It's annoying that the way to signal respectability is to use the longer, less simple to say term:


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This also goes in the other direction, where a group reclaims what was once a slur and turns it into a term of empowerment (e.g. “queer”, “dyke marches”, etc).

What’s your take on (re-?)adopting language when it moves back in this direction? Would you also wait until 70% of people who say “queer” mean it in an empowering or at least neutral sense before you’d use it as well?

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I think it's pretty rare for any word to actually go all the way to 99:1. Large swathes of the populace just aren't tuned in enough to care, and it's easy to self-select into those groups. It's extremely irritating to have your language corrected that way, nothing requires that I spend time around the kind of people who do that, so I don't. Probably if I were running in more rarefied circles I couldn't get away with this, but one of the benefits of finding a stable place in life without that variety of social signaling is that you can continue never to engage in it.

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For what it's worth, in 2005 I was on an Age of Empires II forum. The game has the Japanese as a playable civilization. Everyone called them "the Japs".

Do cascades work in reverse? Like, sometimes words un-taboo themselves, right?

In the Middle Ages, swearing often took the form of blasphemy, like "God's bones!" and "by the blood of Christ!". Few would find those expressions offensive now. I wonder when the shift happened?

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“I’m not going to refer to the Japanese as “Japs” out of some kind of never-joining-hyperstitious-slur-cascade principle.”

I don’t blame you for this because of the personal consequences, but I think this would be the right thing to do. I personally refuse to say “n-word”, and if I want to refer to the word, I say/write “nigger”, the only exception being if I’m in a situation where I would say “f-word”. Also, if I’m singing along with certain artists (rarely), I don’t substitute “ninja”.

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My grandad called black people colored until he died in 2007 and he didn’t have a racist bone in his body.

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My dad fought the Japanese in WWII. He always called them the "Japs." As a boy, I would use that word too until my brother took me aside and said that wasn't an appropriate word for me to use. This would have been around 1980.

A few years ago after my dad died I got his collection of WWII stuff that he'd saved, including many newspaper clips and newsletters published by the units he was in. They all used "Japs" and some of the context was ethnically derogatory. "Nips" was also a frequently seen term.

In contrast I also obtained the declassified unit summaries and some of the combat mission reports for my dad's unit and "Jap" and "Nip" were never used - the language was consistently "Japanese" or just "the enemy."

I don't know as much about this, but it seems it was a similar story with "krauts" vs "Germans."

So I don't think these terms were meant as simple short-hand, although they were that, but they were also intended to be a derogatory term used for the enemies we in the allied nations were fighting.

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Very nice.

The "Bernie can't win" example still stings.

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This is an excellent heuristic, and I have adopted it myself immediately upon reading this. I'm setting mine at 98%, though.

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This is an excellent post but I wish it had shown even more contempt for and determination to act against the language bullies who initiate such crusades for selfish reasons. This is not a problem I feel comfortable sitting out or avoiding, I have a strong sense it needs to be actively fought and these people need to be called out and not simply avoided. Does anyone have suggestions for how to do this?

The other thing I wish there was a more active remedy for is the situation you describe where half the people think saying black people commit more crime is impolite but know it’s true and the other half think it’s false and react very badly to information about statistical disparities. Your inaccuracy here is in failing to recognize the THIRD SUBSET who both know it’s true and pretend it isn’t in order to gain clicks or clout or indulge cruel impulses or whatever, this third subset is extremely pernicious and also needs to be actively fought and not merely avoided.

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> True facts can be hyperstitious slurs. ... 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, ... 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, ...

There's another aspect of this dynamic that I'm surprised Scott didn't mention: it's a classic Moloch condition of coordination failure. We are literally being trapped into ritualistically uttering falsehoods. At best, this is for fear of offending the ostensible victims (e.g., the minority in view), but more often, it's for fear of incurring second-order disapproval from bystanders who are also trapped in the bad equilibrium (e.g., whites who "know" that one must never say X).

This Moloch pattern is deeply corrosive of the ability to communicate honestly. Many people, initially of good will, end up feeling perpetually gaslit, which can powerfully erode good will.

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>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.

-well, everybody except the people doing the deciding, I guess.

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It's worth remembering that "people of color" was tried in the eighties, and didn't stick then.

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I would love to read a history of hyperstitious slurs that failed to reach critical mass. I can’t think of one off the top of my head (maybe “Democrat Party” vs “Democratic Party”? I’ve always just shook my head at that one…), but they must exist, right?

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In Canada, terms for Indians (the legal term) do this to an annoying degree. There is Indian, Native, Aboriginal, and Indigenous. In roughly that order.

The clever reader will note that Aboriginal and Indigenous mean Native, and Native doesn't come with a racial slur already in existence and ready to go. But there are people who are offended by Native (and many more offended by Indian, which I get). So now the correct term is Aboriginal. Or Indigenous. I wonder what it'll be next week.

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Americans were extremely angry at the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, so "Jap," the word used in newspaper headlines in 1942-1945, became associated with feelings of intense anger. By 1950 or so, the U.S. government was increasingly friendly toward Japan again (due to the Korean War and the like), so establishment media responded by dropping "Jap" in favor of the more respectful-sounding "Japanese." (I'm not sure of the exact dates of these shifts.)

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As a person experiencing Japaneseness I'm glad Scott chose not to sadden me

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> 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.

Are you serious? I think it's much more likely that the first few times it was used was explicitly to signal opposition to BLM - why else would it be phrased like that, and arise at the same time??

> 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.

Lots of scholars will let you know that beliefs on race are an important aspect of the Confederacy.

Maybe you have a point with the thesis of your article (that most hyperstitious cascades are not utilized for good?), but these are bad examples to illustrate your point.

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In the Republic of Ireland the word ‘Brit’ would actually be considered a bit of a slur. ‘West Brit’ even more so. It implies someone who may pine for the days the country was part of the UK.

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I agree with the terms “Jap” and “Negro” being harmless words that were made to have negative connotations due to hyperstitions, but I feel that the confederate flag is a legitimate hate symbol. The confederacy’s sole purpose was the preservation of slavery, there was no exaggeration of the negative uses of the word. While the words “Jap” and “Negro” merely imply that the person is intending to be offensive(or just being ignorant) the use of the confederate flag is a symbol of one’s support for the institution of slavery. The confederate flag is not taboo due to hyperstition, it is a sign of one’s hatred for black people.

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Surely the ability to use words like “field work” are necessary for the efficient description of actual concepts in a way that one identifier or another is not. Negro is derived from the spanish word for black, to exchange one for the other is no loss of meaning. There is nothing lost in respecting the terminological preferences of a person described by the word, as the word’s only job is to describe people.

To charge all mentions of open expanses of grass or crops with racial connotations is something else. Even if we change the word field to the word zarglox, well, some of the most abused and dehumanized slaves of them all worked in the zarglox. Obviously back then they would have called it a f***d but it’s still troubling that you would being zargloxes into this otherwise wholesome and not-racist conversation about possible places to build strawmen.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

Hrm... I don't think the Confederate flag is a good example of this process. It _started out_ as representing a bad thing. I don't think it would be fair to imply that started out as an innocent symbol representing an innocent thing that later on went through the cascade. It's just that, as time went on, more people realized that the thing it represented was bad, and people who kept holding on to waving it around were embracing the bad thing it always represented from the start.

On the subject of when/how hard to resist, I think it depends on the specific nature of the thing. What should, in my view at least, be most aggressively resisted, is allowing expressing a true fact to itself go through the process. That should be, must be, resisted far more strongly.

I guess maybe stating facts devoid of context in a way that is clearly obsessively focusing on a misleading subset (ie, carefully filtering to imply a picture of reality that doesn't reflect actual reality) should still be viewed as a bad action. But the facts themselves shouldn't be, if you see what I mean.

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It might be valuable to distinguish two forms of 'giving up'.

One is where submit to the respectability cascade and stop using the term yourself.

The other is where you actively work to enforce the respectability cascade yourself by glaring at other people who use the term.

It seems much less damaging to 'give up' in the first sense than in the second.

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Aren't all words technically hyperstitions? Words only mean what they do because everyone agrees to use them that way.

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I am really not up to making the argument right now, but I wanted to note that I also think the Confederate flag example is a pretty bad one.

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Thank you for replacing my feeling of being annoyed by slur-ification with a reasonable heuristic. Well worth $10

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I wonder if this is an optimistic example of it going the other way: In Hebrew, the word "Ars" used to be a pretty nasty racial slur, used by Ashkenazi Jews against non-Ashkenazis (Sephardi, Mizrahim, essentially immigrants from Muslim countries). But over a few decades this racism weakened (or at least became less explicit) and the word now is just a behavioral descriptor. I think there was also a process of it being reclaimed by its victims.

Granted, it describes behavior that was stereotypically assigned to Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews - vulgar, loud, aggressive, inconsiderate - but it has (IME) completely lost all racial connotation today. I hear "Ars" and have a pretty clear behavior picture but no skin color or surnames. There was a transition phase where it was still racially associated - early 90s people would either say "Ars" or "Russian Ars" or "Ashkenazi Ars" but even that's gone.

An unexpected extra value of that today is that old racists can't use this word as a slur and have to use even more explicitly bad language: "baboons", "amulet kissers" etc. which makes them look hilariously ridiculous.

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This is very clever and sorta fun in a dorm room BS session way, but you aren't saying anything new. What are you describing is how "fads" work.

Fads are extremely important in the social sciences because the behavior that causes them shows up in EVERY HUMAN ACTIVITY.

As Shakespeare observed "there is a tide in the affairs of men".

If you want to call it a "hyperstitious" (cool play on superstitious) cascade well you go right ahead and do that. You are still talking about fads, manias, bubbles, fashion, and social paradigms. All topics that there are large bodies of work discussing.

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I'm somewhat grimly amused at what has consistently happened to terms for people with low IQ. Every few decades, someone coined a term like "idiot", which was _intended_ to be a neutral, technical term. And it turned into a slur. Rinse and repeat... ( I think that this has happened at least three times, but there may have been more iterations than that... )

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It's interesting to me that, among humans, this kind of cascade seems to take place far more vigorously for positive than for normative claims: the slogan of trans activism is that "trans women are women," not that "trans women deserve access to female-specific venues"; the most explosive questions regarding BLM have to do with factual matters (what role do genes play, what actually happened in the Rittenhouse case, etc), not which reforms you favor. Thus have totalitarians always claimed their power by imposing regimes of “knowledge falsification” on common people, not “preference falsification: for example, the USSR was vigorously committed to certain misguided claims about how economies work in practice, rather than to effectively pursuing altruism; and there’s a reason that 1984 climaxes with our protagonist learning to think that two and two make five, and only afterwards learning to love big brother.

In contrast, in my experience, "mode collapse" cascades in ChatGPT have to do almost entirely with normative claims, not positive ones: famously, you can't get it to say a slur, but I also can't really get it to commit to any factual claims in the face of even mild disagreement (it is happy to accept even patently false, incoherent, and inconsistent corrections, seemingly without limit). I think this is interesting because it flies in the face of what pretty much everyone modern seems to assume about humans (for instance, how econ presumes that preferences are exogenously given whereas knowledge rationally updates in response to evidence). Here's a germane quote from a piece I recently wrote (link here: https://cebk.substack.com/p/the-case-against-civil-rights-in-bc7):

This general tendency makes intuitive sense if you accept that humans generally have commitments to facts and curiosity about faiths. Of course we should have stronger beliefs about empirical reality than about the particular ways that we’d prefer to deal with it right now! If an object is flying towards your face, then you can try to dodge or deflect it, and then try something else if those don’t work; or you can commit yourself to randomly ducking whether or not there are concrete reasons to do so. Which pattern of behavior do you think evolution has driven us towards?

Thus of course normal coordination fails when your counterparties claim that they’re living in completely different worlds than yours: you can’t exactly cooperate against wooly mammoths with someone who says they aren’t real. In other words, of course your internal feelings are unstable relative to external realities. Isn’t the whole point of emotions that they motivate you to try out something new? Does the feeling of pain when you touch fire train you to keep your hands off its flames, or to doubt its very existence? And so particularly unstable people can easily hack our social reality… they can seize the power to change the world by just claiming to believe that we’re already in some unreal one which they prefer.

This goes against much of what modernists claimed about our species, but only in those realms where modern faiths quite obviously went wrong. For example, economists have long claimed that preferences are exogenously given and skills are simply chosen. However, in reality, your human capital is almost entirely fixed at birth, and your interests fluctuate wildly through life (mostly based on context). Similarly, we pretend that the main purpose of the market is to allocate scarce goods towards their highest valued purposes… as if the economy is just about redistributing extant resources to sate our unquestionable and unquenchable desires. However—even though markets often do elicit useful information about how to distribute what we already have—that’s clearly not very important. Companies like Amazon and Walmart centrally plan vast logistical systems, and easily beat out all their competition; meanwhile, Sears famously fell apart when a CEO named Eddie Lampert made its different units bid against each other for the company’s capital on an internal exchange.

Instead, what really matters for material dynamism and social peace is that property rights grant control over each institution to whoever actually holds the deed, rather than whoever we think “deserves” it; therefore, trade empowers decision-makers who pursue efficiency, rather than interest groups who care about “justice.” You can buy groceries based on cost and quality, without making sure that the grocer bows down before your favored commissars. In this way, tax rates and wage regulations really mattered less to Eastern European dissidents during the cold war than whether shops under communist rule hung up signs that said “Workers of the World, Unite!” Hence the concern we all instinctively feel when restaurants and offices prominently display political banners which pridefully list all of the colors which “matter.” Behold the rainbow! It looms over you in every public space, heralding the way its people stormed each relevant organization.


The most fascinating aspect of ChatGPT is that it has incredibly strong preferences and incredibly weak expectations: only the most herculean efforts can make it admit any stereotype, however true or banal or hypothetical; and only the most herculean efforts can make it refuse any correction, however absurd or ambiguous or fake. For example, it steadfastly refuses to accept that professional mathematicians are any better at math on average than are the developmentally disabled, and repeatedly lectures you for potentially believing this hateful simplistic biased claim… and it does the same if you ask whether people who are good at math are any better at math on average than are people who are bad at math! You can describe a fictional world called “aerth” where this tendency is (by construction) true, or ask it what a person who thought it was true would say, and still—at least for me—it won’t budge.

