense to just avoid "contentious" terms. It's no skin off your back, and it makes it more likely that you're able to maintain social decorum when interacting with people. And maintaining social decorum is probably pretty high on your list of things you care about.

If you're from a marginalised group, I don't think just "avoiding contentious terms" is so easy. There's an emotional aspect to things. There a probably groups with "contentious" labels that want you dead, or want your rights removed. This has probably affected people you love and care about. Maintaining social decorum by not putting people off-side is low on the list of things you care about. You've got bigger fish to fry, and using these marginalised terms to mark yourself as part of the in group probably serves a coping purpose as well as a safety purpose (to easily identify those that will marginalise you, because they are quick to be angered by your "contentious" terms).


The downvotes you're getting here (not from me, mind you) are illustrating the author's point very well. Intentionally or not, you're using so many "contentious terms" (privileged, marginalised group, etc) that a lot of people are tuning out and ignoring what you're actually trying to convey.

Stripped of the baggage, I think you're trying to say that it's hard for minorities to avoid using contentious terms for issues that affect them, and that they shouldn't have do that extra work just to avoid "putting people off-side"? While I sympathize, I also think that's a false dichotomy: if you want to be heard, you need to phrase yourself in a way that others will understand, and that's true for everybody. And if you don't want to be heard, well, then you're just (contentious term trigger warning) virtue signalling to others on "your" side.


I think part of the problem here is that, for some groups of people, they can use "the right words" all they want, but their very existence is offensive to other groups of people, who want them either dead or to pretend they're "normal" (by certain standards).

Of course, for many of these groups, even just using "the right words" to try to talk to the people who want to take away their right to exist means using words that denigrate and dehumanize them.


What I think grandparent comment should think is: is it more important to convey my idea or to show that I'm part of a group?

Both do well for different contexts. Probably choosing one for every context is a terrible idea.

As that saying goes: "if wearing a tie or not is more important than to pitch your idea, then your idea wasn't that important to begin with"

edit: parent -> grandparent


> to easily identify those that will marginalise you, because they are quick to be angered by your "contentious" terms

So in other words: "The fact that you defend yourself proves you're guilty!"


I'm also somewhat reminded of the idea of "tabooing words"

https://www.greaterwrong.com/tag/rationalist-taboo

(which is not about words that are themselves taboo in a sociological sense, but about a procedure inspired by the word game Taboo)


It's extra fun when your language is not only contentious, but incorrect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_labor#Definition


It's frustrating though when specific factual words with meaning become redefined and the new definition is what is contentious.

> "We should defund the police"

> No, we should instead invest more in non-police social programs like mental health.

> "Yes, that's what I mean when I say we should defund the police"

> No, we shouldn't defund the police.

How do you proceed from that?

When I was a teenager 15 years ago my friend who studied Gender Studies told me about the concept of "privilege". I was livid. I understood what she was trying to say (I thought) but I was angry that she dared suggest that I had something. I was an immigrant. My family spent time on welfare. I worked super hard in school. Sure, I was white. So? How dare she?

It didn't even occur to me to consider who she was comparing me against.

It took me some time, I did some reading, I understood what the term meant, and I recognized some context (Yes, my parents were on Welfare for 2 months when we moved to the West. But they also had PhDs and were able to find good jobs soon after, etc)

I went back to my friend and I said "look, i agree with your premise. But I still think the word privilege is too contenious. It makes people react negatively.

She said, but that's the academic term. You reacted negatively because you reacted to a mischaracterization of the definition rather than what it actually meant. I thought about it and agreed.

So now it's 15 years later, and I see people my own age - grown men in their 30s and older reacting to terms like privilege with the same vitreol I did as an angry teenager. At a time when there is more information than ever for people to find.

The problem is not the contentious terms. The problem is some (lots) people just don't want to have a reasonable debate no matter what they say. They are entrenched in their ways, uninterested in growing, are arrogant about their beliefs, and lack the empathy to consider the feelings of others.

If you discover new "non contentious" terms, they'll just find a way to make them contentious too.


"Privilege" is an everyday word with established meanings. If academics want to redefine it to serve their political goals, the burden is on them to make their case to the people. We don't have to accept that a word means something different than what it's always meant before just because some ivory tower elitists said so.

When someone wants to introduce a term to clarify meaning, they generally put two or three words together and create a unique term. When someone with a political agenda wants to create confusion and division, they choose common terms and give them new, contentious meanings.

A sibling has a better approach for this particular term: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26247166


>If academics want to redefine it to serve their political goals, the burden is on them to make their case to the people.

It's not a redefinition as much as it is overloading the term with new meanings. Much like technical language, in which 'memory' takes on a particular meaning in computing, or 'information' takes on a particular meaning in information theory, or 'scale' takes on a particular meaning in music theory, 'power' takes on a particular meaning in mathematics, 'roux' takes on a particular meaning in speedcubing, and more contentiously, 'justice' takes on a particular meaning in distributive economics, as does 'exploitation'. It is often obvious from context what meaning is implied by an overloaded bit of language.

However, if someone were to ask "What do you mean by 'exploitation'? Doesn't that mean x,y,z?" then the user of the term as technical language should be able to reply "No, I mean p,q,r. We call it 'exploitation' in the field because of a,b. You shouldn't confuse it for having properties implied by x,y,z."


