Is `Libby’ A Slur?

I recently used the the word “Jews” in a draft, and someone suggested that might be offensive, and that I should instead used something like “people of Jewish descent.” I asked around, and while most people didn’t see any offense, at least a few thought that a few others would take offense.

I suspect people are using a simple signaling heuristic here. When people insult or denigrate something they tend to do so with short familiar easy to say and understand words and phrases. So when other people want to signal that they do not intend to insult or denigrate something, they instead choose long awkward words and phrases.

Also, it is probably in fact easier for listeners to unthinkingly apply stereotypes when they hear short easy words and phrases. There is less time for thought, and less thought is needed. In contrast, long awkward words and phrases directly invite more conscious reflection on what is being said. In addition, using a noun rather than an adjective to indicate a feature may invite listeners to see that feature as more essential.

This fits with many racial and ethnic slurs and their “politically correct” alternatives. For example, “African american” is less short and easy than “black” or “negro” (which is just “black” in Spanish). And “a Chinese person” is apparently less likely to offend than “a Chinese”.

I’ve been involved in several communities specialized in concepts associated with these relatively easy words: “nanotech”, “transhuman”, and “singularity.” When their concept got popular and used much by others, insiders lost control over their words’ public associations. In each case, insiders then began media campaigns to try to substitute another new phrase.

The new phrases were: “atomically-precise manufacturing”, “humanity plus” and “artificial intelligence risk”. In each case, the new approved phrases were longer and more awkward, and so less likely to be used by a wider public. But even if these new phrases never caught on with outsiders, insiders could still use them to signal loyalty to these groups.

We can also note the related phenomena of people preferring long awkward titles for their jobs, like “Vice President of Social Advertising Media and Sales”. And academics often prefer long awkward names for academic theories and fields, like “construal level theory” instead of “near/far effects”.

While I understand this overall urge, I feel inclined to usually resist it. After all, the more groups for which we use long awkward phrases to show that we are not insulting them, the longer and more awkward our communication becomes. And if we are not willing to treat all groups this way, then our signals become relative – we must end up showing that we care more about not insulting some groups than we do about other groups.

Libertarians may think themselves immune from this. But I’d guess that if libertarians were often called “libbies”, and if that word were often used within insults and criticisms of libertarians, then libertarians might well get in the habit of saying that they felt insulted by that word, saying in effect “You insult us if you do not show your respect for us by using all five syllables of our official name.”

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  • TheBrett

    Calling a black person a “negro” would just be kind of awkward. It’s not really offensive, just unusual and old – like if you called a clown a “harlequin”.

    • Anon

      Please experiment with this and report back about how it works out for you.

      • UWIR

        UNCF seems to be doing pretty well (despite producing commercials that are outright lies).

      • TheBrett

        Touche

  • Friendly-HI

    Good read, all your points seem very plausible to me.

  • endril

    Right-wingers use “libs” for liberals, in a dismissive/derogatory way.

  • milx

    fwiw, as an Orthodox identifying Jew I don’t think there’s anything offensive about “Jews” as a general term (obv context matters), and I’m a little worried actually that acting like its offensive creates an impression that Jewishness itself is somehow an offense.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      A majority who isn’t offended may have less influence on future practices than a small minority who is visibly offended.

      • IMASBA

        Pretty much. A vocal minority can dominate the conversation in such matters (although it’s also easy to falsely dismiss loud voices as being a minority).

      • Jerry

        No Jew is stupid enough to act like “Jew” is a slur. The honorifics game is a game played to keeplay lower status groups in their place by condescension.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        There are plenty of very stupid “Jews.”

  • Will

    Most of the polite terms for groups of people have “people” in the name. This is because offensive attacks on groups of people often involve dehumanization, and putting the word “people” or a synonym in the name implies you are not doing that – you are recognizing their diversity and not suggesting that this one trait subsumes their whole identity.

    For instance I think most now accept “black people” as a perfectly polite term that is shorter and clearer than “African-American”

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      How about “stupid people” or “lazy people”. Still not dehumanized there?

