What strikes me, considering controversies I write about within this framework, is that the “vertical creep” of prejudice isn’t necessarily the core reason people are at loggerheads.
Large majorities in America believe that there should be a powerful stigma against prejudice, as classically defined. If you’re overtly hostile to members of a racial or ethnic group, I don’t want you in my home or working for my company or living next door. Like most people I know, there is no group for whom I feel more aversion than racists and few political causes that I feel as strongly about as opposing prejudice.
Nor do I object to the academics who study lesser kinds of prejudice.
It’s useful to understand and study the fact that there are people “who deny personal prejudice but hold aversions … not based on hostile antipathy but on fear, unease, or discomfort.” I think that phenomenon is damaging and worthy of remedy.
I’m grateful for the scholars who are studying implicit bias, too.
But it seems like there ought to be clearly distinguishable words and concepts for klansmen and demagogues who deliberately stoke racial anxieties, on the one hand, and college students who take a test that suggests that they have mild, negative associations about a racial group, without harboring any animosity toward people in that group, acting badly toward any members of that group, or advocating for anything but full equality on the other. Those college students may be labeled “prejudiced” or “racist,” but few people will be inclined to exclude them from their homes or their workplaces.
When social-justice progressives on college campuses call for peers to be punished, socially or administratively, for “microaggressions,” like saying the word “fútbol” instead of soccer, or donning a tiny sombrero at a tequila party, or chalking Trump 2016 on a sidewalk, I wonder if part of what’s going on is that the punishment-seekers are saying, “That’s prejudiced” or “That’s racist,” and meaning, “That’s racist, the category that we all agree should be maximally stigmatized.” Whereas their critics reply, “No, that isn’t racist,” or “You’re wrong,” meaning not that the behavior at issue is or isn’t coherently objectionable in a way worth interrogating, but that, “Right or wrong, that behavior clearly doesn’t fall into the category of things that should, almost all of us have agreed, be maximally stigmatized.”
In this telling, “concept creep” exacerbates failures to communicate.
When a concept is stretched to include “milder, subtler, or less extreme phenomena than those to which they referred at an earlier time,” any earlier judgment or consensus about how best to respond to that concept no longer applies.
Why Are So Many Concepts Creeping In the Same Direction?
Concept creep is inevitable and vital if society is to make good use of new information. But why has the direction of concept creep, across so many different concepts, trended toward greater sensitivity to harm as opposed to lesser sensitivity?