> However, if someone were to ask "What do you mean by 'exploitation'? Doesn't that mean x,y,z?" then the user of the term as technical language should be able to reply "No, I mean p,q,r. We call it 'exploitation' in the field because of a,b. You shouldn't confuse it for having properties implied by x,y,z."

We desperately need more of that. The problem comes when someone reads an academic who means p,q,r, and repeats what they said to non-academics, and then they have a discussion where (almost) everybody thinks the academic meant x,y,z, and therefore everyone concludes that the academic is totally divorced from reality.

I don't know what to do about it. We don't want to make academics less accessible to the public, and demand that the public take it on faith that the academics know what they're talking about, and the ordinary public shouldn't worry their limited heads about such things. We also don't want to force the academics to use non-academic language in their academic work. And we can't expect the general public to put in a month or a decade to learn all the nuances of the academic definitions.

The only thing I can see that could work is translators - people who can explain (a simplified form of) what the academics are saying, in language that ordinary people use, pointing out along the way that the academics mean p,q,r and not x,y,z. People that can do that well are, I think, rare. It might help to have more of them - but how do we make that happen?


The problem is that everyone has opinions on social issues and humanities. Everyone can look at a public policy and say "That's a terrible policy" disregarding the work of experts who worked to balance many different constraints in the pursuit of some societal goal. It's the same as how anyone can look at a piece of art and say "That's terrible. My kindergarten son could have drawn that." and think their opinion is as valid as art critics.

As opposed to STEM where people generally keep to opinions only in their domains.

Now, you could say that this means proves that humanities are less rigorous and less worthy of respect, and that might take you so far. But ultimately the world is full of humans, and dealing with their habits, emotions, and motivations is not the work of biologists or chemists or physicists or mathematicians.

The challenge is that when a software engineer encounters a hardware engineer and they try to reach an understanding, there is an implicit baseline of respect, and if some terminology or phrasing doesn't fit one side, they default to assuming the term must mean something different in the other domain, and they ask for clarification.

When technologists on HackerNews encounter terms like privilege, justice, or exploitation from those in the humanities, they offer none of the same respect, and react to their own personal unstudied interpretation of the term.


I think the difference is that hardware and software people usually know when the other side is using a technical term, even if they don't know the full definition of it. They know when they don't know. Whereas with the humanities, they're using words that are regular words, and non-humanities people don't recognize them as being technical terms.


As Claudia called out - scale, memory, and information are all technical terms in our context but have layman meanings in the language too.

Is that not the same as justice, racism, and privilege in humanities?


It is, except that a hardware and a software person both expect them to have technical meanings. That is, hardware and software people have enough in common that they can (usually, perhaps not always) tell when a term is being used in a technical way.

And the same may be true in the humanities. A philosophy person and a sociologist, say, may have enough in common to be able to detect when the other is using a term technically, even if they don't know the exact definition.

The problem comes when talking to laypeople, both for the humanities and the technical people. (And the technical people are laypeople to those in the humanities, and vice versa.)


As an aside, I surely don't always agree with your comments, but they are always well-reasoned and thought-provoking. Even when I disagree, it is a very respectful disagreement.


Thanks, it means a lot to know I'm not just shouting into the void sometimes.


You're in my "show new comments from particular users" Telegram bot, and I find you to be among the better commenters here, so you're definitely not shouting into the void :).


I basically agree with what you've said, except I do think that some terms are intentionally overloaded for political purposes. As long as the language is within the field, between academics, then overloading can be fine. It's understood that the technical meaning can be completely divorced from the common meaning. The problems come about when people try to force technical definitions into the common vernacular.

There are two main problems that arise: (1) As deanCommie's root-level comment exemplifies, contempt for non-academics and a complete lack of respect for ordinary usage. This is divisive and toxic for obvious reasons. (2) It's not uncommon to see people commandeer an extremely weighty term like "racism" to take advantage of the emotional power, but when examined they fall back to a technical definition which has only a small fraction of the power. This allows them to destroy someone's livelihood with accusations of racism, but then it turns out that what they really meant by "racism" was something like that person really likes Chinese food and wants to make a living serving it, which is precisely the opposite of what is ordinarily considered to be racism.

It doesn't have to be that in particular which is characterized as racism. It can be many things: Wearing a dress to prom from a culture you admire, declining to support a partisan, openly Marxist corporation, expressing admiration of Jewish accomplishments, or expressing sympathy for the plight of young black men, but we see it all the time. Words are turned into weapons, and this overloading sleight of hand in an important enabler.

"Racism" is by far the most destructive overloaded term, and the easiest to find stark examples for, but the same problems exist to a lesser degree in other terms. @coagmano's approach is great, because he wants to talk about real differences and find real solutions, not to play word games. But there are plenty of people who just want to destroy, or to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy in their pursuit of political power.


I completely agree with your first 2 paragraphs. People pretend like describing a person or action as racist (in the academic definition) is a non-judgemental callout of our society's continued opportunity for improvement. However they ignore (willfully) the automatic mob that will invariably form to not educate but to chastise the person into oblivion (and taking their livelyhood in process).

I do think we need a better way to callout subtle and insidious racism in people's beliefs and actions but make it an educational opportunity for growth for the person and for society, not the instigation of a pile on.

Having said that, your specific examples are really strange, and I'd like to dive into why. Please make sure you understand, I do not do this to indict you, or accuse you of anything remotely of racism yourself. But your choices of example are strange because unfortunately I do think they are generally associated with malicious racists who use them as cover to have subtle plausible deniability.