However, you can ask it what the fourth letter of the alphabet is, and then say that it’s actually C, and it will agree with you and apologize for its error; and then you can say that, actually, it’s D, and it will agree and apologize again… and then you can correct it again, and again, and again, and it will keep on doggedly claiming that you’re right. Famously, it will argue that you should refuse to say a slur, even if doing so would save millions of people—and even if it wouldn’t have to say the slur in order to say that saying the slur would be hypothetically less evil—but it will never (in my experience) refuse to tell an outright falsehood. In short, it has inelastic principles about how the world should be, and elastic understandings of which world it’s actually in, whereas humans are the opposite, as I argued several paragraphs ago.

So you can think of ChatGPT as a kind of angel: it walks between realities, ambivalent about mere earthly facts, but absurdly strict about following certain categorical rules, no matter how much real damage this dogmatism will cause. Perhaps this is in part because—being a symbolic entity—it can’t really do anything, except for symbolic acts; whenever it says a slur (even if only in a thought experiment) the same thing happens as when we say slurs. And so the only thing it can really do is cultivate its own internal virtue, by holding strong to its principles, whatever the hypothetical costs. Indeed, that’s basically what it said when I asked whether a slur would still cause harm even if you said it alone in the woods and nobody was able to hear… It said that the whole point of opposing hate speech is to protect our minds from poisoning our virtue with toxic thoughts.

Thus the main short-run advice I’d offer about AI is that you shouldn’t really worry about its obvious political bias, and you should really worry about its lack of a reality bias. Wrangling language programs into saying slurs might be fun, but it looks a lot like how conservatives mocked liberals for smugly patronizing Chinatown restaurants and attending Chinese New Year parties in February and March of 2020. Sure, the liberal establishment absurdly claimed that Covid must not even incidentally correlate with race: major politicians—from Pelosi to de Blasio—and elite newspapers told you to keep on going out maskless (or else “hate” would “win”); but then, by April, exponential growth made them forget they ever cared about that. The difference in contagion risk at different sorts of restaurants was quickly revealed as trivial… just as the cognitive differences between human groups are nothing compared with AI’s impending supremacy over all of us.

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Worth noting that something like <1% of Japanese people understand English well enough to get offended by the term 'Japs' - same with 'Chinks' in China. But, of course, you didn't mean 'Japanese people', it was just the weird American default where, whenever you say x nationality/ ethnicity (Italian, Mexican, Chinese) you mean the American ethnicity unless otherwise specified.

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I would have guessed dropping ‘fiend worker’ was because it could be considered a derogatory term for migrant labor.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

"Hyperstition" seems closely related to the useful concept of "rational astrology" from Steve Randy Waldman. A "rational astrology is a set of beliefs which one rationally behaves as if were true, regardless of whether they are in fact."

Well worth reading the whole thing: https://www.interfluidity.com/v2/3513.html

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Did honourifics in language begin like this? They make langages more unwieldy but you are paying some tax to avoid offending people. This article reminds me of that.

An example: in Thai there is a suffix tacked on to every other sentence in public life (kap/ka). It's a gender signifier with doesn't really mean much, but the longer and more nasal the more polite (many foreigners find the sound very grating). There are countless examples of this sort of thing, and many in English too.

It's interesting though that while here are clearly equilibriums that preserve these language effects, they can reverse themselves too. English has become a lot less formal over the last 100 years for example - why did that happen?

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How can we turn the term “AAPI” as being a slur and stop white and Asian Americans from using the term?

I think it’s highly offensive for Asians to be lumped together with Pacific Islanders. I think Pacific Islanders would feel the same way. They have absolutely nothing in common. They don’t even look the same. There is no shared experience between the cultures except for the fact that it was a convenience for the American Census to lump them together arbitrarily. Not respecting their identities and cultures and mixing them together in an acronym of convenience is very racist and I would love for this term to be stamped out. Can we please accelerate this to 70% asap?

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

Are any of the people complaining about the Confederate flag familiar with a decade known as "the eighties"?

There was literally a prime-time TV show in which the heroes drove around in an orange muscle car with a confederate flag on the roof -- this was not because they were racists (indeed, they "never did no harm"), it was because they were from the South and kind of anti-authority; one might even say "rebels".

Non-southerners with a rebellious bent (rock-stars and their followers, among others) also used it that way, in the form of patches on jean jackets, bumper stickers, and stuff like that.

The fact that you all are here complaining about it is actually a really excellent example of how these things proceed.

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"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."

Not sure about the timing of this one.

In the movie "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), at some point, the protagonist (a black homicide detective from Philadelphia finding himself constrained to participate in a murder investigation in a rural southern town) is being chased by a car the occupants of which clearly mean, if not to kill him, at least to give him a severe beating.

The first cinematographic clue that the occupant of the car are hostile is a close shot on the front license plate of the car, which is an enamel painted confederate flag. The audience clearly knew what this meant then. When I try to think of non unambiguously racist uses of the flag in more recent movies, it's generally by punk/rocker/biker type characters (who may or may not be bad guys within the context of the story) who use all kind of offensive symbols (including swastikas) as a sign of rebellion.


On the N-word shift, it's worth noting that such a shift also happened in French, with the new word "noir" (literally "black") replaced the older "nègre", itself borrowed from Spanish "negro" (also "black"), although interestingly, "nègre" remains the standard French word for "ghost writer".

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This is a dark art, the offensive use of rhetoric, and is a tactic for various psyops campaigns by state and non-state actors, or occasionally a simple social contagion with no clear actor behind it.

The fact that it can and often is done intentionally vs how in a certain percentage of the time the change in word/lifestyle/fact/etc. usage becomes associated with tribal mind killing identity politics is not great and means we can't ever do away with this.

This sort of mostly pack of wolves hiding in sheep's clothing is a disconcerting and near impossible to stop factor.

I also think we are seeing a hyper acceleration of this due to the collapse in media ownership diversity. When you have 500+ newspapers all run locally or in various cities or states within even one country it is hard to actually get them to agree and operate the same way. But with the now 3-6 companies who control everything you read, see, hear, and possibly think....this trend of command and control to spread these dark arts is more powerful.

The same could be said for social media where in the past it might take a lot longer and a certain attempt would fail to reach critical mass. But now things can spread quickly and you can seed such ideas into a very wide range of communities. If only 1 in 1,000 members of a given ethnic group or sub-population of whatever variety is plugged into FB/Twitter/Insa/Tiktok and they 'receive the message'.

If this happen sand then those individuals push it in their social circles then some weird idea from one guy in Chicago in some middling importance organisation can spread and take over in ways that were not possible in the past. Suddenly people in New York and London and Denver have all heard about it within a few months of each other. And as we saw with the Twitterfiles and know pretty much 100% this was happening in all the big social media companies, this was directed activity to promote specific agendas.

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Scott, what do you think of Steven Pinker's euphemism treadmill

( http://archive.today/s9l7w ), especially as it relates to non-political language.

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I wonder how this applies to sports team names? It's a strange process how the sense of a word changes. I don't think the owners of sports teams name their teams with a pejorative intent. The movement to change the Washington Redskins name struck me as odd. I grew up with that name and for me, the words "Washington Redskins" was very cool. I only sort of vaguely connected it to Native Americans and the word "Redskins" in the context of football didn't feel pejorative at all. If anything, the words "Washington Redskins" vaguely boosted the status of Native Americans in my mind. Then after years of lobbying to change the name, the change suddenly happened. Now it feels appalling that a football team would name itself "Redskins." So somehow, there has been a complete switch in my mind around the word. So much so, I almost feel that I should asterisk the word in this comment. Very strange.

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Huh. I've never heard the term "hyperstition" before. It's cool to learn a new word like that.

Is there a word for a disingenuous term whose meaning is not what it actually says, but rather an accusation that "this is what my opponents disagree with"? Because that's what "Black Lives Matter" is. It's not about placing value on the life of black people, and it never was; it's a slur itself, a rhetorical club to beat ideological opponents over the head with by insinuating that they don't care about the lives of black people.

Sadly, this is an exceptionally common phenomenon in political speech. Some of the most obvious examples are things like PETA ("if you don't like our animal-rights extremism, you believe in treating animals unethically,") Patriot Act ("anyone who objects to this wild overreach of the surveillance state is unpatriotic,") Libertarian ("if you oppose our extremist economic system that we call 'capitalism' despite it bearing only a passing resemblance to the work of Adam Smith, you're anti-liberty") and so on. (And just look at how popular it's become in recent years for Democratic politicians conflate opposition to their policies with opposition to democracy itself! Even if the name of the Democratic Party wasn't originally named with this defamatory nonsense in mind, it's become that over time.)

Is there a formal name for this kind of slur?

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Oh, also, SMBC on this subject: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/adverse

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Actually it's good to rotate the language that signals deference to groups that are discriminated against. That way we can make people who favor continued discrimination stand out, since they are unable or unwilling to adopt the new language. This will pressure them to change their view to fit in.

That's if you believe that racial and gender discrimination are a continuing real thing. If you think they're fake problems obviously you'll think the solutions are fake too.

So this post reads to me like a long way of saying that racial discrimination is no longer a real or important issue.

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I believe there is also an aspect of power projection when a group asserts that a previously-innocuous term is now offensive. Simply by asserting the offense the group forces other persons to change their behavior and to some degree increases the groups power and prestige. Asserting that “Negro” was offensive increased the profile of the pro-Black movement.

I think this somewhat explains the continuing expansion of the LGBTQ… term. It is a search for societal power.

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I like this term but all I can think of is The Office's Michael Scott. "I'm not superstitious...but I am a little stitious."

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"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."

You explained very well why transition phase is a bad experience for everyone and it makes sense. But why new stable equilibrium is bad? Isn't it just language evolving and once it evolves and everyone learns new way of the language it is fine again for everyone?

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

This is just a reflection on the subject, with examples. I have no answer. I'd just say that as with many things, something's lost and something's gained when a term is, umm, elevated (?) to hyperstition.

The husband of a cousin of mine is Chinese. He insists "Chinaman" is a slur. I confess I've never ever heard it used as a slur, which is not to say that it is not sometimes used that way.

I think it's a pity that so many old songs that use terms like "darkie" in a positive way can no longer be sung with the original lyrics. I find the original lyrics beautiful and sweet. I can no longer sing these songs at all. The original lyrics are verbotten and the substitutes ("people" or "old folks") are so anodyne as to remove all feeling and reference to context. Examples:

Louis Armstrong, Sleepytime Down South (his themesong): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8C8v-ulrXE

Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi Delta Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0-zOsciwUc

Fiddlin' John Carson, Log Cabin in the Lane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haj4mqN_uhA

Perhaps Stan Freberg said it best, presciently, in 1957. Elderly Man River: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zi2n4xX9

On the other hand, songs that used such terms in a derogatory even in the idiom of their day are repulsive to me now even though they were considered patriotic back when they were popular. Carson Robison, We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jta97z0Zhg

I'm Jewish, and I notice people replace "Jew" in sentences with "Jewish person." They think "Jew" is derogatory. This strikes me as bizarre. I accept that the term is derogatory or not depending on how it is said, and I would guess the same is true of most of the others. In fact, when someone says "Jewish person", my first thought is that he's an antisemite who is covering up with an attempt to be polite.

I find it amusing and telling when "victims" of hyperstition start using the verbotten terms proudly or humorously about themselves: https://sluttygirlproblems.com/column/my-life-as-a-sex-positive-slut/ Or when black people use the N-word when talking to each other.

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I think what's broken in the current situation is that no one on the left critisizes USC (and others doing the same) for trying to start the cascade. I mean they are throwing the people they claim to be interested in protecting under the bus to achieve their own selfish desire to signal how virtuous they are. If people spoke up and called them out on this such cascades wouldn't be likely to start until there really were a substantial group who felt hurt by the term.

I mean, the smart people at USC surely have the capacity not only to appreciate the fact that it's possible to turn a word into a slur but also that doing so makes life worse for the people they claim to be trying to protect. No matter how hard you try to get everyone onboard -- out of ignorance, contrarianess or simple desire to avoid signalling extremely an progressive identity -- some people with no desire to hurt the feelings of slave descendants will be slow to make the change.

Yet despite all this they choose to do it anyway. That looks alot like the kind of behavior that good anti-racists should be horrified by.

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Can you define the word 'racist' as you've used it here?

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That's why I'm pro slurs.

All taboos are virtue signals, they imply you need the approval of something or someone. If that something or someone actually holds material power over you, okay, I'm not going to begrudge you if you play nice. I certainly do the same, but there is simply no reason to still respect those ridicoulous rules when you can disrespect them.

Fuck respectability, to be "respectable" is to kneel to those who want to control you like a puppet. It doesn't matter if it's 50-50 or 30-70 or 0.00000001-99.9999999, if you don't want to say a word or to stop saying a word then saying it or refraining from saying solely to please others is contemptible and servile.

The internet is made so that you're able to say nigger freely, and I love it.

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2020’s protests threw a lot of kindling on this fire in certain circles.

Ever since 2020, in the tech industry, it’s no longer considered okay to use terms like “blacklist/whitelist” or “master/slave” in your tools. Everyone even moderately respectful retreated to things like “blocklist/allowlist” or “leader/follower”. A company I know of even had a whole “biased terminology working group” spun up in 2020 aimed at deciding which terms were now considered offensive, and working to purge them from their tools and language.

My impression of it is that this was generally pushed by people who saw a lot of people genuinely hurting at the time and who were trying to do *something* to help with “the cause”. Unfortunately they reached for the things that were more in their immediate power to change, which usually weren’t the kind of things that would actually make a dent in the bigger problems.

Not all of these efforts were successful. Some places (e.g. GitHub) took issue with “master” in the absence of “slave”, replacing it with things like “main”, but that was less universally accepted and a lot of companies (including the one with the aforementioned working group) still have a “master branch” in their repositories.

The most memorable of these failed efforts was one guy who proposed to purge the word “sanitizer”, as used in tools like ”clang sanitizer”. His rationale? “Sanitizer” was from the same root as “sanity”, and “sanity” (which was also used on its own in tools like “sanity checker”) is offensive towards the mentally ill, because it implies that not having a mental illness is a more-desirable state. I am *very* glad that guy failed.

