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Call Me Crazy, But…

by Steven Novella, Sep 24 2012

Elyse over at Skepchick has written an interesting commentary on the use of potentially hurtful language, such as colloquial use of the term “crazy.” Her conclusion:

That maybe, if someone tells me that a term hurts them, I don’t get to decide whether or not I’m actually hurting them. I know they’re hurt. My only decision is whether or not I want to keep hurting them or not. Usually, the answer is no.

The comments range the spectrum of opinion from full agreement to complete disagreement. I do agree with Elyse that this is a fascinating discussion, partly, in my opinion, because there is no objective answer. I would like to offer my opinion and explore some angles of this issue that were not addressed by Elyse or the commenters.

Taking an ethical view, there appear to be several legitimate ethical principles at stake with the question of using potentially offensive language. One principle is that of nonmaleficience - the directive not to inflict evil or cause harm to others; in this case the harm is psychological due to offensive language. Another principle is that of personal liberty, in this case freedom of expression. These two principles appear to be at odds with respect to the question of offensive language.

Many of those defending the position that offensive language should be avoided at all costs appear to be making what philosophers call a deontological argument – that the ethical principle to avoid harm amounts to an absolute duty. Deontological arguments, however, are problematic, especially when different ethical principles clash.

In my opinion, there is no simple rule that you can apply to such situations. There is no way around making an (often complex) individual judgement that is laden with personal values. In other words – there is no scientifically correct or absolute answer to such questions. The best you can hope for is an internally consistent logical position.

As an example of the above principles at work, let’s say that someone takes offense and is deeply emotionally hurt by a work of art on public display. (It may offend their religious or ideological beliefs, or they may find it offensive to some aspect of their identity). What should prevail in such situations – the artist’s freedom of expression, their freedom even to deliberately offend segments of the society, or the right of individuals not to be offended by works of art they may happen upon in a museum or publicly on display? As an author, did Salman Rushdie have the right to write a book that was profoundly offensive to a large number of Muslims?

Applying all this specifically to the question of language, there is another aspect of this discussion that I feel is critical background and that is the nature of human language itself. Humans tend to reason through analogy. (This is related to our strength at pattern recognition). There is even a phenomenon psychologists called “embodied cognition” in which we begin with a simple physical concept and use that to help us understand and think about more abstract concepts. Therefore certain attitudes may be “warm” or “cold,” an argument is “weak,” authority figures are physically “above” their underlings, etc.

Combine this with the fact that word use evolves over time. So individual words may start their life with a specific physical meaning, then get applied to a more abstract concept, which can evolve over time to be very different from its original meaning. One dramatic example is the use of the word “hysterical.” I don’t think many people would take offense if I said I thought a particularly funny joke was hysterical or that someone was hysterical with laughter. The word, however, has its origin in the notion that some women’s mental illnesses were the result literally of the influence of their uterus, hence the older (but still used) meaning of hysterical as emotionally out of control. If, therefore, I characterized a woman who was upset as hysterical that might be seen as dismissive and sexist.

So – is “hysterical” offensive or not? Well, it depends on context. Arguing that “hysterical” should be deemed offensive based purely on its original meaning is an example of the genetic fallacy – judging something on its origins rather than its current use.

I would argue that because of the two effects of embodied cognition and the tendency for word use to creep over time, it is problematic to require that our everyday colloquial speech be purged of any words that can potentially have negative connotations. If I use the word “sinister,” for example, am I insulting everyone who is left-handed?

Applying all of this to some of the recent examples discussed in Elyse’s post and comments, is it “ableist” to use the term “crazy?” I don’t think there is any simple objective answer to this. I reject the absolute criterion that if someone feels hurt that by definition it is offensive. I think we can apply other criteria to evaluating whether or not requesting not to use a specific term is reasonable.

In my opinion, the term crazy has developed some specific meanings that have drifted significantly from its origin of “mentally ill.” One can be said to be “crazy in love.” Often the term is used to mean that an idea is extreme, or exceptionally out of the ordinary. It is an established and benign part of the vernacular.

Using the term “retarded” to mean stupid or silly is different. That one is still too close to home, and its use seems insensitive to me. It is intended to mean, in an insulting way, that someone is like a person who is mentally retarded.