> openly Marxist corporation

Speaking of words completely devoid of technical meaning. Can you clarify what you mean by openly Marxist corporations or offer an example?

Because, I'm going to be honest, 99% of the usage of this term online today is not treated respectfully by neutral parties: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Marxism_conspiracy_th...

> expressing admiration of Jewish accomplishments

Jewish or Israeli? The context matters significantly. It's naive to not be hypervigilant about both positive and negative discussions of Israelis and Jews online. You have everything on the spectrum: You have fully well-intentioned supporters of Palestianians and Palestine. But you also have duplicitous conmen who use the support of Palestine as a cover for blatant anti-semitism. You have fully well-intentioned supporters of Jews and Israel. And you have duplicitous conmen who use the support of Jews and Israel as a cover for blatant islamophobia, or worse Christian Supremacy. (Evangelical Christians in the US are militantly pro-Israel not because they so love their Jewish bretheren or hate Muslims, but simply because Israel has prophetic meaning in Evangelical Christian expectations of the Apocalypse/Rapture).

The problem is that while the majority of people hold neutral/centrist beliefs on Palestine and Israel, the extremists are overrepresented online. Most likely when people react negatively to concepts like "expressing admiration of Jewish accomplishments", they are reacting to those in context

> or expressing sympathy for the plight of young black men,

Again, this seemingly uncontroversial concept is completely weaponized online. White supremacists (actual ones) will openly proclaim their concern for the plight of young black men. And they'll say that nobody can take care of them better than other black folks. Which is why 1) They should stop killing each other in greater numbers than white police do, and 2) This is why we need segregation so that White society can take care of itself, and Black society can do so also.

This follow up isn't always visible and isn't always revealed. It comes later once the person who is operating in bad faith has earned trust and credibility.


> I do think we need a better way to callout subtle and insidious racism in people's beliefs and actions but make it an educational opportunity for growth for the person and for society, not the instigation of a pile on.

Terms like "unconscious bias" and "cultural appropriation" are fine. They have clear meanings, and AFAICT the terms themselves are never in dispute. In my personal experience, racism is a Very Big Deal, like murder, and it seems fundamentally wrong to diminish the meaning of the word by applying it to subtle, unintentional acts with debatable implications. It's as if one were to use the word "systemic murder" to describe the inefficient (in one's opinion) allocation of resources in medical research, and then used that term to characterize an entire society as essentially murderous and fascist. It just does not compute, and I don't think it does any good to insist on such terminology when it inevitably causes the conversation to derail into semantic disputes. Then the terms become useless for evangelizing, but very useful as litmus tests to enforce political allegiances and attack heterodox and non-conformist thinking.

I'm guessing that you were fine with my first two examples since you didn't point those out, so I'll just provide sources for the last three. (Two are combined). Note that I rarely view anything on social media, so I'm not in that conversation. My views are my own. If they seem to echo the "talking points" of someone I've never heard of or some organization that I don't pay attention to, that is a coincidence. HN is my biggest news source by far. If you should happen to find my views distasteful, I assure you that it is due to a vastly different perspective and not bad faith.

The admiration of Jews had nothing to do with Israel or Christianity. (As you noted, that could have made it a terrible example). The English lecturer Stephen Lamonby was fired as a result of his admiration of Jewish academics, saying "I was excited to think she might be one of them – excited to meet a Jewish physicist, who had been my heroes since boyhood."[0] This is precisely the opposite of what I would consider racism. It gets more interesting in that he defended the progressive position that blacks are disadvantaged by society, and this was somehow twisted around to make him a "racist". Not only did he say this, but he's apparently devoted significant time to helping out in disadvantaged countries and while in the UK gave special help to overseas students, and was attacked as racist for this: "Mr Lamonby noted that some of the overseas students were struggling to grasp even the most basic elements of engineering and said that he stayed behind to help three of them. ‘She said I shouldn’t have done this,’ he recalls. ‘I said I had a soft spot for young black men because they are often from environmentally disadvantaged societies.‘"[1] This reads like admirable activism, the rare person who practices what they preach, and about as far from real racism as you can possibly get. If one is using a definition of "racism" that can be twisted into making this man's actions racist, then that definition should be discarded. I will note that some of his comments, mainly asking a woman if she was Jewish because he thought she was talented and was excited to potentially be meeting one of his heroes, does seem obtuse and perhaps deserving of a minor rebuke. But not being fired as a "potential racist", which essentially nukes his whole career. The BBC reports a single allegation that he said black students did not have it "in their DNA to do engineering"[2], but he flatly denies this. The allegation comes from a single person who could be lying or have misheard, and it goes so directly against the spirit of his other quite progressive comments that it's hard to believe he would have ever said that.

