The Effect of Concepts Creeping to the Left

October 24, 2017 | By | 3 Replies More

In this paper titled, “Why Concepts Creep to the Left,” Jonathan Haidt supplements Nick Haslam’s paper titled “Concept Creep,” in which concepts such as bullying, trauma and addiction morph over time. And there are newish terms that have become prominent and expansive in recent years, “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions.” But these concepts don’t merely change. They change to the whims of the political left. And they especially change for current students and young adults rather than those over 40. In his article, Haidt asks why there is a direction to that change. Haidt writes:

These terms are part of a new conceptual package that includes all of the older concepts long referred to as “political correctness” but with greatly expanded notions of harm, trauma, mental illness, vulnerability, and harassment. These concepts seem to have expanded in just the way that Haslam (2016) describes — horizontally, to take in new kinds of cases (such as adding the reading of novels to the list of traumatizing activities) and vertically, to take in ever less extreme versions of older cases (as is made explicit by the prefix “micro” in the word “microaggression”). In this conceptually augmented political correctness, the central idea seems to be that many college students are so fragile that institutions and right-thinking people must all work together to protect vulnerable individuals from exposure to words and ideas that could damage them in a lasting way. If this protection requires banning certain speakers from campus, or punishing student newspapers that publish opinions that upset the dominant campus sensibility, then so be it.

What are the reasons for this expansion of these concepts to the left. Haidt explores several possibilities:

Lukianoff and I tried to explain the recent spread of trigger warnings and micro-aggression theory by examining broad historical trends, such as increases in protective parenting that began in the 1980s, and we examined more recent changes in federal laws that pressured universities to over-police language use on campus. But Haslam’s explanation of concept creep provides a large and crucial missing piece of the story. In this essay I expand upon a point that Haslam (2016) raised only briefly at the end of his essay: concept creep has happened primarily to concepts related to a left-liberal moral agenda. As he noted:

the concept creep phenomenon broadens moral concern in a way that aligns with a liberal social agenda by defining new kinds of experience as harming and new classes of people as harmed, and it identifies these people as needful of care and

I position concept creep within the recent historical trend of rising political polarization, particularly “affective partisan polarization,” which refers to the increasing hostility felt by partisans toward people on the other side. In brief, the loss of political diversity in many universities–and in psychology in particular–at a time of rising cross-partisan hostility has amplified the already powerful process of motivated reasoning. Concepts are morphing to become ever more useful to “intuitive prosecutors” (Tetlock, 2002) who are prosecuting their enemies in the culture

What does an intuitive prosecutor tend to do? Haidt suggests:

1. Recruit ever more groups and identities that purportedly fall under the protection of diversity and inclusion policies
2. Argue that the damages done to victims are far graver than they initially appear;and
3. Make it ever more difficult for an accused to defend himself, e.g., eliminate the need for mens rea (guilty mind). Haidt argues that this is one of the “central innovations of microaggression theory. Microaggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” In fact, good intentions is no longer a valid defense against such things as racism, sexism, and being a politically liberal professor offers no protection from accusations by young liberal students.

What is the danger of this creep to the left?  Haslan had warned: “concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”  Haidt offers his own illustration of what would happen were the FBI to lurch strongly, but to the political right:

Perhaps we’d even see the creation of brand new legal concepts such as “micro-treasons,” defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward the United States of America.”

Haidt ends by suggesting that the academies embrace diversity not so much to prosecute past conduct, but to make themselves better.

For more, see this article Haidt co-wrote an essay with Greg Lukianoff titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.”


Category: American Culture, Debate, Education, Language, Law, Orwellian

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    So the author describes a common phenomenon, but ascribes it wholly to liberal, left-wing conspiracy? Pardon me, but your hypocrisy is showing. The same thing happens on the right, e.g., outcries that “Happy Holidays” is somehow anti-Christian or that protection against race or gender discrimination is somehow anti-American. Left, Right, or Center, it all falls back to the old adage, “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.”

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    I think the article focuses on problems on the left in that they are taking campuses by storm recently.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      That’s the part with which I am struggling — for what seems like generations the right has complained that universities are too liberal, and that students should be “protected” from such philosophies solely because they are counter to conservative thought. Now that a new concept has emerged, that the students should be “protected” from … well, basically from everything … conservatives complain about that, too.

      While I agree that this “extreme political correctness” is absurd, absurdity is not limited to the liberal side of the political spectrum. The article mentions the danger of “micro-treasons” as an example of this implemented in reverse; to that I respond by mentioning the furor over protests during the National Anthem, accusations about American Flag lapel pins, birtherism, etc., etc., etc., to demonstrate that it has already happened. And nobody on the right objects to it. THAT is the hypocrisy to which I refer.

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