      • Daniel Carrier

        In that case, the fact that the first word has a strong negative connotation has a bigger effect than including “people”.

  • Jess Riedel

    Would be nice to see more evidence comparing this hypothesis to the one that says that the point is to avoid using descriptors of people as nouns (jew, cripple, etc) in favor of adjectives (Jewish person, disabled person). This was mentioned in one of the Facebook comments, and I have heard it elsewhere. The thinking is that this will unconsciously lead us to consider the person more holistically rather than as defined by that quality.

    I agree that some of your examples like nanotech better support your hypothesis. At the same time I think that there are many different ways to add syllables (honorifics, 1-to-1 substitution with longer synonyms, repetition) yet there seems to be a distinct preference for language that dephasizes the attribute as an essential component to the person.

    Of course, the actual grammatical structure that people are selecting for here is an independent question of whether it successfully influences cognition. But either way it doubtlessly serves as a signal of group affiliation

  • rtanen

    Short noun terms often appear slur-like when used in even slightly derogatory contexts. In normal usage, the phrasing seems to only conserve space and does not hint at malicious intent.

    However, if the phrasing could be interpreted in a dehumanizing manner, use of a short noun in place of “[descriptor] people” suggests dehumanizing intent.

    Example: The autistic community uses “autistics” as a noun on a regular basis, not to “reclaim” it, but mostly out of convenience. However, when autistic autism researcher Michelle Dawson summarized a different piece of research on Twitter as “Authors conclude that ‘despite being known to have indifference to pain’ autistics do have headaches”, people who assumed the original article used the word “autistics” found it offensive, because assuming people to be indifferent to pain is already a sign of dehumanization. (For the record: I respond to pain in a manner consistent with not wanting to experience it, and if you ask me to prove more than that, you want the philosophy department, not an MRI scanner.)

    If you want to say something potentially dehumanizing-sounding, taking the time to research preferred language usage is a good way to signal that you care about the group in question.

  • UWIR

    ” “negro” (which is just “black” in Spanish). – See more at: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2015/01/is-libby-a-slur.html#

    The Spanish word has a short “e”, while the English word has a long “e”. This may be a nitpick, but at some point it does matter; “nigger”, is, of course, just the Latin word for “black”, plus some phonemic shifts.

  • Joshua Brulé

    Interesting heuristic. Off the top of my head, supporting examples: “Libby”, “Neocon”

    Potential counterexamples:
    “Yank” is short and generally considered inoffensive.

    “Camel Jockey” is long as generally considered quite offensive. And I’m not entirely sure about it’s history/current status, but I’m pretty sure “Social Justice Warrior” is not a complement.

    • UWIR

      Mentally retarded -> retarded -> retard -> ‘tard

    • IMASBA

      “Yank” has a slightly to strong negative connotation in several countries (and not just cold war adversaries).

      • stevesailer

        If Evelyn Waugh referred to an American as a Yank he was not being complimentary.

  • UWIR

    There’s also the “people first language” memeplex, which is prescriptivism run amok. One of the talking points is that “people in this group prefer this language”, which is just utter rubbish. What, did they take a poll? Whenever someone says “People in Group X prefer usage Y”, what they really mean is “I prefer usage Y, but I’m going to pretend that that I’m not just spouting my personal preference.” This then becomes a political game; the PFL memeplex includes the memes “adjective first language is offensive”, “people who use AFL are boors”, “PFL is superior”, “people who use PFL are superior”, “one should tell people who use AFL how offensive they’re being”. This then becomes a proselytizing memeplex, and the more prevalent it is, the more dangerous it is to not go along.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    Interesting observations, but lacking in psychological foundations. Research on cognitive fluency demonstrates just the opposite: short, easy terms engender liking. (See “Cognitive disfluency: Simpler isn’t always better” – http://disputedissues.blogspot.com/2011/09/cognitive-disfluency-simpler-isnt.html ) [Consider also Zajonc’s classic research on familiarity and liking.] Also, affectionate nicknames are short; vitriolic terms of denunciation tend to be long, e.g. “social-justice warrior.” [HT to another commenter for the example.]