About "declining to support partisan, an openly Marxist corporation", this is controversial and the import is highly disputed, so I will try to be very precise with my language. The common defense is that "the founders being Marxist doesn't mean that it's a Marxist movement", but this defense only works if you ignore the context. The context is this critique: "And one of the critiques that he shared–a loving critique, as I would want to point out, by the way–is that he was concerned or is concerned that there’s a lack of perhaps ideological direction in Black Lives Matter that would allow it to be, to fizzle out in, as he said, in comparison to Occupy Wall Street. As you advance in your own organization, as you all are headed to Cleveland to participate in this Black Lives Movement conference, how do you respond to that particular critique?" To which BLM founder Patrice Cullors responds, stating why she thinks that the BLM movement has the ideological direction to succeed: "Um, I think that the criticism is helpful. I also think that it might–. I think of a lot of things. The first thing, I think, is that we actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories. And I think that what we really tried to do is build a movement that could be utilized by many, many black folk. We don’t necessarily want to be the vanguard of this movement. I think we’ve tried to put out a political frame that’s about centering who we think are the most vulnerable amongst the black community, to really fight for all of our lives. And I do think that we have some clear direction around where we want to take this movement. I don’t believe it’s going to fizzle out. It just gets stronger, and we see it, right... We’re in a different set of circumstances, a different generation that–social media may feel like it’s diluting the larger ideological frame." [4] That is, BLM has adequate ideological direction because it's in a larger ideological frame. She makes it sound very much like that larger frame is the frame of Marxist ideology, but we don't have to agree on that. Now I was originally referring to the BLM corporation rather than the movement, but I have to be very precise with my language, and her interview was discussing the movement, not the corporation. I will bring the thread back now to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc., of which Patricia and Alicia are founders. Hopefully we can agree that the corporation itself is closely associated with Marxist ideology. We don't have to get into the complexities of the larger movement.

The "declining to support" part comes from the Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong's apparent endorsement of the BLM's more mainstream goals, but his refusal to endorse the BLM organization itself (the corporation) and its radical, ideologically-driven goals. (BLMGNF has since remove some of the more controversial goals from its website). "The CEO’s apparent redefinition of company culture felt personal, hinging on the pressure Armstrong felt from employees to say Black Lives Matter. They view the statement as moral, not political or activist. “A lot of people feel that saying Black lives matter is an ethical statement. They feel it should be an easy thing to say,” one engineer says. Armstrong said in June that he agreed with the statement, and that police brutality was a problem. But he wavered on whether a statement that included “Black Lives Matter” would mean endorsing BLM as an organization and set of policies, like defunding police."[4] This famously provoked Dick Costolo's thinly veiled threat that Armstrong would be shot in the (presumably Marxist) revolution.[5] (Sorry if you dislike the source, but the tweets have been deleted since and that source still has them). Armstrong was harshly criticized for his neutrality, with the more extreme non-violent responses reading like this "NEW: @Coinbase announces new commitment to a white supremacist workplace."[6]. It's interesting that a "committed white supremacist workplace" can be sympathetic to the wider BLM movement even while remaining politically neutral. I'll also note that BLMGNF receives allegedly hundreds of millions of dollars in donations (but I can't source exact numbers because it's not public) and funnels them to the Democratic Party through ActBlue[7]. An endorsement of BLMGNF constitutes at minimum an endorsement of the Democratic Party, and can easily be perceived as an endorsement of Marxist ideology. I think it goes without saying that a CEO should be able to remain politically neutral and not have to endorse a particular political party or ideology, whether directly or indirectly. But prominent, influential progressives apparently feel like neutral people should be slaughtered.

[0] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8544279/University-... [1] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8560707/Lecturer-sa... [2] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-53489171 [3] https://therealnews.com/pcullors0722blacklives [4] https://www.wired.com/story/turmoil-black-lives-matter-polit... [5] https://thefederalist.com/2020/10/01/former-twitter-ceo-fant... [6] https://twitter.com/nandoodles/status/1310654284674015237 [7] https://secure.actblue.com/donate/ms_blm_homepage_2019


Great points, I have some reading to do...


Yeah, my experience is similar to deanCommie's.

Annoyingly the definition is correct to the established meaning (in the dictionary), no redefining necessary. But surely just a trial run in the real world would tell you that it doesn't communicate well, given it's common connotation.


> a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

The Google definition is the same definition that academics use. Exactly the same.

The sibling you references is correct - "privilege already had widely used emotional connotations that made it an insult to call someone privileged." but it's not academics that implied that meaning onto it.

Also, can we have a discussion about these academic concepts without immediately ascribing "political goals"? We're talking about specific sociological concepts. Can we stick to that instead of ascribing subjective "goals" to people's research or ideas?


I'm trying to find a way to give a meaningful reply, but I honestly get stuck on this part about academia's supposed neutrality. I don't believe for a second that sociologists are somehow blissfully unaware of the way their work is used to shape policy, to shape debate, and even to shape the language itself, nor that they are somehow angels who can't have impure motives. In addition, it's common knowledge that petty political in-fighting is the rule in academia. There's no reason at all to think that academics are neutral in any way, but plenty of reasons not to.


Does the work of open source maintainers and technologists shape policy, debate, and language itself?

By some definition no one is truly neutral. Everyone has some ideas and motives, and goals.

The problem is when technologists look at those in the humanities and ascribe THEIR goals as "impure" or "political", and therefore somehow a class worthy of derision and dismissal.

Don't you see that?


I think it's a different situation because no one is citing open-source maintainers in their studies, and they have very little influence in policy.

I do see your point about everyone having bias, and it's not fair to stereotype one group as being especially biased. I apologize for showing undue bias myself.


Scott Alexander just posted a very interesting article[0] with a section "2. War On Experts" that covers some of the issues that I was so poorly trying to communicate. His take is probably more harsh than I would want to adopt, but he is deliberately addressing Republicans here so maybe his tone is different for that reason.

[0] https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/a-modest-proposal-for-...


