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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