Call Harm, Not Foul

Note: The links in this piece are particularly good; I recommend clicking around.

Sexist. Racist. Homophobic. The all-purpose “bigot”. We have these words for a reason. They are used to label people, actions, institutions and ideas which exhibit the worst elements of society. They’re used when we want people to listen, to pay attention, to take us seriously when we are desperately trying to point out the inequality, the inanity, the inhumanity of punishing gender and racial and sexual and ethnic and religious minorities for being different. We want to push people to do everything they can not to be sexist, not to be racist, not to be the kind of person they shouldn’t be.

And we did it. Hooray! It is now the worst thing in the world to be a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. That’s why people will do everything in their power to make sure that their actions, ideas and institutions aren’t seen or construed that way. (Except, of course, change their actions, ideas and institutions.) It is offensive, now, to be called a racist. There is literally nothing in the world that cannot follow the words, “I’m not a racist but…” Everyone else is the real sexist/racist/etc for pointing out sexism/racism/etc. We ostensibly live in a post-racial and post-feminist age.

All of this makes it sadly true now that to call something or someone racist or sexist is often seen both as too charged to provoke productive discussion and too passé to warrant true engagement. This poses a problem for the people who are looking to point out and eradicate the various forms of bigotry, since people are no longer (if they ever were) willing to listen to their participation in the problem.

Now, there are obviously many times when the outright calling out of bigotry remains important and useful, even if it’s not met with the best of responses, both in terms of persuasive tactics and because it is often appropriate for marginalized people to express their anger the way they see fit. But I think there are also times when a different approach might be useful. When we’re engaging in conversation with people who are listening (that is, not criticizing public figures or public events) and we’d like to convince them of our point of view, we could drop the actual words of sexist, racist, bigot, misogynist, homophobe, etc, at least some of the time. Even if we’re right, and even if we’d very much prefer to call a spade a spade. Instead, we describe what we mean by those words. Why?

1. When we call someone something bad, especially when they don’t think of themselves that way (i.e. as a racist, sexist, etc.), their impression is that we are labeling them a Bad Person and The Enemy. It’s comes off like grabbing someone off the street, slapping green armor and an insignia on them and saying, “Welcome to Green Army. I hate you.” It makes further productive conversation almost impossible, because now they’re on the defensive. Even if it’s true, it is legitimately hard and uncomfortable to be told you’re  a bad person or doing something bad. So they feel they’re being personally attacked, and that they have no way out except to fight back. They’re going to want to win, not listen. We have killed their mind, and possibly our own as well.

2. The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.

3. Sometimes the words make the discussion more muddled instead of more clear. In the social justice context, we mean totally different things by ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ than other people do. Atheists well know how there seems to be a real disconnect on what different people mean by religious liberty. Gay rights activists often have experience of having religious conservatives swear up and down that their opposition to marriage equality and other legal action just. Isn’t. hateful. And everyone who’s tried to point out problematic language and been told that “offense is taken, not given” is similarly aware that offensiveness means really different things to different people.

That means we’re using words that the people we’re talking to just don’t get or genuinely don’t feel apply to them. That means all we get for our effort is confusion, anger and offense. They really think our accusations are wrong or don’t make sense, so instead of the sting of a well-crafted attack, all they can sense is the barrage of bad feeling coming their way, to which they do not respond well. The complexity of the issues we’re tackling is manifesting as perceived imprecision and  inaccuracy. That’s bad news for a productive conversation.

4. That mess (described in #3) is just what we get for calling things and ideas and political positions sexist or racist or homophobic. It gets way more complicated when we think about calling people those things. What does it actually mean, to call someone a bigot? Is it a claim about what they ‘really’ ‘truly’ believe, about their internal psychology? Is it a claim that there is something fundamentally sexist/racist/anti-atheist/etc about them? Does it mean they will always be those things? Those are strange and difficult claims to make.

Luckily, we don’t need to assert anything about people’s essential qualities or hidden beliefs to criticize their thinking and behavior or talk about the effects they’re having on people, movements, communities and societies. The words can complicate a conversation that could be simpler and more focused.

5. Someone being sexist or racist is hard to prove in general, and especially hard to prove to the person in question. It’s not impossible, and in many cases it is absolutely worth doing. But why do the harder thing when it’s easier to prove things about harm? We know about stereotype threat and chilly climates and implicit bias and the erasure of atheists from public life and so many other things. Why get mired in definitions when we can prove the problem directly?

6. Finally, the big abstract nature of these concepts can remove our thoughts and our discourse from what’s actually at stake: Discrimination, violence, pain, unfairness, harassment, hurt.

What do we do then? We do what any good rationalist does when words are getting in the way: we Taboo them, which means getting our ideas across without the words themselves. Does that mean putting on kid gloves? Does it mean letting bad people get away with not getting called out on their badness? No. It just means we replace the words in question with what we mean by them.