I was recently told that use of the term “lame” is also abelist. I have thought about this, and just don’t buy it. Using the term “lame” to mean a performance or work that is the result of poor talent, skill, or effort is a completely benign use of the word that is sufficiently removed from the original meaning of having a physical disability. I also don’t think there is another world that has the precise connotation of “lame.” In the case in question I substituted the word “weak”, but isn’t that just another example of embodied cognition? Is calling a bad idea “weak” an insult to people with muscular dystrophy who are physically weak through no fault of their own?

In the end I think it is ineluctable that there is a subjective judgement involved in which terms are offensive and which aren’t. There is a spectrum from fairly universally regarded as genuinely offensive, and so inoffensive that they are useful as mocking examples of excessive political correctness. But just because there is a spectrum does not mean there aren’t words that are reasonably considered offensive. Offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder.

It is quite a separate question, however, as to whether or not it is ever appropriate to use words that are potentially offensive to others. Here we are all left to our own devices, morals, intentions, and personalities. Some may be deliberately offensive as part of activist speech or artistic expression. Others may find that it is useful, even necessary, to vigilantly avoid any potentially offensive terms (such as in mass marketing, politics, or certain professional relationships). While still others may find that everyday social situations call for a reasonable attempt to avoid clearly offensive language or terms, while not obsessively censoring everyday colloquial speech.

Looked at another way, if we grant that there is a responsibility to civility if we desire to function in society, where does that responsibility lie? One premise of Elyse’s stated position is that the responsibility lies entirely with the speaker. Rather, I would propose that there is a shared responsibility. You can make a reasonable argument that speakers should make an attempt to be aware of the effect that what they say, including their word choice, has on others. I would also argue that people should make a reasonable attempt to not be thin-skinned, to not take offense where none was intended, and to accommodate for the vagaries of everyday speech.

As with many things that involve a moral judgment, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Rather we might strive for a reasonable balance of considerations. Too far to one end results in the “political correctness police,” while too far the other way results in “free speech Nazis.” If you feel offended at either of those terms, well, perhaps that was my intent.

62 Responses to “Call Me Crazy, But…”

  1. David Hewitt says:

    I agree that the responsibility for civility is a shared one; this is how civilization really works. But the responsibility is too often shouldered by only one party involved. Many people lack the emotional and psychological maturity to be civil in discourse, particularly with the anonymity conferred by online communication forums. Being aware of one’s language is not a prominent feature of today’s communication. Two hundred years ago (for example), Thomas Jefferson wrote and re-wrote letters several times, just to be certain that his word choices and phrasing communicated his intended meaning. How many people bother even to re-read and edit a comment to a blog post before clicking “submit”?

  2. Trimegistus says:

    There is also the huge issue of hypocrisy. The same bien-pensants who insist on avoiding “ableist” language and not giving offense to Muslims seem quite content with Broadway plays like “The Book of Mormon” which intentionally attacks a religion (a religion which actually suffered bloody repression in the U.S.A., one might add). It all looks like a huge game of Victimhood Poker to me.

    It’s also blatantly a power game. It’s all about being able to control what other people do and say — and feel virtuous for bossing them around. A kind of passive-aggressive fascism.

    It seems that skeptics, above all, should adhere to a single, objective standard. “Hurtful” speech is a bad thing? Find, then tell Mr. Prothero to stop insulting Christians. Oh, you want to be able to insult people you don’t like? Then quit bellyaching when someone says “that’s so gay.”

    • Student says:

      Going good with the first two paragraphs… but then straight downhill.

      There’s a problem with that solution. What is or is not offensive is subjective-twice. It depends on what I may consider offensive, and what someone else considers offensive. If our subjective assessments are at odds, we can offend each other without intending to. The offensiveness of words is not objective. Asking that all skeptics adhere to the same standard is equally absurd. If I want to be offensive, I’ll do it, and I’ll be breaching what I consider offensive, which may differ from you. Being offensive has its place, and its uses.

      And in the last, that’s a nice case of the false equivalency. If I use the word gay to mean anything that I think is bad, when it also refers to a group of people, I’m doing so in a way that’s deliberately insulting, for the use of associating them with things which are undesirable. If I disagree with someone’s ideas, and think that they’re irrational, or that they should not try to force them on others, it’s not me being offensive. The reason not to call things we don’t like “gay” is because it is senselessly hurtful to blameless people. Whereas I hardly can think of a terrible amount of cases where Prothero has gone out of his way to insult Christians. Finally, the fallacy lies in the equivocation: The degree of offensiveness need not be the same. If I swear in public, I’ll probably offend someone. If I rant curse-laden tirades at random people in public, I’ll offend them more. There are magnitudes and degrees that people can be offended to. Feeling justified in causing offense in one case does not necessarily justify the other.

