Someone asks: why is “Jap” a slur? It’s the natural shortening of “Japanese person”, just as “Brit” is the natural shortening of “British person”. Nobody says “Brit” is a slur. Why should “Jap” be?
My understanding: originally it wasn’t a slur. Like any other word, you would use the long form (“Japanese person”) in dry formal language, and the short form (“Jap”) in informal or emotionally charged language. During World War II, there was a lot of informal emotionally charged language about Japanese people, mostly negative. The symmetry broke. Maybe “Japanese person” was used 60-40 positive vs. negative, and “Jap” was used 40-60. This isn’t enough to make a slur, but it’s enough to make a vague connotation. When people wanted to speak positively about the group, they used the slightly-more-positive-sounding “Japanese people”; when they wanted to speak negatively, they used the slightly-more-negative-sounding “Jap”.
At some point, someone must have commented on this explicitly: “Consider not using the word ‘Jap’, it makes you sound hostile”. Then anyone who didn’t want to sound hostile to the Japanese avoided it, and anyone who did want to sound hostile to the Japanese used it more. We started with perfect symmetry: both forms were 50-50 positive negative. Some chance events gave it slight asymmetry: maybe one form was 60-40 negative. Once someone said “That’s a slur, don’t use it”, the symmetry collapsed completely and it became 95-5 or something. Wikipedia gives the history of how the last few holdouts were mopped up. There was some road in Texas named “Jap Road” in 1905 after a beloved local Japanese community member: people protested that now the word was a slur, demanded it get changed, Texas resisted for a while, and eventually they gave in. Now it is surely 99-1, or 99.9-0.1, or something similar. Nobody ever uses the word “Jap” unless they are either extremely ignorant, or they are deliberately setting out to offend Japanese people.
This is a very stable situation. The original reason for concern - World War II - is long since over. Japanese people are well-represented in all areas of life. Perhaps if there were a Language Czar, he could declare that the reasons for forbidding the word “Jap” are long since over, and we can go back to having convenient short forms of things. But there is no such Czar. What actually happens is that three or four unrepentant racists still deliberately use the word “Jap” in their quest to offend people, and if anyone else uses it, everyone else takes it as a signal that they are an unrepentant racist. Any Japanese person who heard you say it would correctly feel unsafe. So nobody will say it, and they are correct not to do so. Like I said, a stable situation.
This story shows that slurs are hyperstitions.
A hyperstition is a belief which becomes true if people believe it’s true. For example, “Dogecoin is a great short-term investment and you need to buy it right now!” is true if everyone believes it is true; lots of people will buy Dogecoin and it will go way up. “The bank is collapsing and you need to get your money out right away” is likewise true; if everyone believes it, there will be a run on the bank.
What else is a hyperstition? “Bernie can’t possibly win” - if everyone believes this, donors won’t bother giving money to Bernie (why bother? it’s futile!), volunteers won’t canvas for him, and party honchos won’t put their careers on the line to support him. But also, “Bernie’s on fire and can’t be stopped!” - donors looking to curry favor with a future winner will support him, his base will be fired up, opponents might even drop out of the race.
Slurs are like this too. Fifty years ago, “Negro” was the respectable, scholarly term for black people, used by everyone from white academics to Malcolm X to Martin Luther King. In 1966, Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael said that white people had invented the term “Negro” as a descriptor, so people of African descent needed a new term they could be proud of, and he was choosing “black” because it sounded scary. All the pro-civil-rights white people loved this and used the new word to signal their support for civil rights, soon using “Negro” actively became a sign that you didn’t support civil rights, and now it’s a slur and society demands that politicians resign if they use it. Carmichael said - in a completely made up way that nobody had been thinking of before him - that “Negro” was a slur - and because people believed him it became true.
In 2019, I wrote a post about respectability cascades, where some previously taboo thing (like being openly gay) gets more respectable people to sign on to it, making it less taboo and paving the way for even more respectable people, and so on. Hyperstitious slurs are the opposite of this, a sort of disrespectability cascade.