When we say a policy is religiously illiberal, what we mean is that a powerful religious group is using its power to impose its ideas and beliefs on others. When we say someone is sexist, we mean that they buy and feed into harmful negative stereotypes about women that make it harder for women to be treated equally. When we say a group is homophobic, we mean that it supports ideas and policies that hurt queer people and deny them their rights. So let’s say those things.

As I said above (and elsewhere), this analysis doesn’t always apply. After all, we have these words for a reason; they can often convey precisely what we mean them to. But I think this approach is really useful for conversations in private or on the internet with actual people who might feel personally offended by being directly or almost directly called a bigot of some kind. It might even just be good as an exercise, so that we can make sure we know what claims we’re making and why. Furthermore, there is certainly room to combine this approach with the more traditional one, using words that have the rhetorical punch and emotional resonance we’re looking for but also defining them carefully and supplying ample evidence. The core element of this approach is simply that we consider the effects our words have on the people we’re looking to convince and change, and make decisions about our language accordingly.

When we do, the benefits abound. Our conversations get more productive, since everyone is using the same language to talk about the same things. We get to argue about the facts, and not about definitions. There’s less defensiveness all around, since no one’s character is being impugned. Our arguments are more accurate, since we’re talking directly about the subject matter at hand instead of proxies for it. Furthermore, harm and consequences are things we can have direct evidence for, which we can then demonstrate to other people. Best of all, our arguments get more compelling, since we’re pointing out the actual harm to actual people that comes from people acting badly, which makes it more emotionally resonant and harder to ignore.

We are people who argue. We want to convince people. Let’s not give anyone an excuse not to listen to us. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to be convinced by us. Let’s give ourselves the best chance of making the world into something better.

Note: I wrote about this issue in a feminist context extensively on a pseudonymous blog. If you’re interested in reading it, feel free to send me a private message.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

18 thoughts on “Call Harm, Not Foul

  1. I was going to respond to your questions on Twitter, then discovered 140 characters would not suffice. I agree with this post.

    I think it’s difficult to know where to draw the line on helpful critique of language vs. tone trolling or accommodationism. It depends a lot on context. I like “Call harm, not foul”, as a shorthand philosophy. Lately, I’ve been coming at the same language problem from the other direction, trying to explain that racism isn’t just that evilterrible caricature we think of, but mostly a product of regular people believing false things. I don’t really know which is the better approach: changing which words we use, or changing the understanding of the words we’re already using.

    I guess all in all, for me, it’s not a question of whether or not your advice is good advice (I think it is), but when it’s appropriate to give it to someone. When is it being overly concerned with tone, and when is it a valid point to raise? I honestly have no idea what the answer is on that.

    • I think this comment expresses my reaction better than I can, so I’ll just associate myself with it. I’ll add only that I wonder if the converts made with this mechanism will find it as easy to then move into social justice discourse that uses the ‘fouls’ than those who have parsed the take on those words as meant by those inside the movement,

      • Quite an interesting question. Firstly, yes. I think that yes, people will find it easier to buy into the language and ideas of the SJ community when they’ve had the ideas defined to them in a way that makes sense to them. Secondly, I think that this mechanism brings in people who otherwise wouldn’t be brought in at all, so if there’s any chance they will become accustomed to the social justice language and community, that’s to the good.

        I think we’re not used to the idea of intentionally lowering the barriers to entry to our movement, because it feels like “dumbing it down” or weakening it in some way. So while your worries are reasonable, I think in the end this will prove to be a good move.

    • I’m completely with you. I think the questions you raised are the right ones, and they are hard. I am very much coming from a place of trying to correct a certain type of discourse, that occurs between people who are in a position to do the convincing/persuasive type of argument and who claim that’s what they want and don’t do it as well as I think they could. But there’s all kinds of other discourse happening as well, changing the way people understand words, calling out people who are doing some really severe and immediate harm, and doing criticism of public events and figures. All of these factor in in different ways, and aren’t subject to the analysis I provide here. That’s why I wrote this piece: . Perhaps in order to be clear I should provide a disclaimer about this caveat.

      I do think those kinds of discourse are important, and I do think that it’s not always appropriate to challenge the way people are conducting themselves. But I do think there’s a sense floating around that you either have to be totally in it, with the accusations and the harshness, or you’re out, and you’re apologizing for oppression. I think there’s a way to do both, where we are uncompromising in our criticism of that which is wrong, but judicious in the way we convey that criticism, so as to have the maximum effect. That’s the idea I want to get across, so that people will think about what impact they’re having and what impact they want to have.

      As I said, I don’t have the answers, but I think that good and important arguments can be made that certain types of arguments/conversations/discussions warrant more of this approach, and others warrant a different one. It’s worth talking about, since I’m not really concerned with tone so much as effectiveness, as Dan Fincke discusses wonderfully here:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • I think my personal thoughts in this have a lot to do with my trying to boil down when I think it’s okay to critique the language of someone who isn’t specifically asking for that critique. Outside of that context, I agree with everything here and in the links. Inside that context is what I, personally, struggle with the most.