    • tmac57 says:

      As long as you stay within the bounds of the law,then feel free to make yourself come off as a total ass to others.
      Just don’t be surprised when they think that you are a total ass.

    • Beelzebud says:

      You didn’t actually read the whole article, did you?

      You whine about “victimhood poker”, and end your rant playing a victim. Not only that but you need some perspective of what fascism actually is. Asking people to think about not offending others is as far removed from fascism as it gets.

      • Erin Ellis says:

        “Asking someone to think about not offending others” is not the same as trying to shame people into altering their language to fit one’s own definition of proper language.

        It is not “asking” if the person deciding to not change their language will painted as a jerk or worse.

    • Phea says:

      So… is, “gay”, the new, “lame”?

  3. TexasSkeptic says:

    I was verbally abused on Skepchick, so gave ‘em up a couple of years ago.

    • Chris Howard says:

      That’s a shame.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      Speaking of word usage, Skepchick uses the written word. I don’t quite get how you were verbally abused.

      • tmac57 says:

        Some of the sentences must have contained verbs.

        My very first post on Skepchick was attacked,mainly because the attacker misunderstood my comment.I thought WTF,here I am a feminist male,who is trying to join a community that I agree with,and no sooner have I spoken,than I have been browbeaten by someone,without them even giving me the benefit of the doubt.
        However,having said that,I chalked it up to an anomalous event,and continued lurking,and sometime commenting,until the arguments just got too tiresome for me,and now I only visit occasionally.
        It is a shame,because they post some interesting articles,but I just can’t stand the thin skinned attitudes on both sides of the gender issues,which I support talking about,just not in a destructive way.

      • Fenris says:

        Glad I’m not the only one tmac57. I gave up on posting at Skepchick after the exact same experience. My first time posting (where I disagreed) I found my words completely distorted out of their intended meaning with no attempt to understand what I was saying. I spent the whole debate trying to correct misperceptions and sometimes misquotes. The attitude at skepchick was one of: “you’re either with us or against us” and everyone in the “against” crowd had their words stripped of any intended meaning and recast into the worst possible light.

        It ended up being impossible to have a reasonable debate because I couldn’t get past their misconceptions of my position. Maybe, someday I’ll go back and see if it’s any better.

      • Retired Prof says:

        If a situation entails “with the use of spoken words,” then “orally” is a better choice.

        However, “verbally” means “with the use of words either written or spoken.” Nothing wrong with what TexasSkeptic wrote.

      • Old Rockin' Dave says:

        I know this is a late response.
        There may be a dictionary somewhere that defines “verbal” as meaning both spoken and written, but standard usage goes with spoken, eg: verbal contract, verbal agreement, verbal instructions,verbal testimony, verbal confession, challenge verbally. “Verbal abuse” would, and normally should, be taken to mean “spoken abuse”.
        As Sam Goldwyn supposedly said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
        If it was used to mean “written” in this instance, its use is redundant. It’s hard to inflict physical abuse over the Internet.

      • TexasSkeptic says:

        Thank you for your support Ret. Prof.
        Being a high school drop out, i really appreciate ur defnz uv ma usij uv d vernacular.

        Really, Thank You !

        /snark or whatever i am supposed to put here.

      • TexasSkeptic says:

        dag nabbit.. the snark needed to be above the
        ‘Really, Thank You !’

        i am but an egg

      • Old Rockin' Dave says:

        Never one to depart the scene without thrashing the equines who are pining for the fjords, I put the phrase “verbal and written”, in quotes, into Google and it returned 40,500,000 hits. I rest my case and request summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

  4. S.Hill says:

    I smiled when you ended with the word “intent” because that’s exactly what I was thinking about when reading this.

    I have noticed MANY MANY (too damn many) occasions of people assuming the absolute worst interpretation of what another has said or done on the internet when it was CLEARLY not their intent to be hurtful. I also notice that there are many cases where someone has expressed outrage by using violent or offensive language. Would they really like to “punch” or “kick” that person? I doubt they would do that in person. It’s not professional and reflects poorly on the person, but be aware that people lash out in frustration at times with their words.