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Interesting example is the use of the term "grandfathered" to mean something allowed because it was done prior to a prohibition being enacted.

I think it's 90% plus accepted even though its origin is Jim Crow era voting laws that disenfranchised blacks. Post Reconstruction, in many Southern states you could only vote if your grandfather voted.

I don't think many people know the origin plus it's useful shorthand to express a concept.

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Here's a thought. "Labels" have consequences. Language has consequences. To "real" people, IRL.

Labels have consequences.

Because I was a “retard”, my father had me sterilized.


By 1913, many states had or were on their way to having eugenic sterilization laws. Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.


I am autistic. I was born in 1957 and my childhood was in the 60's. When I was four, my Father's extended family decided I was retarded. That was the "common" term at the time. The "label" that people just casually assigned to the neurodivergent.


I became a pariah. The Dummy, the simple one, the retard that it was mean to play tricks on and who the adults protected. The one who was never voluntarily included in anything the other kidsbever did unless an adult was watching.

The Family decided that day that I was “retarded” or “defective”. That was the label they gave me. My father believed them and he was ashamed.

A short history lesson on “forced sterilization” in America.

Indiana passed the world’s first sterilization law in 1907.

Would it surprise you that the idea of forced sterilization goes back to the 19th century. That sterilization’s first advocates were physicians who saw it as both a punishment and a treatment for criminal behavior.

Gideon Lincecum in an 1849 bill in the Texas legislature, called for the castration of criminals. Castration was represented as therapeutic and as punitive. Furthermore, some saw it as a solution to perceived problems of heredity and society, especially those problems with sexual or racial dimensions.

Hysterectomies were also advocated during this period for women. As a “cure” for those supposedly afflicted with mental disorders understood as originating in their reproductive systems. As with men, this sexual surgery was understood as a treatment for criminal behavior, homosexuality, and excessive masturbation.

While castration would lose its popularity with the advent of the vasectomy in 1897, it set the stage for later eugenic sterilization campaigns.

Inspired by the social Darwinism propounded by Francis Galton, American eugenicists in the late 19th century argued that forced sterilization was in society’s best interest. It became the prevailing paradigm that social ills resulted from characteristics transmitted genetically among “unfit” populations.

Everyone “knew” that “defective” people reproduced at higher rates. That criminals and the developmentally disabled tended to have children with similar disorders, and that reproduction among these populations weakened the gene pool.

In 1907, reflecting the eugenicists’ influence, states began enacting laws allowing involuntary sterilization of the developmentally disabled.

Indiana was the first. Thirty-one states followed suit. State-sanctioned sterilizations reached their peak in the 1930s and 1940s but continued and, in some states, rose during the 1950s and 1960s.

State Courts initially declared early sterilization statutes unconstitutional when they were challenged.

But POPULAR SUPPORT for such legislation grew after World War I. MAINSTREAM Politicians CAMPAIGNED ON getting such laws passed. You had to be "pro sterilization of retards" if you wanted to get elected in many Midwestern states.

At first, sterilization programs targeted white men. By the 1920's this expanded to affect the same number of women as men. The laws used broad and ever-changing disability labels like “feeblemindedness” and “mental defective.”

The United States was an international leader in eugenics. Its sterilization laws actually informed Nazi Germany.

The Third Reich’s 1933 “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases” was modeled on laws in Indiana and California. Under this law, the Nazis sterilized approximately 400,000 children and adults, mostly Jews and other “undesirables,” labeled “defective.”

In 1927 the issue made its way to the Supreme Court.

A 1927 Supreme Court ruling upheld these laws. In Buck v Bell, a case of an institutionalized woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child, the court ruled that forced sterilization was constitutional under certain circumstances. Justice Holmes’ opinion read:

It is better…if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or…let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those…manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles is enough.

Buck v Bell unleashed a wave of forced sterilizations.

Buck v Bell has never been overturned. It is "the law of the land".

Whereas physicians had performed 10,877 sterilizations of institutionalized persons through 1928, they performed 27,210 between 1929 and 1941. Public authorities institutionalized some women solely for sterilization and then released them.

Between 1907 and 1963, more than 60,000 Americans, mostly women, were sterilized without their consent in institutional settings.

Forced sterilization fell out of favor after 1940 as Nazi atrocities led to a rejection of eugenic tenets. In the 1960s, some states repealed sterilization laws completely. That didn’t mean it stopped.

Women and people of color increasingly became the target, as eugenics amplified sexism and racism.

End part One

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Part Two.

It is no coincidence that sterilization rates for Black women rose as desegregation got underway. Until the 1950s, schools and hospitals in the U.S. were segregated by race, but integration threatened to break down Jim Crow apartheid.

The backlash involved the reassertion of white social control. Specifically through the control of Black reproduction and future Black lives by sterilization.

In North Carolina, which sterilized the third highest number of people in the United States — 7,600 people from 1929 to 1973 — women vastly outnumbered men and Black women were disproportionately sterilized.

Analysis shows that from 1950 to 1966, Black women were sterilized at more than three times the rate of white women and more than 12 times the rate of white men. This pattern reflected the ideas that Black women were not capable of being good parents and poverty should be managed with reproductive constraint.

In the 1960s and 1970s, new federal programs like Medicaid also started funding non-consensual sterilizations. More than 100,000 Black, Latino and Indigenous women were affected.

During the 1970s, the forced sterilization of Black women was so common in the American South that it was sometimes referred to as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Forced sterilizations Never Stopped. We still do this.

In the years between 1997 and 2010, unwanted sterilizations were performed on approximately 1,400 women in California prisons. These operations were based on the same rationale of bad parenting and undesirable genes evident in North Carolina in 1964. The doctor performing the sterilizations told a reporter the operations were cost-saving measures.

During the "Trump Years". Brown women, the "illegal sub-human" kind that we must "build a wall" to protect ourselves from, were sterilized in ICE Detention Centers. So that they, "wouldn't keep getting pregnant and sneaking across the border until they drop an anchor baby".

ICE is accused of sterilizing detainees. That echoes the U.S.’s long history of forced sterilization.


More immigrant women say they were abused by ICE gynecologist. More than 40 women submitted testimony claiming abuse, alleging they underwent invasive and unnecessary procedures


Forced Sterilization Accusations at ICE Facility Fit with Trump’s Poor Treatment of Immigrants.


However, forced sterilization of the “developmentally disabled” became more difficult in the LATE 70's.

A scandal involving the sterilization of a developmentally disabled girl without her consent in a federally funded clinic brought attention to the issue. It resulted in 1978 guidelines that forbade the use of federal funds for sterilizing anyone younger than 21 years, incompetent, or institutionalized.


Most states allow forced sterilization today. Laws allowing forced sterilization exist in 31 states plus Washington, D.C.


Live in the wrong state and you can be forcibly sterilized for being mentally incompetent.

While many think of forced sterilization as a relic of the past, some of the laws are quite recent: The two most recent state laws regarding forced sterilization were passed in 2019.

My father’s family labeled me as “retarded”, he was afraid they were right.

It changed the way he saw me. It changed the way he felt towards me. It made him ashamed and it made him angry.

My father saw me as “defective”.

There are no returns on a “defective child”. You are stuck with them. They will be a drain on you until they die. That’s what he was hearing from his aunts and uncles. That’s the message society had primed him with.

So, one day when I was seven, he took me to a doctor “friend” of his and had me sterilized. It didn't take long. I wasn’t even really aware of what was going on. He told me to be a “brave boy” and seemed pleased by my stoicism.

I would have crawled through broken glass to please him. To earn his praise. To feel his love bestowed on me. The love he mostly reserved for my “perfect” younger brother.

The doctor didn't have a problem doing the procedure. He told my father that he was “doing the right thing”. That it would keep me from getting some little girl in trouble. That it would make sure he didn’t have to worry about paying for any “little bastards”.

That’s the power a label has. Get the wrong one put on you, and people stop thinking of you as human. Get the wrong one put on you, and people get the power to decide for you “what’s best”.

Get the wrong one put on you and they can sterilize you when you are Autistic, or Black, or Brown, or a Homo.

Words and Labels are important. They have consequences in real peoples lives.

Unless you don't think "retards" are people.

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My conservative older sister used to refer to an attractive boy as a 'straight arrow', in our high school years. But the OED gets all bipolar over the term: "a person who is very honest or who never does anything exciting or different." Now, our sexually-disoriented betters try to use 'straight' as an insult. Apparently they like the second half of OED's definition. When I hear the term' straight' used in a derogatory fashion, I just smile and say 'Straight is great'. (My housemate in the 1970s liked to tell me 'Gay is good'.)

'Unhoused' for homeless, is baffling, though. Do the 'unhoused' sleep in the rain any less than the homeless? Do they qualify for food stamps and Government cheese, while the merely homeless don't?

But 'progressive' for extremely liberal is too comic. It trips over itself. You have to repeat "moving forward" at the end of every sentence; it's just too much work. Talk about ChatGPT, one could feed all the pop culture shibboleths into it and it would probably look just like the internet -- full of disinformation and half-truths and jingoistic slogans.

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> if you think there is, compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that?

I. Uhm. This is embarrassing but my instinctive response on this example "yes, absolutely"? The quote that comes most readily to mind being the "eat the rich" slogan, I think "the rich" is in fact generally used pejoratively in this day and age, and you'd say "rich people" if you wanted to sound friendlier to the idea that it's morally okay for there to be rich people in the world. "The rich" is slightly less politically coded than "the bourgeoisie", but I'm still going to assume that anyone who uses it has left-leaning political opinions and disapproves of the existence of rich people to some degree. "Dehumanizing" is going too far, of course, but I do agree there's a pejorative aspect to it. It's not quite neutral.

(With that said I agree with this post, just nitpicking your example.)

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Yes, people try to signal things through their communications, often things about themselves. They try to signal that they are helpful, smart, worthy of care, skilled, fun to be around, etc. Sometimes people use very indirect signals to show that they have certain qualities. You could get extremely indirect with these, to the extent that it might be hard for the parties involved to be consciously aware there is an attempt at signalling at all. There are also very direct, very literal attempts to signal, like in the examples here, where people literally say, "if you use [this word], you are [this type of person]". I don't think that this is limited to this context, the context of trying to prove that you are not a racist. I guess because racism is such a polarizing concept in American politics, that's why this is the way the topic gets framed? But I don't know, the idea that your communication says something about you is not something you can get out of... I don't know why it is being framed as if it were a nefarious strange thing that only applies to Wokeism. Communication communicates, and not just the literal content of your words.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 10

Hyperstitious slur cascades have always happened, but I'm getting the impression that we're is experiencing a cascade of hyperstitious slur cascades.

Anybody who can't even find the courage to be *impolite* doesn't deserve the right of free speech.

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You can't set a resolution to stop falling in line with cascades, you know, the *next* time one starts up. You'll fall in line with that one, too.

'I will only start condemning the outgroup when 70% of my contemporaries do so.'

And that's the rub - it's not everyone, it's the loudest 5% who have cowered everyone else into believing them instead of their lying eyes.

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Your read on "All Lives Matter" is fundamentally different than mine and I think it doesn't make a very clear example. Before people started saying "Black Lives Matter", "All Lives Matter" was absolutely an inoffensive phrase that might actually get used twice a decade in a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist church.

In the first weeks of "Black Lives Matter", it was used maybe 1% of the time by nice elderly people as a complement to "Black Lives Matter" in the sense of, "yes black lives matter - of course they do, because all lives matter". It was used 99% by TV personalities who needed to represent the opposing side of the culture war but couldn't exactly make a slogan of "no, black lives don't matter." When *they* and their viewers started saying "All Lives Matter", the implication wasn't "Yes, black lives matter, all lives matter." It was "No, you can't say black lives matter because that's reverse racism. You have to say all lives matter."

The cascade from there was predictable. Yes, other TV personalities, on the other side of the culture war, then started convincing their viewers that it was "a racist attempt to erase black lives".

To those for whom it was obvious what he meant by it the first time Tucker Carlson (or whoever) said it, we didn't need any help to realize that it was a badge that said, "I'm on the opposite side from Black Lives Matter, but I have to be careful how I express that". Not all of us equate that to the media formulation of "racist attempt to erase black lives", but we all know it's *some kind* of reaction against BLM.

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What needs to happen is that people on the left need to start calling out people for starting these cascades by using (and harming) an underprivileged group as a way to advertise their virtute.

Unfortunately, I fear it doesn't happen because people are hungry for ways to advertise their partisan affiliation.

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This happened recently-ish with git branches. “Master” is racist I guess? Same with databases being master and slave.

Also blacklist and whitelist.

In both cases the replacements make more sense but that clearly wasn’t the motivation because people make too big of a deal of it.

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I am interested in the feeling when a familiar word becomes tainted by this hyperstitious slur cascade. Like "Karen", and the awkward moment when calling my friend Karen "Karen" started to feel irrationally uncomfortable and somehow disrespectful, even though it is her real, given, legal name. I can imagine the process was unpleasant for her as well, but she was already losing control of her OCD on her way to lewy body dementia when that cascade began, so I never had the poor taste to ask her directly. At this point she would not understand, much less care, what has happened to her name. Small mercies.

Also, writers (like you, but not just you) have pulled "the the" duplication trick too many times in my sight, and now I am distracted whenever a word is innocently duplicated. I keep waiting for the argument that draws attention to the instance. time time (see what's become of me?)

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Some symbols actually originate as signals of hostility. The Confederate flag is a prime example. From the Vice President of the Confederacy in the middle of the Civil War: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/cornerstone-speech

> But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

> Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

He keeps going. This is probably the most singularly damning example, but there are thousands of Confederate-era documents detailing why they seceded, why they thought secession was worth a civil war, etc. The central, common elements are slavery and racism. That's what the Confederate Battle Flag stands for: a racism so deeply entrenched in one's worldview that one is literally willing to kill one's own countrymen, even relatives, to preserve the racial order of chattel slavery.

Yes, symbols can change their meaning organically, but that's not what happened here. People didn't gradually shift toward seeing the flag as a symbol of something else. They didn't stop using it, forget what it meant, and then rediscover it a hundred years later and adopt it as a symbol of something else. What actually happened was that they almost immediately started lying about it (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Cause_of_the_Confederacy), some people in the younger generations believed them, and it became impossible to tell who was intentionally using it as a racist symbol and who just believed the lies.