Things other than words can also be hyperstitious slurs.
“All lives matter” is a hyperstitious slur. Taken literally, it’s an inoffensive sentiment, perhaps the most inoffensive one. My impression is that for the first week of its existence, it was mostly meant inoffensively, used by nice elderly people who thought it was a friendly amendment to the Black Lives Matter slogan. But once the media successfully convinced everyone that it was a racist attempt to erase black lives in particular, and that people would scream at you if you used it, then the only people who kept using it were ones who cared so little about BLM’s opinion that they didn’t mind - maybe welcomed - being screamed at. I think use of All Lives Matter had very low - maybe 51-49 - correlation with political opinion the first week it was in use. Now it’s probably 99-1.
Images can be hyperstitious slurs. Forty years ago, most people with Confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars were probably proud Southerners not trying to make a statement about race. Now if you still have a Confederate flag bumper sticker on your car, you’re either making a statement about race, or deliberately thumbing your nose at the prevailing signaling equilibrium - which is itself a statement about race. The campaign to turn the Confederate flag into a slur successfully turned it into a slur; its use now incurs much more suspicion (correctly incurs, in a purely Bayesian sense) than it did forty years ago.
Actions can be hyperstitious slurs; consider eating at Chick-Fil-A. If enough people who care about gay rights boycott them, then eating there actively signals that you’re defecting from the boycott and must not care about gay rights very much. On the other hand, if only a small fraction of people who care about gay rights boycott it, then eating there doesn’t signal anything and it’s fine. If anyone ever credibly said “eating at Chick-Fil-A is a strong defection from the gay rights cause” and everyone believed them, there would be a stable equilibrium where nobody who cared about gay rights ate at Chick-Fil-A. But as long as people don’t believe that, it’s fine.
True facts can be hyperstitious slurs. “Black people commit more crime” is a hyperstitious slur, in the sense that racists talk about it more than non-racists, this helps it become a signal for racism, the fact that it’s a known signal for racism causes non-racists to talk about it even less than they would otherwise, and the vicious cycle ends with it being a very strong signal for racism and non-racists avoiding mentioning it. This leads to another sort of vicious cycle: half of people understand it’s a true fact that they’re not supposed to say for signaling reasons, the other half have never heard it before and assume it must be a vicious lie, and you end up with situations where someone notices that some police department arrests more blacks than whites, accuses that specific police department of racism, and everyone is afraid to explain what’s going on. I think the accepted way around the problem in these very few situations where it’s absolutely necessary to talk about it is by adding “. . . but obviously this goes away when you adjust for poverty” at the end. Even though this statement is false, it successfully avoids the hyperstitious slur and lets you mention the fact in that one special-purpose case.
Entire ways of life can be hyperstitious slurs. Is being a Civil War re-enactor (on the Confederate side) sufficient for condemnation these days? I don’t know, but it depends on whether other people think it is. What about being in the military? A drone operator? Dating someone twenty years older/younger than you? Transacting in Bitcoin? In ZCash? Using marijuana? Using cigarettes? All of these are things that could mean nothing or could send strong signals about your personality, depending on whether the people who don’t want to send strong signals about their personality have stopped doing them.
Okay, but this process is bad, right?
Suppose someone decides tomorrow that “Asian” is a slur, and demands we call them “person of Asian descent”. Everyone agrees to go along with this for some reason, and fine, “Asian” is now a slur.
This seems bad for everybody. White people have to be on tenterhooks every time they talk to an Asian, trying their hardest to restrain from using the word they’re familiar with, and to remember the unwieldy gibberish that replaces it. If they fail, they have to feel bad, or worry that the local Asian community thinks they’re a racist. Meanwhile, Asians now have to police everyone else’s behavior, saying “Actually, that word is offensive, we prefer ‘person of Asian descent’ every time someone refers to them. When people get annoyed by this, they have to fret that the person is actually racist against them and trying to deliberately offend them. If they are the sort of person who is triggered by hearing slurs, they will have to be triggered several times a day as people adjust from the familiar language to the new. Meanwhile, dozens of organizations with names like the National Asian Alliance, Asian Community Center, or Asians For Biden will have to change their names. Old novels will need to include forewords apologizing for how in the old days people used to use insensitive terms, and we’re sorry we’re making you read a book with the word A***n in it. Some old people will refuse to change and get ostracized by society. This is just a bad time time on all sides.