    [But I’d recommend against the term “Jew” – not because of political incorrectness but because it’s become a skunked term, ambiguous between religion, race, or personal sense of identity, the last probably its main reference today.]

    [Some discussion seems to ignore Zipf’s law: commonly used terms generally become short.]

    • oldoddjobs

      kike, wop, jap, dago, limey, paddy, spick, chink, honky, gook, hun, coon, spook, abo, nip, paki, cracker, squaw…….

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        As I said, good observation, but without psychological foundations. [I suspect a countersignaling effect.]

      • oldoddjobs

        Oh sorry, clearly that link settles the whole thing. Glad to know there are “psychological foundations” for why your view is correct. If it suits one story, it’s signalling. If not, counter-signalling can always be called upon. Science!

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The two aren’t exhaustive. If it’s signalling or counter-signalling, it will be prominently short or long–but not intermediate.

      • stevesailer

        Soviet propaganda tended to be full of multi-syllabic slurs.

  • Consider

    Wouldn’t an American person just use “he is Chinese”?

  • Dean Jens

    This might just be me, but I reflexively make a counter-signalling inference when I hear some of these terms; “people of color” sounds to me as though the speaker feels that whomever s/he includes among “people of color” are sufficiently inferior that we need to be careful to use a euphemism to refer to them respectfully.

  • Sieben

    “the longer and more awkward our communication becomes.”

    Is this really the argument you want to make? There’s an upper limit to how awkward this can be even if you mention a Protected Group every sentence.

    “And if we are not willing to treat all groups this way, then our signals become relative – we must end up showing that we care more about not insulting some groups than we do about other groups”

    Why is this embarrassing? The only people who care are SJWs, and they themselves are predicated on signaling that they care about some groups more than others.

  • Tige Gibson

    When people are afraid of words, it’s a blinding beacon that you are oblivious to your own bigotry. Censorship, stamping out words, doesn’t resolve any social problems, it buries them so they can fester. When people aren’t censored they expose their bigotry for all to see.

    I keep saying it, but the message isn’t getting through. Overcome your blatant bias in favor of libertarianism. No one is born libertarian. Libertarians will never be rounded up into camps or gassed. No one will point you out on the street for being libertarian. You are wallowing in privilege and using ideology to convince yourself you are entitled to it and anyone who doesn’t have it doesn’t deserve it.

  • rcousine

    I’m shocked the comments got this far without mentioning Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill”, which drives a lot of this changing jargon (and explains why your older relatives, using terms that were perfectly polite in their youth, sound appalling): http://www.thisistrue.com/blog-the_euphemism_treadmill.html

    That only starts to touch on the complexities of these sorts of names, but if you think of polite terms (especially ones that keep evolving) as a (really annoying) social attentiveness test, then it makes some sort of warped sense.

    • Jason Young

      Having to stay current with changing terminology doesn’t seem annoying to me. If you’re unwilling or unable to monitor changing social trends, or if you’re eager to take an opposing stance towards them, doesn’t that tell me a lot about you and your value as a political ally?

      • oldoddjobs

        Oh, the hideous crime of not “monitoring changing social trends”! Grow up, fool.

      • Jason Young

        I didn’t say it’s a crime, I said it’s informative, and it is. Relatedly, I’ve noticed that those who refuse to follow social trends are (far) more likely to be surly. YMMV

      • oldoddjobs

        Sorry, that was a pointlessly ill-tempered remark. Forgive me.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I think your crime was to be unannoyed (rather than to have found it informative).

        [As in, ‘you’re a better man than I if being informative suffices to stop it from being annoying.’]

      • JohnThackr

        Really? I’ve found those who insist on others following social trends are (far) more likely to be surly. I guess my mileage does vary.

        There certainly are people who intentionally refuse to follow social trends who are surly. But far more surly in my experience are the people who go out of there way to be offended at someone who uses a word without intending offense simply because it used to be the proper word.