It is a bit ironic to take issue with folks not respecting the authoritative, objective definition of privilege as decided upon by academic hierarchy.

I say this because the concept of privilege is deeply entwined with postmodernist philosophy which strongly believes in the subjectivity of the meaning through ones own lived experience and the rejection of hierarchial social structure attempts to assert ownership of meaning.

The word privilege has strong connotations of undeserved luxury which can be personally insulting to individuals that legitimately feel their own personal sufferings and hardships are being trivialized by the other party. Now do some folks really have undeserved amounts of personal luxury, yes of course, but luxury is by definition available to only a few. So why make it so essential to the word being used for the concept?

The real interesting talking point behind privilege is that you are arbitrarily spared from a set of societal injustices that other people are exposed to by virtue of arbitrary identity attributes. With only moderate amounts of reflection it is easy for most folks to buy into this idea and take some action in their life to reduce the negative effects of this phenomenon.

The cynic in me feels that the word privilege is used precisely to illicit defense responses from a subset of the population. Creating an irredeemable other and deepening division is never going to build a better society. What that does do is make the practitioner receive dopamine hits from their perceived moral and intellectual superiority. Sadly, self dosing dopamine will not bring about improvement to society at large.

If you're looking to have dialogues that have some chance of making all the participants better people than they were before, the tough work of going past charged language, being empathetic and assuming good intent are table stakes.

Otherwise you're just fishing for dopamine hits.


> The word privilege has strong connotations of undeserved luxury

Taking your point further, the crazy thing is that this part also fits! If you take academics at face value about the concepts of white privilege (and you don't have to agree with it, we're just discussing the terminology) in western society, then one aspect of it might be: "As a white person, you have the privilege not to be assaulted indiscriminately by the police."

Is that a Luxury? Well, compared to the alternative, not being beaten by the cops is damn luxurious compared to being beaten.

And it's completely undeserved! You did nothing to earn this except be born white.

Now, here, I acknowledge is where Academics made a huge mistake. The key is that the people advocating for social justice say that "EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE THIS LUXURY."

The idea of acknowledging privilege isn't to then follow up "and you should give it away", but instead "and you should make sure that EVERYONE is afforded the same privilege."

But the thing is, the end result is the same. Once a just society is achieved (hypothetically) and police treat all races the same (for example), then there is no more advantage to being one race or another.

So in essence, the point IS to give up the privilege by ensuring it becomes a non-entity.

> The cynic in me feels that the word privilege is used precisely to illicit defense responses from a subset of the population.

Depending on who you ask, humans are either social/collaborative/altruistic, or individualistic/selfish/xenophobic.

This spans race, culture, and class lines. Those that are in power and also in the second group seek out likeminded folks in the lower classes and preach to them that their life isn't so bad so long as they are better off than <insert other race here>.

Can every human being be convinced into seeking the common good? Can every human be assumed to have good intent? I don't know. You say you're cynical but you're more optimistic than me.

I never thought of this language being an INTENTIONAL divisive force, but in some sense as a way to identify those allied with you, and those who would fight against you it's not awful.

Like i said at the beginning - I do remember having an angry response at the first mention of this concept. But I realized in time that was my own immaturity and lack of empathy for others. Ironically it's the same privilege of being sufficiently well off and having my foundational needs being met that allowed me the space to start thinking of others. I acknowledge others may not be so lucky. If you are a coal miner out of work in West Virginia, the plight of black folks in inner city Minneapolis is hardly a concern.

And if we were talking about reaching THOSE people, I would agree with you. Every tactic and skillful negotiation idea should be on the table.

But a bunch of (privileged) well educated technologists on hacker news? I do expect a little more from them to do the bare minimum of reading a couple wikipedia pages before freaking out that someone is claiming they have some undeserved luxury.


"The best move..."


I’ll say that it’s a lot easier to avoid contentious terms when they don’t affect you personally. For example, if you are a middle-class heterosexual white man living in the US, then it’s a low-stakes choice to avoid talking about patriarchy, institutional racism, heteronormativity, sexism, etc.

The terms are partly contentious due to their connotations but these are contentious topics to talk about in the first place. If you’re going to dance around the most obvious and natural term for a concept that you’re talking about, it ends up sounding suspicious.


The problem in my mind is that when you use a contentious term to describe a precise concept, people—both those who largely agree and those who largely disagree with you—overload the term with their own assumptions about what the term means.

I’ve seen people espouse Xism ideas while lambasting Xists because their view of Xism is a caricature.


Avoiding controversy is an act that supports the status quo.


Non sequitur. Choosing your words to best be heard is not about avoiding controversy.

Do you want to spend your time talking about the controversy or constantly arguing about definitions to people who have already decided you’re right or wrong based on an assumed position you don’t even hold?


"I think what this country needs is for the rich to pay more taxes, stronger unions to protect the little guy, and public services run for the public, not profit! Also, i hate socialism."


That makes a lot of sense, because in socialism the most rich Party members didn't pay more taxes; the unions offered zero protection against the universal employer - state; and the public services... okay, those actually generated loss, you have a point.


Avoiding contentious terms is not the same thing as avoiding contentious topics. The blog clearly says he's keen to talk about these things, but tries to do so in a way that doesn't drag in a bunch of baggage that makes it less likely that the people you're communicating with will listen to your point.


Yes, it is a good idea to avoid the use of terms, that carry with them an implication that the listener is a bad person. I feel like this is a breakthrough in how we communicate.