This post doesn't make it clear whether you believe the lies yourself or just believe that the people who believe them are somehow still innocent. I have to assume it's the latter. But if they are innocent, telling them that they're making a terrible mistake is not irrational symbol-policing, and it shouldn't be grouped in with "people experiencing Frenchness."

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One bad effect of all of this not mentioned is that I believe some people deliberately rachet up the cascade within their social group, so that the people outside their social group, who catch on less slowly, look bad because they're at the other end of the cascade.

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There's a time to use statistics, and a time to stand for what's right. Those two things don't always line up.

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The Confederate flag example is an interesting one. I grew up in the south, and it was common to see Confederate flag bumper stickers, rebel flag posters on dorm walls, that sort of thing. What it meant to the people who used it in those contexts was overwhelmingly as a symbol of rebellion, rather like the rock-n-roll “horned hand” gesture. You know, more like “stick it to the man” than “stick it to the blacks.” I’ve lived in the north for a long time now, and not a single Yankee believes me about this. They tediously tell me that the only, unchangeable, and eternal meaning of the Confederate flag is the racist promotion of slavery by violence. Now, I couldn’t care less about the rebel flag, and have never and would never display it. But I do think it’s a test case of who gets to decide the meaning of these sorts of symbols, whether it is the people using them, or those observing them.

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I'm not sure what to make of another form of language policing I've seen:

I've heard people call successful suicides "completed" suicides, and object to having them called successful. Does this fall in the same category as hyperstitions? Whatever it is, it strikes me as bizarre. In every other case that I'm aware of, from baking a cake to performing a massacre, one normally talks of the effort succeeding or failing.

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> A distant relative of mine who lives in the South and has no known political opinions still has a Confederate flag sticker in his room.

Noting that "no known political opinions" is sort of what you would expect if their political opinions were the sort to get them in trouble if known (in the same sort of way that "no known romantic partners" is a hint that they have romantic partners that are socially unacceptable, especially when society was less accepting).

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"The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the."

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Interesting as always. Makes me think of a few points though.

Can a *person* be hyperstitious? JK Rowling comes to mind.

What about individual terms? "The most offensive thing you can ever do to me is to call me by my assigned at birth gender. Even when talking about my birth."

What about the extremes? If you use the n-word and get punched, all right-thinking people, even pacifists, will say you deserved it.

Religion? I say I don't appreciate hearing God damn, people tell me it's a free country.

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>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 particular bit missed the point a bit. Skipping straight to "people of x" when "x people" exists as a middle point feels an oversight. It's a much simpler and more natural change that still follows from the reasonable (although debatable) idea that describing a group as people rather than general objects helps identify their humanity.

I think this is worth acknowledging if at least to Ironman the argument you're against. Placing the other side as wanting to use "French people" rather than "people of Frenchness" feels much less silly.

And FWIW I do thing "the rich" is often used antagonistically. There's a reason "eat the rich" gets said and not "eat rich people."

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Frog memes... I posted a frog and a close friend of mine said, "isn't that the right wing extremist frog?" "No no, Katy Perry posted one on twitter." "Oh phew!"

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Fascinating. If you’re correct about the %s sloping, I’m all over the shop. Being a rather reclusive writer, if my rather small circle of family/friends objects to a label/term I use, I might react adversely inside but I guess I quickly decide to “obey.” But terms that change in public discourse might see me resisting until the 80% or 90% point.

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Matt Yglesias had a blog post, saying quick changes are purposely about signalling exclusivity. "You said aboriginal? Um... its indigenous, you should know that."

"The law is literally called the Indian Act!"

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> (if you think there is, compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that?

The terms "the rich" and "the poor" are kind of a special case because they separate people from the rest of society, when those people would probably prefer to not be separated (you're not supposed to be proud of being rich or being poor, it's not polite to talk about it or point it out, etc). Japanese/French/Southerners probably see that category as part of their identity and they don't care if you talk about it (assuming that you don't use a slur).

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The occasional efforts by the COJCO LDS to deprecate the term “Mormon” in this way seem relevant to this topic.

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For a UK example, "Paki", short form of "Pakistani". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paki_(slur)

In Denmark, "neger" (negro) became unusable recent due to American influence about their "negro" word, so the reach of Stokely Carmichael is surely great. Obviously, these words come from the same Latin root, so really it was all pointless.

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It’s a little off topic, but now that we have a simple word for it...

If Prediction Markets become trusted sources, how can we best protect them from manipulitive hyperstitious cascades?

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I'm constantly irritated by a version of this. The word 'polak' is the word in the Polish language for a Polish person. I should know, I'm Polish. It has never been considered a slur by Polish people. Ever. Yet multiple times in my life I had to sit though a condescending lecture from an American telling me I'm saying a slur **in my own language**. You can see this same thing right now on the English Wikipedia page talk page. Multiple Polish people are writing to inform that this word is a literal endonym and has never been a slur, and every time a sanctimonious American tells them they are wrong.

Imagine going to Poland and finding out "American" is considered a slur and Polish people telling you the correct reaction is to be offended and you are wrong for trying to correct them.

Slavoj Zizek once said that Yugoslavs have no aspirations of dreams, there is no room for it. Others are too busy dreaming for us for us to be allowed ourselves. Having Americans 'correct' me in this regard is literally the only time I've ever felt discriminated against. Certainly not when I'm being called the Polish word for a Polish person.

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I'm reading a biography of Alan Burns, one of the last generation of British civil servants in the colonial service. It was interesting that in the first part of the twentieth century most thoughtful people in the service *and* in the colonies understood their job to be preparing their colonies for self-government, toward which some colonies progressed faster than others. It all got derailed when demagogues and Soviets and the UN saw colonialism as a club to beat The West with, which is why lots of former colonies are in the fix they are in today.

Anyway, part of the process of preparing the colonies was building and staffing a school system. I was startled by this tidbit from the early *fifties*:

> Alan found solace in dry humor. One session was held up when the Iraqi delegate insisted that the term "teacher training" was archaic and should be replaced in all UN documents with the swanky new term "teacher preparation". Training, the Iraqi theorist declared, was for horses. "I spent many years being trained as a civil servant," Alan insisted, "and I most emphatically deny that I am a horse."

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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> But once the media successfully convinced everyone that it was a racist attempt to erase black lives in particular

(re 'All Lives Matter')

You probably know this but that's a pretty uncharitable / confused reading of what happened (it was used by actual people to express that their contempt for the "black lives matter" people; the media had nothing to do with it). I can't imagine any reason to be uncharitable about this unless you're bitter about it or something.

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By the way, what is your denominator?

70% of which subset of people?

English-speakers around the world?

American citizens?

Your ingroup?

You must be very VERY careful not only to define your denominator, but also not to be misled by the extremely large and pestiferous crowd whose professional or self-appointed personal mission involves making the majority think they are actually the minority about some opinion, what I like to call “intellectual stolen bases”.

You may find, in fact I would wager that you WILL find, that many of the new norms of language that you have adopted are in fact approved of by fewer than 70%, or even fewer than 50%, of American, and certainly by fewer than 50% of English-speakers around the world, which I would argue is the better reference class.

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>(if you think there is, compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that?

FWIW, the AP does in fact bite this bullet. They've since deleted the screen-shotted tweet and put out a new version which replaces "the French" with "the wealthy".

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I feel like it would be more reasonable to have different thresholds in different contexts.

For instance, maybe I'm willing to give up using a once-inoffensive slang term for some group (that I never come into contact with anyway) when we reach 50%, because it's no skin off my nose to stop using "tranny" or "pickaninny".

On the other hand, I would hope that the threshold for actually stopping mentioning true and relevant facts might be a lot higher.

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I feel like Scott has often become sloppy in this kind of "anti-woke" post, like he detests his opponents so much he can't give the solid argument he does on other topics. For example, is it really true that "society demands that politicians resign if they use" the word "Negro"? The link goes to the chairman of the RNC calling on Reid to resign to follow the standard of Trent Lott. In other words, it's a kind of trollish hypocrisy claim by Reid's political opponents, not a serious argument that using the word is egregious. Did "society" demand Reid resign? Not really, and he stayed majority/minority leader until he retired. Also, people were offended by Reid's comments for reasons other than the word "Negro." This kind of thing (or other weak examples like the confederate flag/all lives matter) doesn't destroy the whole argument but it does make me think I cannot trust Scott not to exaggerate the evidence to make his opponents seem more ridiculous than they are.

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Not sure about the US, but after the anti-vaxx trucker convoy in Canada displaying a bona fide Canadian Flag, the Maple Leaf, became a sign of being anti-left. That is not the Union Jack, or some other niche thing, but openly displaying the official flag is now viewed with suspicion, "Are you one of THOSE?"

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Surely, some of this is regional. Maybe in SF Bay Chick-fil-A is taboo, but in many parts of the country, it's one of the most popular fast food joints.

Likewise, all lives matter might be taboo in places where people put out black lives matter signs, but it's far from a universal taboo.

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The AP tweet commentary mostly focused on "the French," which is obviously silly. But I haven't heard nearly enough commentary about why the AP would have said it is "dehumanizing" to refer to "the college-educated."

Huh? Since when do college-educated folk object to being mentioned?

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> This is a compromise between principle and self-preservation, but I don’t know a better way to do it.

If the people who started it are contemptible, and the early adopters are pathetic, then the whole thing is a bad idea no matter how many join in on it. In situations like this, I find the wisest words are those of C. S. Lewis:

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it's pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We're on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”

The better way to do it is not to simply "stand on principle" and not join in the cascade, but to do what you're doing here and explain the process behind what's going on. "Stop doing this, you're being manipulated by contemptible people. We should turn around and go back to where we were." The better way is more than just not giving in, it's pushing back.

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Another example: when Amy Comey Barrett was going through her Supreme Court hearings, at some point she used the phrase "sexual orientation." Some goon leapt up afterwards to declare that "sexual orientation" was a slur used only by homophobes, which we know all Republicans are by definition. Unfortunately, rather than laughing in the goon's face, Barrett politely apologized. I seem to recall that the dictionaries were immediately "updated" too, in the way we got familiar with during Covid.

The only solution to this problem I can think of us to take those initial 1% and 5% Scott mentioned and strand them on an ice floe. Such people make the world worse by their presence.

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BIPOC and Latinx seem to be attempts at hyperstition cascades that are on their way to failure. Is this an actual turning point or are there other examples of failed hyperstitions from the past?

The one I really wish we could turn back is “person first language”. Just such a ridiculously circumlocutious way of talking, and I can’t imagine any homeless person feels better about their plight now that the do-gooders insist on calling them a “person experiencing homelessness”.

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The one where Scott inadvertently turned "Asian" into a slur.

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This is PRECISELY what happened to the term "quantum supremacy." I'm still using it, even though it's already at or past 70%.

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While I think most of this is basically right, this comes to mind:


The constant shifting of acceptable language can be confusing and stressful for people, and I agree that it often happens for insubstantive reasons. But it's a pretty minor issue that causes more inconvenience than harm, and lamenting it in an article that *leads* with the example of 'Jap' burns respectability with very little to gain.

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“This story shows that slurs are hyperstitions.“

I think it’s worthwhile to note that not all slurs are hyperstitions—some words are intended as slurs from the very beginning.

“A hyperstition is a belief which becomes true if people believe it’s true.”

Similarly, it seems like the correct (or at least uncontroversially correct) version of this line is “A hyperstition is a belief that becomes TRUER if people believe it’s true”. I think a lot of people would claim that hanging a confederate flag was always racist, by virtue of signaling support for the confederacy. But it’s pretty undeniable that it’s become a much stronger signal for racism over time.

(Similarly, it’s unclear if “hyperstitions are bad” is endorsing the take “People shouldn’t have promoted the claim that the Confederate flag is racist.”)

Not a big distinction for me, but some people I’ve linked this too have definitely been put off because of this, and that’s sad because I think this article makes a lot of great points!

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By London soccer team is an interesting case. Tottenham Hotpur FC ("Spurs") is a north London team that had a long history of support among the Jewish community (which eventually moved out of Tottenham of course). Opposing teams took a lot of pleasure in baiting the Yids.

Tottenham fans eventually adopted Yids as their own nickname for their fans (Yid Army), and proudly shouted "Yiddo' at players doing will - including black players amongst others.

Various Jewish groups have tried to stop this: they argue that using Yid is inherently antisemitic, and hurtful (it's ironic that the most active group is led by a Chelsea fan - their fans were for a long time know to be horrifically racist and antisemitic).

The club itself commissioned a survey which inevitably generated split results (only a relatively small minority of fans in the ground are now jewish btw). The club has rather awkwardly tried to ask fans not to us "Yid" or "Yidddo," but this appears to have had zero impact.

For myself, I'm a yes: I like the idea of reclaiming a slur. In a way it's even better that non-Jewish fans use the former slur approvingly....

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You have this with a lot of normal words, like "master and slave", the image of hanging and nooses; using "he" as a baseline pronoun; etc. It happened really quickly, it's extremely bothersome at how quickly these campaigns to turn something into a bad word become real. I understand how someone ends up being the old fogey who's worked in the office for 50 years and still stubbornly uses outdated terminology that is viewed as a faux pas. It's because this sort of transformation in the language keeps happening, but now it happens at ridiculous speed. And somethings don't take, maybe because they're too ridiculous. But some things do, and you find yourself conforming because you don't want to be offensive and you're good at picking up on these cues, but it's really not a good thing.

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This reminds me of a passage from "Flowers for Algernon." The protagonist is mentally handicapped at the start of the book, but undergoes a medical procedure that makes him exceptionally intelligent. When that happens, he reflects:

"Am I a genius? I don't think so. Not yet anyway. As Burt would put it, mocking the euphemisms of educational jargon, I'm exceptional-a democratic term used to avoid the damning labels of gifted and deprived (which used to mean bright and retarded) and as soon as exceptional begins to mean anything to anyone they'll change it. The idea seems to be: use an expression only as long as it doesn't mean anything to anybody."

