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Concept Creep and Escalation

Entry 1951, on 2018-11-29 at 22:22:13 (Rating 3, Politics)

I seem to be constantly railing against the use of labels. I don't like words like racist, misogynist, conservative, feminist, and many others. I even wrote a whole post about this earlier this year (called "No More -isms" from 2018-02-10). So it seems that I am fairly sure those labels aren't helpful, but the next question must be why are labels not useful?

I've been thinking about this recently, because the concept has come up a bit in some discussions (or debates or arguments if you prefer) I have been involved with. I think there are two reasons, which I call concept creep, and escalation.

So first I should explain what I mean by concept creep. This is a fairly well known phenomenon, but one which isn't often used in this exact context. Basically it means that a fairly specific term, which might be initially used to describe a quite small minority of cases, gradually widens to include so many cases that it loses most or all of its initial descriptive power.

And second, we have escalation. This describes a situation where a simple, well-defined, reasonable idea gradually becomes more complex, amorphous, and unfair over time. This might happen because the initial success of the reasonable form of the idea emboldens its followers so that they are tempted to widen their influence and to be less flexible about their requests or demands.

If I apply these ideas to some well-known ideologies these phenomena might be more clear.

The social justice movement wanted to protect minority and disadvantaged groups from unfair treatment by those with more power. Who would argue with that? The problem is that the words "unfair" and "treatment" don't have a particularly well defined meaning.

If the LGBTQI community suffers a lot of physical abuse as a result of their minority status then it's important to try to do something about that. If that same community suffers from constant verbal abuse which affects their psychological well-beng then that should be discouraged. But if some people make occasional light-hearted jokes about that group then stopping that doesn't seem that it should be a very high priority. Yet all of those things are often tagged with the same word, "abuse". Is this useful? No. these are very different issues, and should be treated differently.

A similar situation exists for the metoo movement's use of the term "sexual abuse". This can apply to anything from physical harm or rape all the way to relatively minor comments which a woman might not like for some reason. Again, this is neither useful nor honest, but when a group can gain attention through fighting serious issues it's too easy to make use of that success by extending it through concept creep.

Imagine I am a feminist (you would have to imagine that, because I definitely aren't). To might start with I might have wanted equality in the form of distinct rights, such as equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in public life and the workplace, and equality under all laws. It's pretty hard to disagree with any of that, whether you are a feminist or not, but it didn't end there.

Because even with equal pay for equal work women still got paid less for various reasons. Many of these were not based on any direct form of bias. For example, women want to take more time away from work to raise children, they don't tend to bargain as forcefully for pay rises, and they tend to have different ideas on work/life balance. Of course, this doesn't apply to all women, and there are still some cases where real bias against women exists (just like there are cases where there is bias for women).

So when women got equality but still were paid less the feminists had to ramp up their demands. Now women have to be given special privileges, such as there having to be a certain ratio of new hires being women, even if better qualified men were available.

So when the original quite reasonable call for equality is achieved there always has to be something more, and that inevitably becomes something which is unfair in almost exactly the form that the original purpose of feminism ostensibly aimed to eliminate.

But ask any feminist what they want, and they will always repeat the same mantra: we just want equality. No, the feminist movement has escalated its demands far beyond that. It has been the victim of its own success. When it gets what it wants it has to demand more.

So what about another, quite different, example. What about libertarianism? Well, most libertarians will say they just want maximum freedom, especially the freedom to compete in the free market to produce the most efficient and entrepreneurial outcomes. Again, this sounds like a great idea: create an environment where the most innovative can compete, and reward those who are successful.

Yet, as we all know by now, this really doesn't work. Markets can be an efficient way under some circumstances to get good results, but market failures are extremely common, and intervention and regulation seem to be the only way to produce an environment which really does benefit everyone.

Yet libertarians will keep repeating: the market failed because it wasn't free enough. Give us even more freedom and everything will be perfect. No. It won't. The original concept of using markets to work efficiently in some situations is fine, but making everything a market is just crazy. That's out of control escalation.

So concept creep and escalation are two very common phenomena. I don't think most of the people who indulge in these excesses are even aware they are doing it. But many of the more self-aware amongst them must be able to see it. The usual defence when the fact they are doing this is expressed is to feign shock and horror. But fake offence is just another trick they use and that's a subject for a different blog post.

When you are aware of these processes you see them everywhere. There are a lot of other problems in the world today that we need to deal with, but I think concept creep and escalation are amongst the most insidious and problematic.


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