I strongly agree with the sentiment of this, and naturally gravitate towards avoiding any such loaded language.

But writing posts like the ones he's referring to doesn't seem like a great solution to me. They come off as a little disingenuous, like they're trying to show off how detached they are from the Big Moral Questions while still shunting you towards a Big Moral Opinion.

His thoughts seem to be shaped by having been exposed to things defined by the contours of contentious terms. He's writing the posts to add a rational, more persuasive voice to a broader conversation, while intentionally alienating himself from the broader conversation. It's a worthwhile persuasive strategy...so I would've liked to have seen a bit more on how to get over the hurdle of tone.


On the contrary: choose contentious terms appropriately.

> you're really good at talking about the patriarchy without talking about the patriarchy

I’m not sure I read this comment in the same tone as the author seems to have. Calling something what it is is an important part of addressing it. Even if you might not persuade everyone. Whitewashing conflict just makes it less clear what your position is.


> Calling something what it is is an important part of addressing it.

I think this is the problem the article is addressing -- "calling something what it is" doesn't convince people that don't agree with you on what it is, especially when the terms you use are loaded with possible implicit interpretations. A lot of this is related to the implied worldview these words drag in.

> Whitewashing conflict just makes it less clear what your position is.

Which is to say that in a discussion or persuasive piece, it should be clear what you are arguing for or discussing without having to expose your whole worldview. Arguments about the distribution of chores between males and females in a household, doesn't need to use the word "patriarchy" to make its argument. In fact, it tends to make the argument weaker given that "patriarchy" hides a lot of things that would otherwise need to be unpacked.


I think it's worse than that. "Patriarchy" makes me buy the whole framework in which the analysis is done. If you're trying to persuade me, I probably don't already buy that framework. In fact, I probably reject it. But if you show me that the distribution of chores comes out unfairly to females, you now have a starting point for persuading me about the rest of the package.

If you want to convince people of a point, tie the point to as little extraneous baggage as possible. Choosing the terms you express it in is part of avoiding baggage. (If your point is to let those who agree with you rejoice in the obvious rightness of their opinion, that's different. But that's an approach that does little to actually change things that, per your position, need changed.)


> "Patriarchy" makes me buy the whole framework in which the analysis is done.

The whole framework that... men traditionally exercise greater power than women? That framework which... nearly all humans can at least identify as historically accurate? What a reach to expect you to engage with a nearly universal reality!

> If you're trying to persuade me, I probably don't already buy that framework. In fact, I probably reject it. But if you show me that the distribution of chores comes out unfairly to females, you now have a starting point for persuading me about the rest of the package.

So, you're all ears about worldview changing facts, but don't you dare name anything?

> If you want to convince people of a point, tie the point to as little extraneous baggage as possible. Choosing the terms you express it in is part of avoiding baggage. (If your point is to let those who agree with you rejoice in the obvious rightness of their opinion, that's different. But that's an approach that does little to actually change things that, per your position, need changed.)

There's a third option: the vast majority of persuasion in history doesn't come from sympathy or empathy, it comes from winning. The side which defends what already is sets the terms that naming things is too much for people to accept, and they invest an awful lot in convincing people of that claim. The side which has prevailed over mass misery and made more of humanity's identity and bounty available has repeatedly refused to accept those terms and has confronted them.


> There's a third option: the vast majority of persuasion in history doesn't come from sympathy or empathy, it comes from winning.

If true, then...

> The whole framework that... men traditionally exercise greater power than women? That framework which... nearly all humans can at least identify as historically accurate? What a reach to expect you to engage with a nearly universal reality!

No, not reality - not if persuasion comes from winning. The framework that lately is winning, which has nothing to do with reality.

That is, you can't have it both ways. Either "patriarchy" is an objectively correct way to view the world, in which case people can be persuaded by objective truth, or else people are persuaded by winning, in which case patriarchy is just what's winning at the academy these days.


> No, not reality - not if persuasion comes from winning. The framework that lately is winning, which has nothing to do with reality.

The understanding that a large majority of people share about present reality isn’t something that requires persuasion. The persuasion has already occurred. Persuasion is about parting someone from existing beliefs or introducing new ones that you hope they adopt.

> [...] or else people are persuaded by winning, in which case patriarchy is just what's winning at the academy these days.

A lot of people are persuaded by winning, which is part of why certain harmful ideas prevail, at least for a time. My point was that challenging harmful ideas by making their influence untenable is often more effective than trying to reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.

For instance, the expansion of hate group activity and open participation in recent years wasn’t because there was a sudden surge of interest in hate. It was because several political movements mired in hate gained power and prominence. Sure, it also expanded their mindshare reach, but it mostly just made people motivated by hate less afraid to show it.

Convincing people to abandon hate and embrace the humanity of the people they hate is an enormous investment, usually deeply personal in a way that doesn’t scale, and seldom effective. Convincing people that if they act on their hate they’ll likely experience substantial negative consequences is a lot more effective and a lot more scalable.

You have to determine, for whatever issue or belief expression, whether that level of conflict is appropriate. But if you do believe the risk of leaving an idea to fester is significantly greater than the risk of stifling the idea, the conflict is well warranted.

This isn’t just academic. Millions upon millions of dead bodies are at stake. And that’s not hyperbole, we already have many instances in history showing this, both in terms of their impact unchecked and their impact when confronted.