      • Jason Young

        I think both the insisters and the flouters tend to be surly, although in different ways and with different objectives.

        You may be right – the norm-enforcers may be surlier than those who are too busy doing their own thing to keep up with word fashions. I’ll pay more attention.

  • Jason Young

    From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, published in 1962:

    Shade said that more than anything on earth he loathed Vulgarity and Brutality, and that one found these two ideally united in racial prejudice. He said that, as a man of letters, he could not help preferring “is a Jew” to “is Jewish” and “is a Negro” to “is colored”; but immediately added that this way of alluding to two kinds of bias in one breath was a good example of careless, or demagogic, lumping (much exploited by Left-Wingers) since it erased the distinction between two historical hells: diabolical persecution and the barbarous traditions of slavery.

    So, this Jew vs. Jewish uncertainty has been around for awhile, and from that I think we can infer that it’s probably not all that offensive (compare Negro). Of course offensiveness always depends on the intent behind the usage, and we’re all pretty good at figuring that out, so you can probably get away with whatever you want as long as you somehow convey attitudinal neutrality.

  • Thomas_L_Holaday

    Cursory Urban Dictionary review shows *libertard* and *lolbertarian* as slurs-in-use. Do you suppose libertarians feel insulted by either?

  • static

    While brevity is certainly important, I see part of this as the difference between a label and a description of some aspect of a person. A label is necessarily more reductive, as it indicates the one attribute is enough to describe that person (as in metonomy, where “suit” stands for a person that wears a suit to work). Of course, in order for a label to be a slur, there is likely some negative association with the attribute, as in the difference between “midgets” and the non-word “talls”.

  • Grant

    As a libertarian I would feel annoyed at being called a “libby”, but would probably get used to and eventually welcome it. Lets face it, “libertarian” is a mouthful.

    However, I am surprised not to see Robin’s nail appear in this post: the word “status”. To me, the use of longer names seems to confer more status; a signal of “you’re worthy enough to devote extra syllables to”. Some examples:

    -The ridiculous lists of titles nobility used to announce themselves.
    -“Potus”, or “mister president”?
    -“Your honor”, or “judge”?
    -“Doctor”, or “Doc”
    etc.

    I cannot think of a single instance in which a shorter title would seem to confer more status than a longer one, at least for an individual.

    It might be interesting see if there is a correlation between the use of “POTUS” vs. “president” and the president’s approval rating.

    • robertwib

      ‘Founder of’ is one counter-example.

  • Thomas_L_Holaday

    More research turned up *Fedora* and *Neckbeard*. Do you suppose Ron Paul supporters are indifferent between being called *Libertarians* or *Neckbeards*?

  • stevesailer

    One pattern is that some very successful groups adopt slurs directed at them: Tories, Whigs, Impressionists, etc.

    Perhaps groups that do that tend to be more successful?

  • stevesailer

    How many sports teams have adopted slurs on themselves?

    Fighting Irish, Yankees, Dodgers, Sooners.

    Is Cornhusker a name that started out as an attack?

    • floccina

      Rajin cajuns comes to mind as the cajun was once considered and insult.

  • stevesailer

    Interestingly, former CNN anchor Jim Clancy just had his three decade career at CNN ended after being denounced for being too well informed about another culture. Clancy used the word “hasbara” to reply to a tweet from a man in the hasbara business.

    It was widely felt that Clancy had it coming.

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  • efalken

    It’s funny when people are so used to using ‘African-American’ they use this to refer to black people in different countries.

    Note ‘white heteronormative cisgendered male’ is long, and those of us in the category generally don’t use it because its either used to denigrate us, or if simplified would be a signal of ‘bad’ ethnic chauvinism (majority groups can’t be tribal without suggesting Nazi sympathies).

  • http://itschancy.wordpress.com/ Corey Yanofsky

    I’ve never heard of “libby”, but I’ve heard the slur “glibertarian” — which is a counter-example to the “short words are insults” stylized fact. Portmanteaus are a great way to fnord up a label.