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Concept Inflation Vs. Constructive Analogy

Ville Kokko

Posted on February 15, 2019 03:09

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Emotionally loaded words can be used inappropriately but, as exemplified in an article by Spencer Case, this accusation can also be made inappropriately.

In "The Boy Who inflated the Concept of 'Wolf'," Spencer Case argues that it's not wise to rhetorically use concepts in such vague ways they lose their power. While this is a concern I agree with, I disagree with how Case applies it.

As defined by Case, concept inflation is when a word – say, "violence" – is used so broadly that it loses its original meaning and force. Related is implicit hyperbole, where an emotionally loaded word is used to invoke associations, say of totalitarianism, that are not said out loud but are nevertheless evoked in the audience's mind.

I'm a fan of George Orwell. I know these exist. However, I'm not convinced Case can see where they end and something else begins.

Case points out that there can be good concept expansion:

"Suppose that in a stratified society only killing a noble person is called “murder.” Reformers who believe in the equal moral worth of nobles and peasants might start calling the unjustified killing of peasants “murder” too. Because the original word was artificially gerrymandered to begin with, the revision is principled and not manipulative."

This principle can be applied more broadly – and to some examples Case disagrees with.

Case argues that "violence" is typically seen as physical violence, and hence to use it in other ways is inflating the concept.

Suppose we were in a situation when only physical violence was called "violence", and further, existent behavior like verbal bullying was not taken seriously enough. People would know "violence" is wrong, has negative impacts on the victim and so on.

Then someone looks at the effects of verbal bullying and the like and says that this too is "violence" because it's analogously wrong and has analogous negative effects that need to be taken seriously.

That's principled. It's a good analogy. It risks inflation as the next step when people jump on the concept expansion bandwagon, which I think has happened, but it's necessary.

(I've no space to examine the other example of gaslighting, but it's ironic that Case cites a dictionary definition that does not mention lying, then adds it's typically characterized by lying, and goes on to speak against uses of "gaslighting" that don't involve lying as inflating the concept.)

With implicit hyperbole, it's only that if you sneak in the emotional impact without justifying it. A lot of people expanding the use of loaded words are perfectly willing to stand behind them, explain why, in Case's example, "erasing" people in their terms is real and is bad even if it doesn't involve killing people.

I'm pretty sure using "erasure" in this sense has a theoretical background. It still partly fits Case's characterization of "attempt[ing] to persuade not by presenting reasons" but emotionally. However, what about when the use of loaded words is deliberate, and the people doing it are willing, even keen, to explain why the issue is important and loaded words are needed to highlight that? Then the question is only whether they're right.

Ville Kokko

Posted on February 15, 2019 03:09

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