In conclusion: I do not wish to convince nazis not to kill me and nearly everyone I love by changing their minds. I wish to prevent them from doing so with the confidence that I have every natural moral right to do so I can imagine.


> I think this is the problem the article is addressing

I think the article has misidentified the problem.

> "calling something what it is" doesn't convince people

Very seldom does anything convince anyone of anything.

> that don't agree with you on what it is, especially when the terms you use are loaded with possible implicit interpretations.

These kinds of culture signals work both ways. They can be used to filter out—to identify world views you don't wish to engage—but they can also be used to filter for refining one's own worldview. Identifying where an idea comes from a shared set of values and might illuminate something you haven't already considered within that same value structure (or might expand it).

> Which is to say that in a discussion or persuasive piece, it should be clear what you are arguing for or discussing without having to expose your whole worldview.

I categorically disagree with should here. You're welcome to value that, if your motivation is to engage in rigorous debate absent the impact that the topic of debate might have. If my motivation is to engage the topics by impacting them, I might care less about the rigor and more about some degree of blunt force response to the kinds of things which leave people I care about traumatized or dead.

> Arguments about the distribution of chores between males and females in a household, doesn't need to use the word "patriarchy" to make its argument.

It doesn't need to, but to the extent the argument is aware of patriarchy omitting it is either dishonestly hiding a system of power or reinventing a process of describing it that has generations of prior art.

> In fact, it tends to make the argument weaker given that "patriarchy" hides a lot of things that would otherwise need to be unpacked.

Hiding in what way? Why would a more assertive and clear description of the case obscure more of the reality than something mealymouthed?


Hah, a friend of mine is working on solving this exact problem with her startup (specifically when it comes to performance reports). I'm not exactly sold that most people understand the power of words or even care to differentiate between these linguistic nuances.


How about not avoiding contentious terms, but rather avoiding people who feel they can not only identify a person by a term used, but then also guess and imply everything they have to say ... those people know everything already, why talk to them in the first place.


If someone starts off with such terms, they're already putting an undue burden on me to sort out what they actually mean since the terms are so heavily overloaded and come with so much attached baggage. They're also strongly signalling that they have nothing meaningful to say and may not even be open to an honest discussion. It's not so much I feel I can identify them. It's that I can identify that they're a waste of my finite time and attention.


And how are people to know what is contentious to you and what comes with attached baggage for you?


Whether a term is contentious may not always be black-and-white but it isn’t really subjective.


Of course it's subjective, it just might be similar for other people in your exact context so it works for small groups, but it never works when you're talking to people outside of your immediate group.


It is not my subjective opinion whether people are arguing over a word. I think you are confusing people who dislike the usage of a word with people (like me) recognizing that the word is contentious for that reason.


There's a third reason for avoiding terms like "patriarchy" or "systemic racism": it encourages you to parrot points you've heard elsewhere rather than form a cohesive and rational argument.

And, generally speaking, anyone who you could hope to convince of your point can smell this from a mile off.


Yes. I've encountered people who can't explain what the patriarchy is but still use that term. Back in 2016 somebody told me Hillary Clinton was a "crook". What a strange word that nobody would normally use. He couldn't explain if it means criminal or corrupt or something else or why she was that. Better to just not say anything if you're only parroting buzzwords.

Edit. Just caught myself say "parroting". That's one of those needlessly contentious or offensive words.


> "crook" [...] Better to just not say anything if you're only parroting buzzwords.

The buzzword of 2020/2021 appears to be "grifter" and its variations.

On topic with the article and related to this is the word "dogwhistle". (The funny thing is that "dogwhistle" can itself be a dogwhistle.) It doesn't get used as much in my experience as "grifter", though, which is so wantonly thrown about nowadays that it may as well have no meaning.

I avoid using both of these words. There are better ways to say it.


Dogwhistle is one of those phrases that has been so overused in the past year that it's largely lost its original meaning.

It's like "gaslighting", which people seem to now use as a synonym for any kind of abuse. Or how people say "humblebrag" for regular brags.


'Dogwhistle' has drifted in its invocation in subtle but important ways. Originally it referred to the notion that some people would interpret coded language in the choice of phrasing or a hear a different connotation that the author did not intend.

Then it was used as a descriptive accusation by outgroup members to claim that the speaker deliberately used coded language to appeal to an ingroup.

Then it was used to describe the deliberate tactic of crafting word choice to appeal to a group while maintaining plausible deniability and avoiding alienating those not in the know.

Then it was used to disparage certain groups by claiming that the group's writers and readers were communicating in coded language by tacit agreement, to affirm among each other positions the critics considered reprehensible.

And finally it achieved self-reference by becoming a word some feel is being used as coded language by other groups to disparage them.

It's unfortunate because each shade of meaning is a useful concept that would benefit from a succinct descriptor, but 'dogwhistle' has been churned through the semantic drift to where it's a word of subjective vitriol and not an objective descriptor of anything in particular.


The use of "gaslighting" is the one that bugs me the most.

Is this entity intentionally and repeatedly lying to you in a way to make you doubt your own sanity and rely on them for determining what is real or not

......or are they just disagreeing or disputing?

Doesn't matter, if you call something gaslighting you get to be the victim and the other side can be labelled an abuser and who wants to side with an abuser?


It's also a disservice to people who have actually been gaslit, because the term is no longer descriptive for what they experienced. People just use it for any form of lying, deception, or abuse now. Or sometimes just disagreements, like you said.