The only excuse for it is that it’s actually preventing someone from feeling sad or getting offended. I think in the 1950s there really were a lot of Japanese people who felt triggered by the word “Japs”, and society going through an inconvenient transition in order to protect and show respect for those people was a reasonable move.
Still, people keep trying to turn new things into slurs for dumb reasons.
Last month, the University of Southern California’s social work department said it would stop using the term “field work” because of potential racist connotations (they don’t explain what these are; I’m guessing they mean that slaves used to work in fields).
I question whether any real black person has ever thought about this and been offended. If they have, I would guess this is < 0.001% of the black population. Still, they’re trying to make it a slur. Maybe it will catch on. If it does, then at some point it will be true that no true liberal in good standing would be caught dead using the word “field”, and the KKK will hold meetings where the Grand Wizard gets up and says “field field field field field” a thousand times. Future historians will probably think something stupid like “I guess the past really was so insensitive that they didn’t care about how much this hurt black people’s feelings.” No! No one was insensitive! USC was just annoying and everyone else was gullible and conformist!
I feel the same way about people of Frenchness. Yes, the French example was silly, but that’s not my actual point. The point is, there’s nothing at all dehumanizing about the phrase “the poor”.
(if you think there is, compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that? It seems more dehumanizing to say the poor are in their own special little category of people who are so bad that we have to refer to them through a special circumlocution that tries to linguistically protect them from their own adjective.)
This whole thing is stupid. But it’s a stupidity we have to fight against, really hard, because if it ever gets a foothold then everyone who doesn’t hate the poor will eventually say “people of poverty”, it will be a stable equilibrium, and we’ll be stuck in it for all time.
So one thing I think about a lot is: when do I join the cascade?
I can’t never join the cascade. I’m not going to refer to the Japanese as “Japs” out of some kind of never-joining-hyperstitious-slur-cascade principle. This would be the dumbest possible hill to die on. I would lose all my social credibility and maybe even actually sadden one or two real Japanese people.
And if I’m the last person to join a hyperstitious slur cascade, then I’ll probably do pretty badly. I don’t think we’ve reached 100% fixation on nobody-uses-Confederate-flags-innocently. A relative of mine who lives in the South and has no known political opinions still has a Confederate flag sticker in his room. But I wouldn’t want to emulate him, even if I had some good reason to like Southernness.
On the other hand, the people who want to be the first person in a new cascade, like USC’s social work department, are contemptible. And the people who join when it’s only reached 1% or 5%, out of enthusiastic conformity or pre-emptive fear, are pathetic.
(none of this applies to things being done for good reasons - banning actually harmful things - I’m just skeptical that this process gets used for that very often)
I think I usually join about 70% of the way through. Realistically, success is already overdetermined by 50% - but I want to make them work for it and make it as annoying for them as possible. This is a compromise between principle and self-preservation, but I don’t know a better way to do it. I will fight harder when it’s something useful and important instead of just some words, and there might be some things - like the example of being openly gay, used above - where it’s worth never giving in to pressure to taboo something, and trying to preserve your right to keep doing it until you can start a virtuous respectability cascade cycle.
I’m writing this post so that the next time someone comments with “did you know that term you used, which was the standard until six months ago and which nobody was ever offended by until then, is now considered offensive, why don’t you use term XYZ instead?”, I can give my honest answer: “Because it’s less than 70% of the way through the hyperstitious slur cascade, and that’s the boundary that I’ve set for myself.”
Give Up Seventy Percent Of The Way Through The Hyperstitious Slur Cascade