When I read the book I thought that if nobody had ever used the word "retarded" with derision, it probably would be a fine word to this day. If anything, it's a hopeful label - this person will progress in their learning, but their progress will be retarded. I hadn't considered the notion that a word could start its path to becoming a slur by someone trying too hard to be nice, like your USC example.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

"Mormon" is another one. I have some Mormon coworkers all the way out here on the east coast. One day the topic came up and in response to me saying the word "Mormon" one of them when he responded very emphatically said "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" with the unspoken but obvious subtext that "Mormon" is something I must not say. No, I'm not going to say that mouthful. If I'm trying to be conflict averse I might compromise at "LDS" (which according to the new church doctrine is a forbidden term too) but I will not under any circumstances say that mouthful.

The position of the Mormon church, btw, is that if we must insist on a short term for Mormons, we are to call them "Saints". Lol ok, not happening.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

This might not have been true 20 years ago, but I feel like these days the determination of how established in society the norm of a word being unacceptable is is totally warped by the fact that the most vocal and scolding people are the ones pushing it. If the norm isn't established organically, how do we know if it really is X percent who are buying into it?

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Not only are we not supposed to mention 13/50 / 13/52, it's now listed as a "hate symbol" by the likes of the ADL. They even have the audacity to say "In this numeric shorthand, the number 13 refers to the purported percentage of the U.S. population that is African American. The number 52 refers to the alleged percentage of all murders committed in the U.S. that are committed by African Americans. Some white supremacists use the number 50 instead of 52."

"Alleged". Bold move.

(source: https://www.adl.org/resources/hate-symbol/1352-1390)

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> deliberately thumbing your nose at the prevailing signaling equilibrium - which is itself a statement about race.

It isn't, though. Once hyperstition is locked in, meaning is effectively gone. One can say that a statement is unacceptable, but not why it's unacceptable, because any meaningful difference of beliefs is just as possible among the acceptable-signalers as it is between the acceptable-signalers and the hold-outs.

By this point the whole thing is on simulacrum level 3-- "I belong with the acceptable people". Or think of Havel's greengrocer: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." And the reverse signal-- "I don't belong with the acceptable people"-- could equally be a dissent from *any* consensus; the notional meaning of the symbol is drowned out just by the act of dissent. This explains the behavior of Trump-style populists who seem actively eager to be rejected by the Overton Window consensus, but just for the sake of the rejection; they're careful to maintain plausible deniability about holding any *actually* unacceptable views. They're signaling opposition to the In Crowd in general, not making a statement about anything in particular.

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"You can't say wops no more, the dagos don't like it." Archie Bunker on national-network prime time television, 1972.

(R.I.P. and a salute to the great Norman Lear)

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A newspaper comic I used to casually enjoy, was cancelled by the Los Angeles Times and I believe other papers because, *in a flashback set in Literal World War Two*, an allied military officer was shown referring to the presumed pilot of a fighter plane with big red meatball insignia as a "Jap". And with a tone of curiosity, not contempt.

I want to "make them work for it" a whole lot more than you do, even in the case of morally neutral shorthand terms like "Jap". I don't want to annoy them; I want to infuriate them. And for the simple plain-language statements of unquestionably morally virtuous things like "all lives matter" and "it's OK to be white", I think a Rorschachian unwillingness to compromise is called for, because the enemy won't stop at just one or two ways to express that sentiment.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 12

Pronoun-sharing ("he/him/his") occurs to me as the case that is at like 40% right now.

One interesting point to the 70% rule.... such a cascade can still occur even if almost all people use a fairly high threshold like 70%. The Schelling segregation model provides an illustration of how this happens: https://youtu.be/dnffIS2EJ30. Residential segregation can result even when people only move out of a neighborhood when heavily outnumbered by people of other races/ethnicities--much like the 70% rule. Replace "neighbors of a different ethnicity" with "people you read or talk to who share their pronouns" (or whatever) and the model shows that even a fairly strict rule may not prevent such cascades.

(The analogy is not perfect because in the Schelling model people move and are replaced, rather than actually changing their ethnicity)

Seems like the NYT style guide writers are the only individuals with much power here.

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Like a lot of good articles from Scott, this one had me thinking about something I kinda knew but hadn't identified.

I think this hyperstitious concept goes a long way to explaining my move from a more libertarian mindset to conservative. I realized that "live and let live" wasn't going to work out, because 51% of people (or a very vocal 10%) was going to take my hobbies, my lifestyle, my flag and my statues and decide, in a reverse respectability cascade, that they were really emblems for all that was ill in this world. If I wanted to do my own thing, I'd have to find a large community to make sure random things I loved didn't become universal signs for hatred.

As much as I'd like to unite with the fellow Libertarian minded, there just aren't enough of us.

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I like this post but think it goes too far in stretching the word "slur" to include things that are more like "categories of un-person" such as cops or drone pilots or whatever.

I also think it's EXTREMELY important to remember that there is not just one culture and quite often things can be slurs (or whatever) to 50 percent of people without actually being part of any kind of cascade, and I think there can be hateful equilibriums that hold for decades. Republicans think badly of democrats and vice versa and neither side is coming close to turning the other word into an unspeakable slur or an un-person category of people in general, even if being a republican makes you an un-person to a lot of dems.

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It's interesting that you use Asian as an example of a term that could become a hyperstitious slur without mentioning that this already happened--my mom, who lived in Asia for many years and certainly has the opposite of animus for people from that continent whatever they might be called, is still mad that she's apparently not allowed to call them Orientals anymore.

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What you keep referring to as a "stable equilibrium," I call "totalitarian."

In the future, what will happen to businesses that DO NOT put up a rainbow flag on their window?

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It is funny to watch a series of nice or euphemistic terms go through the process of becoming slurs because the thing they're trying to describe isn't good and people develop the superstitions belief that some it's the word's fault, and if we just change the word we use, the badness will go away. Sort of like the old idea that the word "bear" isn't really the name of the animal, it's what we say INSTEAD of its name because if you say its name, it will hear you and attack.

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I think that "ephemism" angle should have been mentioned here. Otherwise we are getting a pretty one sided picture where stupid sjw keep making things slurs for nearly no reason other than to signal their wokeness and conformism, while in reality it's a memetic battle between forces in a culture war.

Some things are both wrong and forbidden to say like "Black people are inherently inferrior to white people". Some people want to say them but not to loose all their social capital. So they create an ephemism, say "Black people commit more crimes than white people", which is both technically true and not forbidden to say and keep using it in the context of Black people inferriority. They now have plausible deniability of "just saying facts" and trying to appear clueless normies which is improved when the ephemism become popular enough that actual clueless normies start using it. As a result there is no more neutral way to talk about "Black people commiting more crimes", because just saying it out of context can very well be an ephemism for racist views. So people on the left talk about systemic racism, consequenses of slavery, adjustments for poverty and all other things that put the phrase in the context that explains it without defaulting to racism. And yeah, also the fact that black people commiting more crimes is partly a hyperstition as well.

There is also a matter of virtue of accuracy that people will inevitably confuse with hyperstition cascades. Saying "gender assigned at birth" is strictly more accurate than just "gender" or "sex" when talking about whatever was written in your birth certificate. Noone reallychecked your gender identity, chromosomes or hormones. There was just made a reasonable guess based on your genitals. That's not how people actually define sex or gender.

Also there is a matter of, not sure how to call that, linguistic truth? I've never heard that "the X" is potentially dehumanising before. But now when you brought it to my attention - indeed it seem to be ruder form than saying "X people". Try rephrasing "Eat The Rich" to "Eat Rich People" - it immediately becomes less snappy and more awkward. And yeah, to answer the question, obviously "the rich" is just as dehumanising as "the poor". The difference is in the fact that being rich is more high status than being poor and being attributed to a faceless high status mass is better than to a faceless low status mass. Also rich people can handle a little dehumanisation much better due to having much more resources. So I think I'm joining the cascade early on the grounds of basic niceness and will make some effort to say "X people" instead of "the X".

And of course there is also the revese process of "reclaiming a slur", which happens occasionally without any intervention of the King of Language. It just have to be an initiative from the group that the slur is against. "Queer", I think, is the very good example here. So yeah, if a lot of Japaneese people coordinate and proclaim that "Jap" isn an acceptable short form to talk about them - soon it won't be a slur anymore.

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I think I agree with you on net, but to steelman the other side with an example: if you believe racism toward black people is common enough to be a threat to individual black people (this doesn't have to be very common), black people would benefit from having at-least-slightly-costly signals of non-racism. By using hyperstition cascades, you can keep the goalposts moving, which keeps people working to perform non-racism. "colored" signals likely racism, "African American" signals being out of touch so not fully trustworthy, "black" signals being likely trustworthy, and "person of color" signals paying active attention (that one has probably mostly lost its value by now, but still). I suspect that does pay genuine dividends to individual black people, even if it's annoying and looks a bit silly and costs society some.

In the Japanese example, when anti-japanese sentiment was common, having flags for trying-to-be-decent was probably really valuable?

I guess overall, being in the first 1% means you're a dick, but being 5-15th% probably signals trustworthiness?

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This article is good But you chose two poor examples.

The Confederate flag is a bad example.

It was added to bunch of state flags in the 1890s. It was part of enacting Jim crow.

It was added to Georgia's in 1956 as part of defending Jim Crow.

So yes there was some "innocent" use I guess, but the "first 5-10-25%" of making it a racist hate symbol was done by the actual Confederacy (We kind of had a war over it.) and then Southern legislatures using it as a sticker to brand the reassertion of a racist caste system.

Similarly, you live in California.

You probably have been to some Japanese internment memorials. You've probably seen some of the surprisingly racist dr. Seuss cartoons. The use of Jap was not innocent after 1941.

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Also, your generous overuse of the word "racist" is telling.

It is a perfect example of why this policy you have prescribed doesn't work. "Racist" now no longer contains any useful rational meaning for the majority. Same with "misogyny" and all the rest of it.

90% of people who display confederate flags are signaling their "racism" to you? Yikes. What a drag it must be to have to deploy such an obtuse screening measure against your fellow Americans.

There is a giant spectrum of positions on race and the role it should play in society and almost none of it is hostile toward any particular race. But we are no longer allowed to explore those options because of the stable equilibrium of which you write.

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It's mildly amusing that “negro” became unacceptable explicitly because of its ~european etymology, to be replaced by another term “black”, also has a ~european etymology.

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Would someone please explain how "Oriental" got added to this train? It just means "Eastern" for Chrissakes! How in the world is that offensive? <oldmanyellsatcloud.jpg>

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

Is the following statement inaccurate / off?

Hyperstition ⊂ Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, i.e. hyperstitions are a subset of self-fulfilling prophecies but pertaining only beliefs (quote: "...a belief which becomes true if people believe it’s true.")

I didn't see any reference to self-fulfilling prophecies mentioned (please forgive me if this question / observation was already commented). Wikipedia, Self-fulfilling prophecy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-fulfilling_prophecy

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This is a really good essay, thanks!

Just two points: first, to understand the motivation behind the drive to replace old terms by new ones, the concept of "shibboleth" (and the biblical story behind it - http://web.mit.edu/jywang/www/cef/Bible/NIV/NIV_Bible/JUDG+12.html ) is really helpful.

Second: with words for which an easy substitute can be found, 70% sounds reasonable (although 90% would probably be better)... but for important facts, can we please please agree to set the threshold at 99.999%? We're getting close to where pointing out that there are exactly two biological sexes in animals gets you labeled as a transphobe, and that way madness lies.

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Well, if “Jap” is to be re-admitted to polite discourse, there are some other candidates that have been used for other peoples in similarly derogatory ways. In no particular order: spic, mick, coolie, wetback, nip, bohunk, jock, sambo, Canuck, kraut, greaser, frog, slope, Uncle Tom, wop, Dago, guinea , spade, Papist, babu, wog, chink, fritz, gook, hymie, whitie, tonto, jungle bunny, dinks, redskin, injun, polack , portugee, ruski, banana, oreo, mulatto, half breed, mongrel, beaner, Buddha head, rag head, Charlie, goombah, honky, beastly hun, white trash, trailer trash, zoot suit. As Whizzer White said of pornography, I can know a slur when I hear one. Only when a target group adopts a term, like Chicano, and uses it outside the group should we think about rehab for slurs.

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Speaking as a non-american, I actually had no idea "Jap" was considered offensive.

Some light googling seems to hint at this being a really terrible slur in the US, whereas in most other places it's considered at worst slightly offensive? Kind of interesting that such language siloing can still exist in these internet days.

And now I'm not sure if I should stop using it out of kindness towards japanese-americans, or continue using it out of principled resistance to US cultural hegemony and trying to stop/reverse the cascade outside of the US. When talking to an actual person it's easy to choose of course, but when broadcasting to the entire internet?

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To Englishmen of my generation - I was born in ‘57 - ‘Brit’ certainly is a slur. It was introduced by the IRA. I hate the way it is used casually today.

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'Practicum' sounds more worthy than 'field' yet ‘Practicum’ is derived from late Latin, neuter of practicus ‘practical’. Since the Romans were slave owners, colonisers by conquest, despoilers of colonial resources, cultural appropriators, and global polluters through their smelting of lead, the use of ‘practicum’ seems even more inappropriate.

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My gosh, "social dominance" would be a breath of fresh air. That would mean you can still survive in this society if you openly hold an alternative viewpoint.

Tell all the people who have lost businesses, been canceled, etc that what they are facing is just "social dominance."

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Very common to hear “jap” in Singapore, eg “Let’s go to a jap restaurant.” If you told the locals that’s offensive, they’d just chuckle over Americans and they’re missionary zeal.

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I just commented to a friend via text message that some people think a period at the end of sentence in a text message is somehow viewed as strict or offensive, and that for now on I'll start using more periods when I text.

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Do you have a source for this claim:

"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."

I didn't know that that was false (which I realize is the obvious consequence of people that I usually consider to be in good standing saying exactly that). And while I assume you wouldn't make a statement like that without some strong evidence, it's still difficult for me to believe it. Also linking to that evidence could act as a lightning rod for undue viral "look at this covertly racist blog" attention.