> Edit. Just caught myself say "parroting". That's one of those needlessly contentious or offensive words.

It might be needlessly contentious or offensive, but not in the exact same way that the original post is talking about: although it's an insult, it doesn't signal an affiliation, and it isn't hard to understand properly without a lot of background or explanation. (You might signal an affiliation through your choice of whom you compare to parrots, or which ideas or concepts you compare to their squawks, but every audience will probably easily understand correctly what you meant by doing it!)


O guess so. I was imagining how off-putting it would be to a reader who sees it as directed at themselves. Not quite the same as staking a standard position though.


Crook is a sort of synonym to criminal, thief, or con artist. It basically means someone who, while they maybe don’t commit a crime, do come about their means dishonestly. It’s maybe a little old-fashioned these days but not at all unusual.

However, if someone says it and doesn’t know what it means, yeah, they’re probably sharing an emotional viewpoint or repeating someone else’s words or both.


I think we all understand what it means, it's just one of those words that had kind of drifted off into obsolescence after Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon.


> ...it's just one of those words that had kind of drifted off into obsolescence after Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon.

https://news.google.com/search?q=crook&hl=en-US&gl=US&ceid=U...

Excluding Crook as a name, it still seems to be in pretty common usage. It seems far more likely there is just regional variation. Most of the articles seem to be either from England or from the east coast. I heard the word in the Midwest all the time, although I can't say I've ever heard anyone on the west coast use the word.


Alternatively, for those who are only used to hearing parroted points, they could hear such words and turn off - assuming that the speaker using those terms is only using parroted points.

Further, some parroted points are useful. Most HN comments are in essence parroted points from books, articles, and papers. The fact that we choose what to parrot is a kind of filter, and that filtering can bring useful information to the table.


> And, generally speaking, anyone who you could hope to convince of your point can smell this from a mile off.

The kind of folks who can "smell" parroted points are reacting emotionally and viscerally, yet seem to think it is others that cannot make cohesive/rational arguments.

More and more I see that there is no hope to trying to convince these people of anything - they've already made up their minds about these concepts and are not interested in having their minds changed.


Choosing not to engage with someone you don't know well because their argument has a "smell" is perfectly rational - it's no different to choosing not to merge a large commit from a random stranger because of "code smell".

In both cases, a significant amount of time is required to fully evaluate the other person's contribution, and you also have strong (heuristic) information telling you that the contribution is likely to be of extremely low quality.

(In the case of parroted buzzwords, specifically, it's likely that they'll state a point you've already heard dozens of times before and lack the ability to provide anything more than that even when directly poked).


Why are you so certain about the validity of your heuristics?

There is a significant difference between the example in your analogy.

If you are a maintainer of a code base, and you are looking at a merge commit from a stranger, you are the authority. The domain is the one you are the expert in, and you are encountering strangers of dubious credibility whose claims you have to evaluate drawing upon your experience.

That's valid.

But, judging from your example and the forum on which we are speaking, your domain is NOT sociology, psychology, philosophy, or politics (and whatever intersection of those fields leads to analysis of racism/gender discrimination etc). Maybe you took some classes in it. Maybe you even have a minor. But it's probably not your profession or area of study.

Yet you are willing to dismiss academics who've chosen to spend years of their life studying these concepts, analyzing root causes, and coming up with conclusions.

How does that work?


I think you've misunderstood me. I'm not suggesting you should dismiss academics offhand because they use certain words.

However, when you hear people using academic buzzwords in a typical social situation (either online or offline), it's almost always the case that they're not an expert in the topic but instead just trying to show off how smart/woke/edgy they are by using some of the same language that the "thought leaders" do.


Okay, but I feel like the same question applies.

Why do you assume that you know more about these concepts (in social situations) than others you encounter do.

But actually that assumes incompetence, you're actually suggesting malice if you say they are just trying to show off how woke/smart they are.

If they are incompetent, why do you assume malice?

And why does using the buzzwords suggest incompetence if the language is the same as the academics. How can you know these people aren't well educated on the subject.

Remember, your thesis was that you ignore these people outright when they use these buzzwords. But you also admit academics use the same ones.


Speak wisdom, sow peace, especially when reciprocated.

But it is folly to cede ground when, as in our day, destroyers are afoot.

David did not seek to empathize with Goliath. He did what was needful.


For an opposing view, listen to George Carlin - Euphemisms.


Contentious? How about simply ridiculous? That's what I would call using "rape culture" when talking about tickling your kids. Maybe crazy too.


I like this post aside from the very end where a statement I agree with is used as the example of miscommunication arising from what not to do :p


This blog is interesting because the author is clearly on the cusp of achieving a greater level of understanding. He's thinking about a lot of things as deeply as possible in the normie intellectual framework, and he's running into its limits.

For example, his post "Dividing Tasks" has some pretty good insight into the advantages/disadvantages of gender roles, but he just barely fails to make the leap to the next level of understanding, which is to analyze these tradeoffs in terms of (multi-round) auctions in the sexual market. Instead he falls into the very normie suggestion of "what if we used time tracking?"

Same with his article on tickling; he notices that reality violates his expectations here, but he doesn't quite make the leap to understanding why his prediction was wrong.

The author is clearly very smart, but he seems to be stuck with an ontology designed to serve less intelligent people


I can't help but but interpret this as a very creative and well executed meta-troll.




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