Crying “Crying Wolf”

Suppose that instead of one shepherd boy, there are a few dozen. They are tired of the villagers dismissing their complaints about less threatening creatures like stray dogs and coyotes. One of them proposes a plan: they will start using the word “wolf” to refer to all menacing animals. They agree and the new usage catches on. For a while, the villagers are indeed more responsive to their complaints. The plan backfires, however, when a real wolf arrives and cries of “Wolf!” fail to trigger the alarm they once did.

The above variation on the classic fable of the boy who cried wolf is by Spencer Case, who recently earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado. He uses the story in an article at Quillette to illustrate what he calls “concept inflation.”

Concept inflation occurs, Case says, “when speakers loosen the usage of an emotionally impactful word in order to manipulate an audience.” He thinks that certain uses of terms like “violence,” “gaslighting,” “racism,” and “sexism” are often deployed in concept-inflating ways:

Most dictionary definitions of “violence” mention physical harm or force. Academics, ignoring common usage, speak of “administrative violence,” “data violence,” “epistemic violence” and other heretofore unknown forms of violence. Philosopher Kristie Dotson defines the last of these as follows: “Epistemic violence in testimony is a refusal, intentional or unintentional, of an audience to communicatively reciprocate a linguistic exchange owing to pernicious ignorance.”

What Dotson calls “epistemic violence” isn’t violence according to ordinary usage or the dictionary. If intellectuals can commandeer the word “violence,” then presumably they can do the same with stronger words. So why not call epistemic violence “epistemic rape”? Indeed, why not “epistemic genocide”? After all, genocide is destroying a people in whole or in part, and part of destroying a people is destroying its voice. Maybe that can be done through subtle acts of silencing. This is absurd, of course, but there’s no principled way to stop moves like this if we accept coinages like “epistemic violence.”

What’s bad about concept inflation, according to Case? One thing is that it makes certain terms less effective:

When speakers expand the reference of a word in order to attach its associations to new things, they dilute the associations of the original word. Just as printing too much paper currency diminishes the value of the currency, concept inflation degrades the rhetorical effect of inflated words and phrases.

Another is that it’s like lying:

Immanuel Kant observed that lying couldn’t be effective in a world where everybody lied, since no one would be believed. Just as lying is parasitic on a truth norm, concept inflation is parasitic on norms of usage.

It’s also overly provocative: it’s “a strategy for activating disproportionate or unreasonable moral responses.”

Case thinks we shouldn’t engage in concept inflation, and should call people on it when they do it. If you see something, say something. Case writes:

We all have the responsibility to be good stewards of the languages we speak. We shape it when we decide to accept or reject new coinages or expressions… When we allow sloppy language to proliferate—for example, when we use the word “literally” to mean “metaphorically”—we degrade language and make it harder for everyone to communicate. This is analogous to polluting a common resource like the water or air. If some way of using a word seems fishy, then take your own reaction seriously and make your concern known. 

What should we make of concept inflation? Certainly the meanings of words change over time, and such changes may be good or bad in various ways. I’m not sure that concept inflation is bad in the ways Case identifies, though.

I’ve heard the phrase “epistemic violence” hundreds of times. Has this “degraded the rhetorical effect” of the word “violence” for me? I don’t think so. When I first heard it, I did have questions; like Case, I tend to associate “violence” with physical aggression. But then I was reminded of all of the ways in which we already use “violence” metaphorically, to describe coughing fits, brush strokes, turns, color clashes, etc. No one objects to using “violence” in these descriptions, even though these are not instances of physical aggression. The use of “violence” in these contexts does not seem to render it meaningless when it’s deployed in more traditional ways.

It may be worth observing that the metaphorical and hyperbolic uses of only certain terms end up coming in for criticism along these lines. Consider the phrase “attack on free speech.” It has been used to describe, among other things, requests to address people politely, criticisms of people’s speech, blog comment moderation, withdrawals of invitations to speak, and the like. These phenomenon do not exemplify the primary definitions of “attack,” which tend to include references to aggression, physical force, injury, even weapons. Yet I don’t recall anyone raising concerns about concept inflation when hearing about “attacks” on free speech. We seem to have been able to cope just fine with whatever loss of “rhetorical effect” the word “attack” has suffered through its metaphorical and hyperbolic use. Why worry about “violence” then?

(We’ve seen this kind of pattern before: structurally similar phenomena receiving either dismissive or approving labeling depending on whether it serves the interests of the less or more powerful.)

Let’s go back to Case’s fable. Why are the shepherd boys crying wolf? “They are tired of the villagers dismissing their complaints about less threatening creatures like stray dogs and coyotes.” Maybe dogs and coyotes are less dangerous than wolves, but they could pose serious problems for the boys nonetheless, and no one’s paying attention to these problems. The boys have been led to believe that the only way they are going to get help is by crying wolf.

This aspect of the story doesn’t get much attention from Case, but I think it’s crucial. Case thinks that concept inflation is bad and that the way to counter it is to take care with our language. How about taking care with people? If the other villagers had been listening to the shepherd boys and had been understanding of their problem, the boys would not have had to resort to crying wolf. But they were unheard, and crying wolf reasonably seemed like their best option. Likewise, those Case accuses of concept inflation might also be unheard: they don’t believe they are being listened to, or that their problems are being taken sufficiently seriously. And so perhaps they are reasonably drawn to bring attention to their problems with more dramatic turns of phrase.

This suggests that if one is opposed to concept inflation, a way of combating it is by listening to people and taking their concerns seriously.

If one cares about there being a culture of robust, quality, disagreement, an element of that is being vigilant about restrictions on and pressures against speaking up. But another that’s just as important is being careful to actually hear what others are saying.

To label an instance of speech “political correctness” is to brand it an ignorable complaint of the oversensitive. To label an instance of speech “virtue signaling” or “moral grandstanding” is to accuse it of being made in self-serving bad faith. To label an instance of speech “concept inflation” is to call it a kind of harmful lying. These are all labels that tell us to dismiss what is being said, rather than try to understand it or engage with its substance.

We already pretty good at not listening to others, to not taking seriously experiences different from our own, to not hearing what would disturb our complacency. If we care about ideas—and if we care about people—we should be wary of means that make it easier for us to dismiss them.

photo of “Head On” by Cai Guo Qiang

(Note: Dr. Case sent me a link to his Quillete article earlier this month and we discussed it in a series of emails which covered some of the aforementioned points. At the end of that exchange, he voiced his preference for a critical post about his article rather than none.)

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