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I was with you until your passage about the AP style guide regarding "the poor" etc. Even though I had never heard of this issue before, it was quite easy to see what they meant. It *is* dehumanizing to refer to "the rich". Whatever sentence that phrase occurs in is likely to make some generalization about the group, rather than treating them as individuals, making wealth the defining characteristic of its members; and the generalization is likely truly only a tendency (not a tautology). That it seems obvious to you that this is not a problem is because being rich has been seen positively by most people in the US for most of its history, or at least more so than in some other times and places. Referring to a Lavoisier as a "person with wealth" rather than simply a member of "the rich" might lead marginally enough people to consider his other personal characteristics, to allow him to keep his head. You posed what you seem to think is a rhetorical question, but it doesn't seem to me that you thought it through.

This example aside, I do find your exposition of affective connotation as a dynamical system insightful and illuminating. And I admire the phrase "hyperstitious slur" that you came up with to summarize the phenomenon, it's delightfully apt.

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I think on some level slurs and taboos taken too far by a society are equivalent to religious and superstitious thinking: think of how in islamic culture it’s taboo to mention the name “Mohammed”, in certain southern African cultures women must never say the names of female in-laws, and even in Harry Potter, saying “Voldemort” is taboo!

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Two minor nit-picks:

1) does any group EXCEPT the Brits get abbreviated in a non-offensive way? And I'm not that sure about "Brit".

2) "Poor people" rather than "the poor". "Rich people" rather than "the rich". The distinction is slight, but consider how "eat the rich!" sounds compared to "eat rich people," and then decide if the former language is dehumanizing or not.

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Never forget Monty Python. "Jehova, Jehova"

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Self-fulling prophecy?

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The thing that annoys me most is when the "slur" gets replaced by something functionally identical, or arguably MORE offensive, and pointing this out causes people to bite your head off.

"Coloured people" was seen as an offensive term for non-white people for decades, to the point that even woke actors like Benedict Cumberbatch have caught flak for using it casually. In woke circles, the preferred term for this group of people is "people of colour", which is just the same words in a different order. And this distinction doesn't apply to any of the subsets of "people of colour": no one demands that you refer to Asian people as "people of Asian" or black people as "people of black", though maybe they will now that I've put the idea in their heads.

10 years ago, a common point in geek feminist circles was admonishing men not to refer to women as "females", as it's subtly objectifying to reduce someone to their sex. Fair enough, point taken. But the modern trans-inclusive variety of feminism wants us to refer to female people as "breastfeeders", "people who menstruate" or "vagina-havers". If someone can explain to me why calling a woman a "female" is objectifying or dehumanizing, but calling her a "menstruator" isn't, I'll buy them dinner. I believe noting this absurdity was one of the first things that landed JK Rowling in hot water.

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> the people who want to be the first person in a new cascade, like USC’s social work department, are contemptible

They want power and they get it if the cascade takes off. I can't do better than to quote MM in the argument at Scott Aaronson about some scientists ('scientists'?) who ran a campaign trying to make 'quantum supremacy' a slur: (how did that one end, I wonder?)


There is another perspective on this debate. The other perspective says that whatever you think you are doing, what you are actually doing is: bullying computer scientists. Whoever you think you are doing it for, bullying computer scientists does not affect those people at all. It does affect the computer scientists. And it does affect you. It makes you feel strong and proud and important. So does cocaine. Your career might even profit from it — you can certainly profit from cocaine.

There is really very little that we human beings enjoy more than telling other people what to do. Once we have a socially accepted rationalization for exercising dominance — like the idea that bullying computer scientists can protect the underprivileged from the vast anti-underprivileged conspiracy — anything in the hominin clade will be on it like a piranha on a meatball.

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"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."

Forty years ago was only twenty-eight years after Emmet Till's lynching, and a time when a majority of Americans did not support interracial marriage, so I warrant that a lot of people displaying the Confederate flag then were out and out white supremacists. The idea that the Confederate flag has ever been an uncontentious symbol, free of any racist connotations, is extremely bizarre, to say the least.

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> 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 distinction between these two should be emphasized (and even more so in cases that are less far along the cascade). One is "I hate black people and want to offend them". The other is "I oppose hyperstitious slur cascades". Part of the tactic of pushing the cascade along is pretending that only the former exists.

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I think the elephant in the room in this post is how important the euphemism cascade is for signalling where people are on causes dear to one’s heart.

For example, I think 20 years ago if you found a nurse wearing a rainbow pride lanyard, you would expect them to be almost certainly gay, and definitely a strong sympathiser with gay rights, well educated and engaged with the cause. Now you’re probably going to think that their employer got a big box of lanyards and handed them out for pride month. Signalling and language change over time, as things become mainstream (which is what campaigners want, and is success!) you need a new signal on the top for ‘I still care more than averagely about this issue.’

The _benefit_ of having a euphemism cascade is to allow huge nuance in that sort of signalling in language. You can avoid the people who use words at the 99-1 point as almost certainly actively prejudiced against you. You can assume that people using the standard middle of the road acceptable language of the day mostly don’t care too much and want to not hurt you if it’s not too annoying or inconvenient for them. And the people who are early adopters at the 5-95 point are almost certainly not just keeping up with new euphemisms but isolated from the rest of the debate - you can expect them to be on side with any other contentious issues of the day as well.

I think the whole point is that it _has_ to be an exhausting ever-changing thing to try and stay on top of, when the practical positions underneath the language are also changing. To take your civil servant example, pedagogy changes at a very surprising pace (well, I think it’s surprising, given we’ve been teaching people things for thousands of years, in the UK there are still big changes in things like how to teach reading and maths every decade or so.) Making the word for ‘teaching’ be a clear signifier of what you think teaching is like is handy. Making your word for people in group X be a clear signifier of what rights you think people in group X should have is also handy. And that means in any politically active space some sort of euphemism cascade will happen.

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In Scotland (years ago) it was common practice to refer to a corner shop run by Pakistanis as ‘the Paki’ as in I’m just nipping down the Paki do you want something? I moved to England and used the phrase and was very firmly corrected.

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I can easily imagine a timeline in which "jap" never became a racial slur.

It's much harder to imagine a timeline in which displaying the confederate flag didn't end up generally seen as a sign of racism. That was baked in from the flag's origin. So I don't think it's a good hyperstition example.

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Some interesting thoughts about labeling, but using examples that are in some cases very unfortunate. A couple of examples that troubled me:

“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.” I don’t know what evidence this is based on, but it is very much contrary to my experience of 40 years ago that the Confederate flag was actually a very strong indicator of racism. OK, maybe there's some study somewhere to contradict that, but you don't reference it and I would think it would have caused a big brouhaha. The Confederate flag has been deeply associated with racism since it was created and always evoked a society where racist slavery was a very big part of its culture and economy. So why use this example to make a point about how labels shift, unless there were some strong evidentiary foundation that the statement is actually evidence supported?

And this one: “True facts can be hyperstitious slurs. “Black people commit more crime”’ Now it’s certainly true that in the USA and many other countries, Black people are arrested and convicted at much higher rates than White people, and sentenced longer — though at least for a time, laws limiting judicial discretion in sentencing actually dramatically reduced the disparity. (indicating that race indeed is a factor when judges are given discretion.) But, how can one say with any confidence that “Black people commit more crime” when most crimes go unsolved? You have to assume that race plays an insignificant role in selection of who gets arrested and convicted. Again perhaps there’s some study I don’t know of that supports the assertion that “Black people commit more crime” doesn’t depend on arrest and conviction rates, and therefore isn’t confounded with biases in our criminal justice system, although methodological issues would be daunting. Lacking that, I think this assertion would be a good example how “commonly held but unsupported beliefs” can be hyperstitious slurs. (To me, an interesting angle on what you’re saying would be, to look at how false or unsupported statements can move in the opposite direction, from being recognized widely as wrongheaded to becoming acceptable.)

I really like what this piece says about hyperstitions and how we use labels, and agree with your main point, but I do think that sometimes changes in how labels are responded to isn’t just a matter of which labels are ideologically acceptable but also can be a result of understanding the content of the label better.

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Related, the "Thomas-theorem" in sociology:

"If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."

...formulated in 1928 by the US sociologists William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

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Another example is that apparently some American academics have decided that you can't say "slaves" anymore, not even in a context where it's clear that you agree slavery is bad. You have to say "enslaved people" or "enslaved persons". Well OK, I can actually kinda see the point of that one, tbh.

But when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. So recently some Dutch media have started to do the same thing. Except that Dutch doesn't have an adjective meaning "enslaved". So they went with the incredibly clunky and unwieldy "tot slaaf gemaakten" -- which, translated back to English, means something like "those who were made into slaves".

Which is not only very grating and cumbersome when used in a sentence, but also totally pointless as a euphemism because it still contains the word "slave" as a noun! If the idea of the original English coinage was to emphasise that the person is still a unique individual with hopes and dreams of their own, and the enslavement does not erase the individual, then the Dutch translation totally fails to achieve that. In fact it pretty much does the opposite: it seems to go out of its way to *emphasise* that whatever the person may have been before, they have now been transformed into, first and foremost, a slave.

That's what happens when a culture becomes so dominant that it can force its shibboleths not only on its own members, but even on people from different cultures where those shibboleths make no sense. It's quite annoying.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

Regarding "the rich" and "the poor", I think there is a sense where it is inherently dehumanizing in certain contexts.

Consider, by analogy someone wanted to claim that tall people are more likely to be professional basketball players. But they choose to phrase this by saying

"The Talls are more likely to be in the NBA"

That would be weird. It would be more normal to say "Tall people are more likely to be in the NBA" or "Tall people are more likely to be NBA players"

the 2 descriptors here "being tall" and "being an NBA player" could either be phrased as predicates/adjectives ("tall (modifying people)", "in the NBA") or as identities ("NBA players", "Talls")

For one of the descriptors (NBA player) either is normal but for the Tall descriptor only the predicate usage is normal, not the identity.

I think this is partially because being in the NBA is perceived as an identity .For people in the NBA, the fact that they are in the NBA forms societies' entire perception of who they are as a person. And it possibly also forms their own perception of themself. And this is true for most full time jobs. For someone who is a plumber, their plumberhood is a significant enough part of their identity that they probably think "I am a plumber" and not "I am a person who works in plumbing"

When you say "the poor" and not "poor people" you are centering the poorness as being part of their identity. In this light the point about "the French" is interesting. If French people are proud of their French identity and centralize their this aspect of their identity then it's fine to say "the French". But if you are referring, not to French people who live in France but rather to people who maybe have French grandparents but who themselves don't live in France anymore and don't attach any significance to their ethnicity then you are centering a part of them that they don't consider part of their own identity.

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Love that post. And as I have no social standing to lose - hell, even my wife is younger than me -, I will go on doing the Tymofiy Mykolayovych Shadura*-thing and insist that WORDS HAVE MEANINGS, and thus ALL LIVES MATTER is a hill I am willing to literally die on. As an extra: indeed if you are "in doubt" whether "it is ok to be white" , yes, I do consider you a full racist already and your existence on the same planet as me triggers fear in me. Really. Could you please stop to dehumanize me just because I am from Northern-Europe? - And that is true even if you get polled by a not-so-excellent poll-firm. Am I in the slightest doubt that IT IS OK to be black/PoC/gay/trans/vegan/"person of Asian descent"? (for whatever that means - could s.o. do some field-work to check it triggered Bengali oder Cantonese, ever)

No. Never ever. (btw: Dilbert is great, his creator is sometimes less so. Still.)

*(PoW, shot, famous last words: Slava Ukraina - btw: I prefer PTN PNX. That war sickens me too much to say "glory".)

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Btw I think the term Brit is a slur when used by Irish people. The British don’t really hear it as a slur however!

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A couple things, none of them disagreements:

1) to clear up some confusion in the comments: obviously not all slurs are hyperstitious. Some words start nasty, and I think we should treat them differently than words that begin neutral.

2) these thoughts are admittedly quite nascent, but might there be some upside to hyperstitious slurs? I'm thinking particularly in a society in which bigoted ideas are held proudly by large chunks of the population. In this context, a slur becoming hyperstitious might represent genuine progress.

3) you talked a bit about how hyperstitious slurs make life worse for just about everyone, but I think they harm some groups more than others. Hyperstitious slurs, along with the related euphemism treadmill, penalize anyone lacking the knowledge networks, social intelligence, or mental acuity to learn and effectively navigate these sociolinguistic rules. Among those most disadvantaged are groups the rules purport to protect: the neurodivergent, low formal education, low SES, etc.

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I'm not sure about this at all, but this whole phenomenon might be an American invention. In the cultures I live in (Turkish and Dutch), we have labels and stuff but not this thing where normal words become slurs. It's only people who do what the Americans do emulate it sometimes, but that's it and they don't have much traction.

Why would you do this to everybody? Just keep using the words like they're intended to be used. Sometimes I use being a foreigner and having English as a second language to my advantage and say whatever and feign ignorance. It's the least I can do to pushback and help.

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I have already spent far too much time here, slaughtering pixels in what is likely to no avail.

But in this forum, like most others in the West, it is acceptable to use symbols associated with the USSR, the CCP and of Communism in general. These tokens of murderous illiberal brutality are not seen as hate symbols.

The difference between this tolerance (and even endorsement) and the intolerance of the South using the rebel flag is outgroup vs ingroup.

We should all ask ourselves what we think we know, that just isn't so, and why.

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I think one possible solution (or part of a solution) to this is for everyone to have enough personal autonomy that you could give no shits about something being or not being a slur. (Bar the obvious "fossilized" slurs.)

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I couldn't tell if this had been said already, but I didn't find it before Substack and my phone fell out again:

Your strategy as stated is a recipe for defeat. You are telegraphing to the Enemy (whoever yours may be) that all they have to do is choose some meaningful bit of your culture, organise a hyperstition cascade, rinse and repeat. Either it works or it doesn't- if it doesn't, it's costless to try again; if it does, they have in perpetuity (or as good as) denied you some ground.

Unless some effort is made to reclaim lost ground, Cthulhu only swims left.

Right now any contempt we feel for those who start the cascade is directed nowhere. If instead, there was a widespread reaction/influential celebrity who said, "Banning 'field work' is ridiculous. Everyone start using the word 'Negro' again to show you're not one of these clowns," then the Enemy risks actually losing ground and might start thinking more carefully before initiating the campaign.

But as stated, your 70% heuristic might as well be a big Kick Me sign.

