Saturday, April 16, 2016

Concept Creep

"Where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission."
--V (V for Vendetta)

NYU prof Jon Haidt reviews a recent article on 'concept creep.' Concept creep involves semantic shifts in negative aspects of human behavior (e.g., abuse, bullying, trauma, prejudice) that expand their meanings, thereby encompassing a broader range of phenomena than before.

Concept creep can be conceptualized along horizontal and vertical dimensions. Horizontally, creep occurs when new classes of behavior or new contexts are drawn under the semantic umbrella. Bullying, for example, was originally defined in terms of localized aggression toward a child by one of more people that is intentional, repetitive, and carried out in the context of a power imbalance. The bullying concept has now been horizontally extended to include remote interactions such as cyberbullying and adult interactions such as workplace bullying.

Vertical expansion occurs when a concept's meaning becomes less stringent and extends to milder variants of a phenomenon than originally supposed. Today, bullying has been extended to 'one off' encounters (thereby loosening the repetitiveness criteria) and to situations that merely consider how a 'victim' feels based on an encounter (thereby loosening the intentionality criteria).

Concept creep in the bullying context can help explain the rise of the 'micro-aggression' movement.

One interesting explanation for concept creep is a Darwinian one where successful concepts expand their semantic range (similar to successful species expanding their territories and invading and adapting to new habitats). Thus, success of the bullying concept in the developmental psych literature in the 1970s made it an appealing concept to apply to analogous behaviors over time.

The author (and Haidt) suggests that because psychology has played a role in leftist agendas of sensitivity to harm and to responsiveness to the harmed, then concept creep becomes a useful rhetorical weapon of the left as this group seeks to prosecute its vision of 'social justice.'

It seems straightforward to connect concept creep to political initiatives grounded in propaganda and political correctness.

One risk of concept creep is that it can pathologize everyday experience and promote positions of victimhood.

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