        Calling people bigots is a really good example, the way you talk about here. Because most of the time I see people respond badly to being accused of bigotry, the accusation is justified, in the literal, technical sense that they are doing something that fits a reasonable, functional definition of bigotry. But they respond badly for reasons I also understand, and there are times when I do want to comment, myself, on the language people use to call out bigotry. Even when those people are technically correct, and even when they aren’t asking my advice.

        The problem is that that kind of tone advice is so incredibly ubiquitous among people those who just want to shut down the argument, it’s so frequently a tool for getting to “Shut up, that’s why!” that I’m wary of ever using it. I think about all the people I’ve talked to who wish Dawkins would be a little less “extreme”, for example, and vehemently disagree with all of them. Not only do I think his manner of engaging with atheist issues is rational, I think it provides a good example of how being extreme (relative to social norms) can do a lot to move the overton window.


        • Ah, yes. I struggle with this, too. If it’s a public discussion (like a forum or thread on facebook or a blog or reddit, or even in a public conversation in real life), and I see that kind of thing happen, I usually try to jump in and give the charitable/diligent/persuasive analysis, response, in a way that doesn’t criticize the original. For example, you could say to someone who’s not responding well, “Hey, X called you a bigot because the things you’re doing fit into our understanding of bigotry, which are the kinds of things that have effects A, B, C. You probably aren’t intending to cause harm, but you’re spreading false and harmful stereotypes and it might be good to rethink them.” This injects the conversation with the approach we like, without criticizing or even directly addressing the original. That way, we make the whole conversation better.

          (If you care, I did something like that here:

          When it’s not a public discussion, it’s probably good to stay out, unless you know the person well, because of exactly the problems you’ve listed here, but it definitely depends on context.

          What do you think?

          • I think that makes sense. And I agree. And I like your response to that post. I’m not sure I would’ve had the stamina for something that in-depth.

            In a way, I think this all boils down to inferential distance problems. The problem with directing insult and anger at someone like that guy who’s rejecting modern feminism is that he doesn’t understand where that anger comes from, and so it’s logical for him to assume it’s irrational. The problem with him using the language he did to reject feminism is that so many people who aren’t thoughtful about these issues have used the very similar language to denigrate feminism, and by doing the same thing, he is unwittingly associating himself with that long history of determined ignorance. He is making himself look just like the people who suck. If some people, in response, are saying “Well, if it looks like a duck…”, can we blame them?

            That seems like the core of the issue. The responses seem entirely rational within the inferential context of the people on either side of the divide on the issue. So do we say, “Hey, guy, you’re the privileged one, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself to bridge this gap”, or “Hey, feminist, you’re the one expressing an issue, it’s your responsibility to educate sufficiently to bridge this gap”? Or both? Maybe there’s no point in placing that responsibility at all, I don’t know.

            I remember back when the whole Penny Arcade Dickwolves thing happened, Jerry Holkins made a post that, among other things, talked about how he didn’t think any meaningful form of conversation was possible between them and the people accusing them of perpetuating rape culture. I think he was wrong, but I think he was touching on the crux of the issue: there’s this huge gap, and in a lot of cases there’s no one to blame for the gap, and no one on whom it’s reasonable to put all the responsibility for bridging it, but it must be bridged somehow.

            • Oh man, you have no idea how much I think about inferential distances. That’s actually an upcoming post in this series. I’ll wait on my response to this until I write that one, definitely taking this stuff into consideration, and we’ll see if that one answers your question.

          • Hahahaha, I thought I was the only one! :-p

      • On an unrelated note, I had no idea who you were when I saw you speak on the marriage and rationality panel last month, but you did an awesome job and you and Matt were my favorite panelists 🙂

  2. […] is a reposting of some comments I made on this awesome post about arguing effectively. I liked the wording I used so much I decided I wanted to post this stuff here, too, because I […]

  3. […] How to Argue: Call Harm, Not Foul: The brilliant piece that spawned this post. […]

  4. […] Call Harm, not Foul: Being Careful About Language, Especially Calling People Racist/Sexist/Etc by Chana Messinger […]

  5. bemused_leftist says:

    As an outsider wandering in, may I just say that changing the meaning of words is in itself confusing and disturbing — therefore causing harm. Especially if they are words with an established strong negative connotation, now being expanded to cover things only theoretically connected with the original meaning.

  6. […] the harm rather than merely the name of the harm would also likely defuse some of the rather pathetic complaints that develop when someone of the […]

  7. […] may happen with ideas like “Shut up and listen”, “Check your privilege”, the difference between calling harm and calling foul, […]

  8. […] How to Argue: Call Harm, Not Foul: The brilliant piece that spawned this post. […]

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