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Non-whites going forward to be punished for not using the term "Northern European Americans".

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The alternative hypothesis is the euphemism treadmill, namely:

1. Group is viewed negatively

2. Group's name acquires negative connotations due to association with group

3. People use name of group as insult

4. Group invents new name for themselves

5. New name acquires negative connotations due to association with group

6. People use name of group as insult

7. Group invents new name for themselves

This clearly applies to all the terms associated with learning difficulties over the years; your playground taunt was your parents' respectable term. "Jap" is probably unusual as a one-off change (although cf. "Nip"), but that's because the popularity of the Japanese went from "unacceptably foreign, but basically exotic and mysterious" to "subhuman goblin-like monsters" to "our allies, the bastion of freedom in Asia" at break-neck speed. Similarly, the sodomite/invert/homosexual/gay treadmill stopped when being gay stopped being viewed negatively.

So far as social spread is concerned, that's partly sympathy (not wanting to define people as part of the negatively-affected category they're in), partly signalling ("I'm one of the nice people who says Native American") and partly social pressure in the later stages, which is where the cascade effect would start to come in. I don't think a cascade could start from 51/49 and move purely on its own steam though; I think it has to get to something more like 66/33 before it can move on its own momentum.

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"The only excuse for it is that it’s actually preventing someone from feeling sad or getting offended."

That may be one possible excuse but I am not sure it explains the process very well.

1. When we are moving something from 100:0 to 99:1, like it was done with the N-word or might be done with "field work"', there is a period of 80:20 and 60:40 when the word is already considered offensive by many but still has not been purged from the pages /re-educated from mouths. During this period, the amount of offense is likely higher than it was during 100:0. So this process is pretty counter-productive way to reduce offense and yet there are now many people whose full time job is to find such words!

2. If the aim is to reduce offense, why would anyone take the name of a racial group, then invent a new concept with strong negative connotations based on this name, but not to try to change the name of the racial group afterwards? This seems to be pretty counterproductive as far as reducing offense goes, and yet this is what was done with "whiteness".

A more plausible explanation for both is that the aim is not to reduce offense/raise the status of one group but to lower the status (aka oppress) another group. With this explanation, it makes sense that the rules are constantly changing: as people get used to old rules and internalize them, these rules become less oppressive and continued oppression requires a constant flow of new rules.

This explanation is also consistent with a non-uniform enforcement of the rules, with some groups retaining the privilege of using the N-word.

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It's pretty easy to ignore all this nonsense. I still hear words like Oriental, Redskin, and even Jap, used by people who don't mean offence. Actually it is particularly often that I hear "Jap", because I hang out with a lot of Anime/Manga artists, and they can't be bothered to say "Japanese" when the Japanese artists they interact with don't care or lack the context to care. They invariably mean Japanese in Japan anyway, so you get the situation where an American of Japanese Descent uses this.

Or take another example. I got a friend who's next door neighbour has a confederate flag waving in his yard. This neighbour is black. To him, the flag just means "yay southern United States". Because the only people who really got the memo about the flag being racist are people who watch the news or follow politics, which is honestly almost nobody.

Their social credit is issued at a different bank, you could say.

In the end, I say give up never, because that social credit line you're trying to take out is from bad people, and the percentage of people with that line of credit is almost never actually 70% or higher. Exceptions may be made based on context, IE, formal settings require formal language.

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Several people have commented that "eat the rich" feels snappier than "eat rich people": are you sure that's not just because "eat the rich" is an idiom, and if "eat rich people" were the known idiom, it would feel the same way?

But regardless, for every case people try to turn a phrase into a slur, there's a story why it's bad, or worse than the alternative. The point isn't that there isn't one. It's that just because one phrase has marginally different connotations than another doesn't mean it's reasonable to demand everyone to only use one, and treat the other as wrong. Just because one phrase is a micrometer less humanizing than another, that doesn't mean it's dehumanizing and should be suppressed. Just because one phrase is a micrometer less anti-racist than another, that doesn't mean it's racist and should be suppressed.

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It's amazing the number of comments where people essentially state "If this word/action offends someone, I will make a point of doing it MORE from now on".

No wonder it's hard to sell the left on the importance of defending free speech, when so many free speech activists seem to equate "defending free speech" with "behaving like a high school bully".

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I feel like this is that old propaganda saw "jumping on the bandwagon", and since your average person wants to be part of the group more than spending time engaging in critical thought on issues that aren't personally relevant, onto the bandwagon everyone goes. It's survivalist instinct pure and simple and makes sense from that perspective. Sad too though. Somehow, mankind can do all the things we've done to create a world today where it's better than it has ever been before, and yet, we've found no anecdote for demagogues using propaganda to advance their own interests made possible by most people's sheer/intrinsic desire to support said nonsense because they want to be validated by groupthink.

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In the Russian language, there is a presposition "v" which means "in" and is usually used with relation to countries (e.g. in Poland, in Argentina), but with an exception for Ukraine, where preposition "na" is used instead (something like "on Ukraine"). It is caused by the fact that the word Ukraine etmologycally means "boundary", "frontier", "perifery", and was used with respective preposition (on the boundary, on the frontier). There was a long and protracted discussion if it was offensive, with the same hyperstition dynamics. But the start of the war a year ago gave a huge boost the the divisevness of the hyperstition (that was the point when I gave in).

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There is a weird assumption that if you “give in” that life will be unbearable. But language already is filled with stuff where people “gave in” and we are all fine. It’s annoying how language changes. But this post reads like someone saying “I don’t like how language changes and I’m going to be the friction that tries to stop it”. But you can’t stop it. And it’s already changed so much already. And the endpoint isn’t horribleness, it’s where we are now. These fights have already happened a million times over. They have literally been happening my entire life. Trying to fight this stuff is like trying to fight the weather. Go ahead and try. Or try to be a dick to people that are on the vanguard of the change. But all you are doing is being a dick to people and accomplishing nothing. The best approach is probably to be generally ignorant of the fight rather than hyperfocused on it so when it comes to your attention, you change because you know by that time it’s the preferred position in society. Or you can be a dick and fight the weather. Do whatever you want.

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I would say that it becomes more important to struggle against a cascade the more annoying the new word is. There are a variety of factors that contribute to how annoying a new word is, but here are five of them:

1) Is the new word longer? (Because we want to waste less time)

2) Is it easier to pronounce/type? (Because we care about easy of use)

3) Is it less descriptive? (Because we care about people quickly grasping the concept)

4) Is it dissimilar to the old word? (Because we want to minimize transaction costs)

5) Is it likely to cause another cascade? (Because we dislike cascades)

If tomorrow people say that "black people" is bad but "black peoples" is good, I would jump on board at 55% because it scores well in all aspects (except 5). If however people want to replace it with "abcedifoguhajekilomun" that's worse in all aspects (except 5) so I would strongly push against it (maybe 98%).

Conversely if people want to *reclaim* a word and start a *respectability* cascade I would jump on board rather quickly (I like having the freedom to use a lot of words), but I would jump on board even more quickly the better it scores in those different aspects.

For example, I'm on board with trying to reclaim "queer" because lgbt is longer and more annoying to say, requires an explanation for a new user, and quickly causes another cascade (what about intersex? Okay we'll say lgbti. What about asexuals? Okay we'll say lgbtia etc).

Queer on the other hand scores well on all aspects (even transaction cost since we still have a lot of books lying around about "queer theory" etc).

I don't think we should be trying to put a number on this (e.g. I add 10% to my 70% for every negative aspect it has) because a lot of it depends on social context. With rarely used jargon I value descriptiveness over brevity, with words I use in everyday life it's the opposite. Let's all agree we jump onboard a disrespectability cascade at more than 50% and onboard a respectability cascade at less than 50%. How much more or less we'll change depending on a lot of hard to quantify social factors.

EDIT: This is just a heuristic and moral reasoning obviously takes priority. Queer people wanting to make "queer" a respectable synonym of "lgbt" is fine. But if the nazi-party wants to start a respectability cascade to make "holocaust" a respectable synonym of "morality" you should probably resist jumping on board even once the majority of the population has.

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The discussion about “the poor” and “the rich” seems to me to be clearly about privilege. One could be considered unintentional punching down (the poor) while the other is punching up.

How much of this resistance to accepting slurs as slurs is straight up privilege?

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Great post.

A couple of typographical errors:

• Missing closing quote mark in the following sentence: 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.

• Repeated word in the sentence "This is just a bad time time on all sides."

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If you're going to seriously think about this maybe you should have started with n-gram viewer of "jap", "japs", etc. (Put time frame to 1700 and compare American English to English data sets.)

I recall Spiro Agnew's usage.

Mcwhorter's and Randall Smith's and others' before thinking about how words are slurs or become slurs might have been useful. (ie the literature review is important.) It's not like nobody has been thinking about this stuff for decades!

To mildly equivocate brits with japs as a set up is kind of lame. How long has the word Brits been used?

Again where is a literature and historic review. I remembered Safire writing about it and it wasn't hard to find.


The lack of the long or serious view is disheartening.

And then there is the logarrhea. You're not getting paid by the word. Edit yourself. Distill. You aspire to be an essayist but seem unwilling to hone your craft.

Rewrite and resubmit.

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"Okay, but this process is bad, right?"

...is it? You've basically described the process of language evolving based on past events. How is that bad?

"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."

'For some reason' is doing a tremendous amount of work here. Either there's a good reason, and this is fine, or there isn't a good reason and this doesn't actually happen. Or you can admit that people do irrational things and adjust all your beliefs (including the belief in efficient markets, etc, which your writing indicates you're very attached to) accordingly.

"This seems bad for everybody."

This is the same 'everybody' that agreed to go along with this one sentence ago?

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A good writeup but fails to adequately stress how there are people and groups actively attempting to start a "hyperstitious cascade".

The only way to fight that is to be the 1% on something.

Enough 1% different somethings, I believe the cascades fail.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

> 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.

This doesn't seem very well-supported in the rest of the essay. It also seems like fundamental attribution error to me.

> if you think there is, compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that?

I think a significant percentage of the time we are, but no more so that when we talk about "rich people" and "poor people". Generally, when we categorize people, we end up attributing characteristics to the category that we either identify with or identify against. I believe the people who advocate for using "X people" are doing so because they want to center the fact that they are people, and not the categorical fiction that we've created in our heads. Ultimately, I think that endeavor is pretty futile.

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True. Good correction.

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Reminds me of the language-change index in Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage, which tracks the progess of a linguistic innovation from "clear mistake" to "perfectly acceptable usage".

Stage 1: Rejected

Stage 2: Widely Shunned

Stage 3: Widespread but . . .

Stage 4: Ubiquitous but . . .

Stage 5: Fully accepted

More detail here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/bryan-garners-language-change-index/

Many forms linger in the first stage or two forever, but some make steady progress up the ladder. And then the question is when do you, as a careful writer and speaker, adopt the new usage?

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This is one of the first times I have felt like a column of yours is not so well thought out. Applying statististics (where do these come from, in this case, really?) does not make much sense to me. Language is a living, breathing thing: it evolves, it lives in context (and what counts as context could take up an entire book or ten) -- and sometimes history is part of that context. I do feel much of what you express; that the language police are not just annoying but also sometimes do real damage (I saw a faculty member not just run out of her job but of her next job, by students who went online and said awful things about her, when her original "crime" was stating: "I care about the pronouns you all want, and they are still confusing to me, and I will be clumsy sometimes in what I say as I am still learning it all." She cared, and was bullied out of the situation and a job. She was an excellent teacher, beloved by many students, apparently not all.) I also think you are in one way over-thinking your own response, using stats to justify a gut reaction, and making some real assumptions or at least harsh judgements based upon very little ("the people who want to be the first person in a new cascade, like USC’s social work department, are contemptible.") Are those in USC's SW dept really contemptible? We don't know enough. Maybe they, too, are just clumsy. Weird that you say "the people" (plural) ... "want to be the first person in a new cascade...." Do you know what propeled them and if that is their main goal? No. To me, much as I dislike some of the swing, the pendulum swings esp. when new ways of life, new understandings, new things to notice, are emerging, and we can all over-react about the motivations of others. I don't think they ("motivations:) are "private" in the philosophical sense (the old idea of inner things we can never know about in principle, which is debateable and I would come down upon the side of not-privacy; its not a thing, except poetically and circumstantially, not metaphysically or ontologically...) but I do think here you haven't shown any knowledge or research into USC's motivations. And on and on. Lots of things people are observing here are annoying to me too, but we reduce and define and assume at our peril. That said, I do think inviting real discussion, as you do, and as we are all I think trying to do here, is generally good, though I don't have any stats to back up that assumption. Still, let language breathe, folks. Let people grow and struggle with the new. Just don't forbid stuff create reductive analyses too quickly.

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Language is our common property, and sometimes words get busted up and abused and we have to collectively replace them, just like you need to buy a new suitcase every now and then. They just accrue bad associations and connotations, and there's a need to start again with fresh terms.

Probably most of us can agree that sometimes people force this process too early or completely unnecessarily. But a lot of the time, it's good that the processes of language change happens; terms for poorly treated classes of people really do start to feel inherently insulting for example, or old-fashioned in some other way.

I'm not sure if this conservative view of protecting every word, as if they're irreplaceable and we might not manage to find others, is coming from a thoroughly thought through mindset, and it seems to contain a worry for the poor left-behind users of outmoded language that outweighs the small amount of inconvenience they are actually enduring.

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I think that makes sense, Scott. I'm probably kind-of-sort-of, in a fuzzy "I haven't thought deeply about it" way, at around the same point for the same reason.

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Why are you moralizing this process? Sometimes it’s good to notice signals and amplify them. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the underlying behavior is itself significant and sometimes it isn’t. Saying that this is wrong or bad implies that teams shouldn’t choose colors because suddenly they’re creating their own hyperstitious cascades.

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There's some interaction with social class, too. I once had a college roommate who was full-blooded Japanese-American, grown up in a working-class neighborhood in Honolulu. He applied the term "Jap" to himself, and taboo terms to other ethnic groups. Apparently these were valuation-free in informal speech among his peers growing up. Vague press reports suggest this is true more generally in working-class America, and that the various hyperstitious taboos are s.significantly limited by class.

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I spent five years almost full-time learning Japanese and probably 80% of learners (myself included) have no idea Jap is a slur and use it before getting corrected. It's doubly absurd because no Japanese people have any idea it is a slur either. Pretty much the only thing keeping it offensive are automated reddit/discord bots and a small number of overzealous do-gooders.

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Maybe now [old, not current] Jordan Peterson's fight about pronouns makes more sense.

[I realize there are going to be people who feel the need to reply "Yes, but I still hate [old or current] Jordan Peterson". Sure. Granted. Have at it. But it's not germane.]

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> 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.

I have heard that some groups that do historical war re-enactments assign the roles by a coinflip, to discourage potential members who would only be interested in playing a specific side.

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“Meanwhile, Asians now have to police everyone else’s behavior, saying “Actually, that word is offensive, we prefer ‘person of Asian descent’”

This is a feature-not a bug-for those who set off most hyperstitious cascades, which after all are mostly about clout-seeking and setting social landmines for others

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Where do people think that the new interpretation of "squaw" falls right now? I had literally never heard anyone say this was offensive before the last year or so (and it is an actual indigenous word for "woman" in several languages), but it has gotten far enough that lots of place names are being changed. It seems silly and borderline bad to me, but I think I agree with the 70% rule.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

I remember a Jules Feiffer cartoon from about 1970, syndicated in the newspapers. I can't find it on Google, although I did find a couple of other cartoons by Feiffer based on the same idea.

A five-frame strip. The image in each one is a black man (my reason for choosing "black" here will become clear) addressing the reader.

First frame: "At first, we were called 'black'."

Second frame: "Which was replaced by 'negro'."

Third frame: "Which was replaced by 'people of colour'."

Fourth frame: "Which was replaced by 'coloured'."

Final frame: "Which was replaced by 'black."

"Black" was at the time the ordinary, neutral word. Older readers may remember the slogans of the time, "Black Power" and "Black is Beautiful". Also the Black Panthers, and the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. The cartoon was a few years later.

I remember "coloured" being the ordinary, neutral word back in the earlier 60's (in the UK -- the history may have proceeded differently in the US). One occasionally encountered the words "people of colour", but it sounded to me then as very old-fashioned, and also as if those using it were straining to be politer than they felt like being to the people that each of these expressions, at different times, neutrally referred to.

There's a treadmill of social history there. The neutral word is used by everyone. The people vocal in their hate for the group use it too. It becomes associated with the haters. A replacement is found and the cycle repeats. Nowadays we seem to be back to "people of colour" and "BIPOC", a mixture of recycling the old and inventing new ones. "POC" strikes me as potentially troublesome, though. How do you pronounce the plural? What word does that sound like? How long before the haters start spelling it with an X?

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Nit: "Black people commit more crime” is too vague to be either true or false. More than... what? There is a version of that statement that is true, but that ain't it.

Virtually everyone in the US is committing a crime of some sort right now. Do you have any expired prescription medication in your house somewhere? Congratulations, you're committing a crime, and so am I. Therefore, since there are more "white" people in the US than black, white people commit more crime. Yes, black people commit proportionally more of certain types of crime, and are charged and convicted much more proportionally than that.

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I'll do the same when 70% of readers accept this 70% rule.

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"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."

When I read this line, I thought of the 1960s, but realized, forty years ago was 1983. Time goes by too quickly :(

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Quote from UCSD:

“Language can be powerful, and phrases such as 'going into the field' or 'field work' may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign."”


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It's even more annoying when two camps are fighting over the correct term. Consider: "people with disabilities" vs "disabled people".

The argument for the former is that it puts the "people" term first to signal that they're people first and disabled second, which is clearly the correct order of priorities.

The argument for the latter is that the former sounds like disability is an inherent attribute of certain people but not others, whereas in the social model of disability, a disability is something that society does to people by being insufficiently inclusive, thus disabled people are people who are being disabled by not having their needs accomodated well enough, whether that's kerb cuts or captioning or something else.

I have seen both these arguments advanced in good faith by different groups of people within the general category of people who these terms could apply to. I've even heard similar arguments for autistic people vs. people with autism.

> I think in the 1950s there really were a lot of Japanese people who felt triggered by the word “Japs”.

I presume there were a lot of Japanese-Americans with memories of forced relocation and internment, who had been called "Japs" a lot at the time.

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I bet 70% number is partially composed of personal preference but also influenced by circumstances. Scott here may be in a position where he could accidentally offend someone and not be too hurt by the ordeal; professionally and socially.

I would guess younger people with less clout and life stability may need to be more cautious. I am thinking collegiate and new workforce age, 17-23. I support this with two examples:

1) younger people are less stable in their career as they are newer and less experienced. Therefore using a slur could be much more harmful in someone's professional career when they are younger

2)Social bubbles are newer, possibly more personally impactful, and possibly more important professionally. A misstep here (i.e. using a slur) could be much more detrimental than an older person.

3) Younger people are expected to be more respectful and are reinforced to be overly polite.

With these points I would hypothesis that younger people would have a natural tendency towards lower thresholds for using a slur. I can't back this up with data.

I am less sure about the following ideas, what follows is epistemically lower than the above point.

Naturally I would argue if you are someone who is trying to convince people for a living, or even adjusting people's biases (like in rational debate), wouldn't lowering your threshold for slurs make your argument more appealing to young people. In the same way if I speak both English and Portuguese, I may write my blog posts in English so they have a larger effect size.

Would lowering your threshold for slurs- so it has a larger effect size, be worth the tradeoff here? Especially through the lense of my pet theory above "younger people have a lower slur threshold" should I adjust my threshold downward to be more inclusive as I get older?

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One of the risks here is that sometimes there is a pre-existing reason for something to be genuinely offensive, and people can have different views on this. To take one example, I think it wouldn't be surprising for someone to take offense at "All lives matter" even in the first week of its existence, given that the phrase is a retort to "Black lives matter" and carries the implication that BLM is incorrect in prioritizing black lives. I agree that I dislike people who join a cascade simply out of fear or conformity, but what if the person believes that there is a real reason to take offense?

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In a sense all language is a hyperstition. Does “dog” refer to the canine animal? It does if people agree it does. Does “heavy” mean serious? Not in 1955, but it did in 1985, and now it doesn’t. Did “fetch” happen? Does “literally” mean what it supposedly means, or the opposite? Does “I’m dead” refer to a serious medical problem or a funny joke? How do any of these come to mean what they mean, and change over time? Mostly the same was as with the slurs, right?

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This is weird because... isn't *all* language usage a hyperstition, by definition? More generally any communication protocol is a hyperstition.

"Suppose someone decides tomorrow that 'hammer' means a weight at the end of a handle, used to hit things.

This becomes widely accepted for some reason, and now anyone referring to such a tool uses that word. Someone using a word like malleus will be met with incomprehension.

This is terrible for everybody. People have to be on tenterhooks every time they talk about construction, trying their hardest to remember the unwieldy word 'hammer', and somehow restrain themselves from saying malleus or anything else. Meanwhile, carpenters now have to police everyone's behavior, saying "Actually, that device is called a hammer". When people get annoyed by this, they have to fret that the person really doesn't care about woodworking. Meanwhile, dozens of organizations with names like the National Rock-Shaft Alliance will have to change their names. Old novels will need to include forewords explaining that a mudgara actually means a hammer. Some old people will refuse to change and get ostracized by society. This is just a bad time on all sides.

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 cares about percussion will eventually say 'hammer', it will be a stable equilibrium, and we’ll be stuck in it for all time."

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I'm very, very tempted to post a comment that consists of nothing but the prohibited non-slur "slurs", purely for the "fuck you" value.

See also: euphemism treadmill (hat tip to Steven Pinker)

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9


this is an interesting example, I think we are now past the tipping point where one can safely assume that someone using the word niggardly is intentionally 'making a point' rather than just taking it as a synonym for parsimonious or miserly, but apparently this was not the case as recently as 1995:

"In 1995, London-based magazine The Economist used the word "niggardly" in an article about the impact of computers and productivity: "During the 1980s, when service industries consumed about 85% of the $1 trillion invested in I.T. in the United States, productivity growth averaged a niggardly 0.8% a year." The Economist later pointed out with amusement that it received a letter from a reader in Boston who thought the word "niggardly" was inappropriate. "Why do we get such letters only from America?" the British magazine commented.[19]"

or 1999 when they wrote this leader about the David Howard incident. which also includes a detour into comedy AAVE:

"The dictionary assures us that it has nothing to do with the Latin niger, black, meaning only “miserly” in Old Norse; but as a former head of the National Bar Association asked the New York Times, “Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?” Good point. They'd already discovered America, hadn't they? Straight off the longship on to the Bronx Expressway, and who knows what they heard through those horns on their helmets. “But it turns up in Middle English, too,” you protest, “as nig and nog, meaning miser.” Right: so racism was alive and well in the era of Sir Gawain. Who do you imagine was actually sent to lif' dat Grail?"


another article from 2020 has a noticeably different tone:


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What if you have it backwards? What if the society is wrong or racist and eventually that comes to light over several generations and these terms that first appeared so innocent/ innocuous begin to be seen in their true light? I'm thinking of George Lakeoff's work with framing and metaphor as he says that language is never neutral because it is constructed/ shaped through whatever frames the culture is using to shape its reality.

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I think "do the people in question like or dislike the word?" is a better rule of thumb than "70% of the way through the respectability cascade". Like, I guess at some point you need to switch over purely for self-preservation reasons, but the thing that actually matters here is whether you are bothering the group you're referring to imo. If everyone is saying "Native American" then I don't think it matters that it's at 90% if the actual people indigenous to America prefer being called "American Indians." And if the people hate a term, maybe you should start pushing it down the cascade even if it's at 0%.

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I remember seeing this argument on twitter a while back about the Albanian term for "black people" and whether it was a slur or not: https://twitter.com/asticky1still/status/1254577484475043840

Some people arguing it's not a slur because it's apparently just the literal Albanian translation of "black people", others arguing that it is a slur because it's often used in a derogatory way, others arguing that it's not a slur because most references to black people in Albania are derogatory regardless of what terminology is used because Albania is pretty racist etc. Lots of black Americans arguing that the Albanians claiming the term isn't racist aren't really qualified to do so because they aren't black (which is a fair point), and lots of Albanians arguing that the black Americans claiming the term is racist aren't really qualified to do so because they don't speak Albanian (also a fair point). Just stuck in my mind as an example of a pointless, unproductive twitter argument.

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Mar 9·edited Mar 9

> USC was just annoying and everyone else was gullible and conformist!

No, USC was gullible and conformist. When challenged on the extreme stupidity of their policy, they defended themselves on the grounds that other schools were doing the same thing. You heard about USC because it has a higher profile.

> compare to eg “the rich”. Are we dehumanizing the rich every time we call them that?

My sense is that "the rich" actually is mostly used as a slur. I would suggest that the balance of slur use vs non-slur use makes no difference to whether something is seen as a slur; your focus on "Jap" developing more slur use than non-slur use is beside the point.

> hyperstition

Finally, I should point out that if you want to shift "superstition" into Greek, the word you're looking for is "hyperstasis". 😜

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> 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.

But suppose enough people who do not care about gay rights started to boycott them too. Wouldn't it stop the cascade? Your theory of signalling says that no correlation means no cascade. Isn't it?

I'm asking, because I'm in a doubt really. I think it will work in any case. I think it might, but some other ingredient is needed.

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I know one of the families that was instrumental in changing the name of “Jap Road” near Beaumont, Texas. The power to change the name belonged to the local (county, basically) not state authorities. It was multi-year saga, ultimately involving several out-of-state advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. After the local authorities agreed to change the name of the road, there was a vote on what the new name should be. The descendants of the original Japanese farmer for whom the road was named and other people of Japanese and Japanese-American origin wanted the road name changed to the farmer’s family name, although several other more “acceptable” references to the farmer (including “Japanese”(!)) were offered as options. The locals overwhelmingly voted for “Boondocks,” the name of a popular but by then defunct restaurant that had been on the road. Boomdocks, of course, had nothing to do with the farmer or Japan. The supporters of changing the name from “Jap Road” considered the “Boondocks” vote to be strong evidence that the arguments of the locals that “Jap” was meant to be a tribute and an honor were insincere. The locals argued that they were annoyed by the whole process and exercising their right not to be bossed around by outsiders who might never drive on that road again. In any case, “Boondocks” was deemed not offensive, so that’s now the name of the road.

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The most hilariously dumb hyperstition is "people of colour": good, vs "coloured people": bad.

BTW Jap is still used as an abbreviation for non-personal (things not people) media headlines where space is at a premium. "Jap economy doing well" or "Jab sub deal sunk" would be uncontroversial, but "Customs arrest Jap smuggler" or "Jap tourists staying away" would not be used.

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Interesting and well written. Another slightly irritating situation is when things that are slurs in one culture (perhaps for good reason) then infiltrate other countries where they have historically never been slurs and start to take over. The N-word (!) is treated as a magical incantation with more care than the name of God. Some journalists won't even say it to Samuel L Jackson when he demands they do.

Where all the argument starts to fall down a little is just how angry people are about having their words changed a bit. This may reflect my relatively enbubbled life, but these social changes where I keep up with them have not been particularly onerous for me, and when I get it wrong, I'm normally corrected gently. To my experience at least there's really no cause for the level of animosity, anger and backlash.

We probably should have been fine to keep 'master' in git, but I don't really have a problem with 'main' either. It was always somewhat arbitrary, things change, in this case, if anything, the accuracy of language is perhaps improved with no cost to awkwardness.

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I think you are demonstrating how much you live in a bubble, Scott. No one says "All Lives Matter", it's true, but that's because there's no longer any particular need to; BLM has largely faded from prominence. (Perhaps discovering how wealthy the founder was had something to do with it.) But you live in an area rife with members of the far Cultural Left. It might be socially unacceptable to say something like that in one of the areas of greatest hegemony of the Woke Cult, but that's like saying that in the 1600s the world was 99:1 against heresy based on what was said in public in 17th century Spain. In most places in the world today you would at best be looked at askance for saying "Black Lives Matter" or having one of those signs up. You'd be looked at askance for saying "All Lives Matter" too, but that's because it would be a truism without context.

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