    I like that you pointed out that there is no objective answer. I truly wish more people in critical thinking forums online would accept that.

    One thing that is RARELY done but might help – you could actually ASK the person what his or her intent was instead of immediately judging them (blocking them, unfriending them, whatever). That would start a meaningful discussion, perhaps.

    We’ve all had occasions where our words or actions were deemed inappropriate by others, I can’t recall that I ever used words purposely to hurt but it was interpreted that way. I’d like the chance to explain before being vilified as “hurtful”.

    • itzac says:

      Those are excellent points, S. Hill. A little charity in interpreting what others are saying goes a long way. It’s usually reasonable to assume the person your talking to is sincerely invested in the conversation and isn’t deliberately trying to cut it short.

      I’ve bit bitten once or twice because I assumed someone was being sarcastic when they weren’t.

  5. Willy says:

    This has an interesting application with regard to forums. It is not unusual for moderators to ban a participant at the slightest complaint, often with little or no thought or investigation. The reality seems to be that the moderator just does not want to deal with the issue or spend the time evaluating it so it is simpler just to ban anyone who is accused of some infraction.

    One can argue that this practice is beneficial because it keeps forums civil, but it also promotes misuse of the complaint process and tends to encourage those who might be described as a bit thin-skinned.

    The real problem, of course, is that moderators often just do the easy thing instead of the right thing. I suspect that if the easy thing was to never ban anyone, then that would be what would happen

    • tmac57 says:

      The topic of forum moderation came up on a recent podcast of Skepticality.I liked the idea of their website being the same as their home.
      Their home,their rules.
      Works for me.

      • Willy says:

        To a degree, perhaps, but using that argument you could justify all sorts of abuses. Every tyrant in history has had “their rules”, most of them not exactly fair….

      • Chris Howard says:

        If the “house rules” are unethical, or immoral then they shouldn’t be followed, no?

      • tmac57 says:

        Well,it’s a lot easier to avoid someone’s website when you don’t like their rules,than it is to avoid the country you live in,so that is not a reasonable analogy.

      • Chris Howard says:

        If someone is being immoral, or unethical it’s “tolerable” just so long as it doesn’t effect others, no?

        This is the main issue, as mentioned, with deontilogical systems of ethics i.e., conflicting duties.

        The house guest has an obligation to follow the his hosts rules, but what if the “house rules” (I know this is extreme) involve child, or spousal abuse? Then the house rules are at odds with ones duty to uphold societies rules.

        This is precisely why “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” is a must read.

      • Willy says:

        So what you are suggesting is sorta the forum version of the “Castle Doctrine”, eh?

        Great if you are the lord of the manor, not so hot if you are one of the peasants….

      • Chris Howard says:

        Conversely, the “guest” does have certain obligations (under a deontological framework) to the “host.”

        This hints at Euthephro, or ethical systems can’t, or shouldn’t be arbitrary. No “Divine Command Theory.” or “I was just following orders.”

        It seems to me that this is a very sticky widget. What is offensive to some is not offensive to others, and even if one is attempting to be mindful of potential offense that’s not a guarantee; simply because there are too many uncontrolable, or even knowable variables regarding race, ethnicity, subjective value judgements, perception, sexual orientation, personal history, religion, political orientation ad nauseam.

        In short, it’s not if you’re going to offend someone, it’s when.

      • S.Hill says:

        That was actually me on Skepticality saying that.

        You can set any rules you like at your site, or home, people won’t return if they don’t feel comfortable there. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior and some people might be offended by you just because you exist but it’s not your right not to be offended.

        There are just some places on the internet where you can go that you KNOW the level of maturity and professionalism is low. I just don’t go there.

      • tmac57 says:

        Hi,Sharon,I thought that was you,and started to attribute it to you,but I wasn’t sure.
        I guess someone can dream up circumstances where this rule might break down,but it seems pretty commonsense to me that the host who created the site should have the last word on what goes,and if people cannot abide by that they can,and should just go elsewhere.
        The internet is a vast untamed wilderness,so there should be no shortage of places to go where you can say whatever you like,and if not then you can create your own ‘house’ where you can.

    • MadScientist says:

      For me it doesn’t keep a blog ‘civil’ at all; it merely maintains a facade of niceness and avoids all important issues. There are many blogs out there where the owner simply deletes posts which do not agree with their position or which might offend someone. There is no engagement with reality in such blogs – they are nothing more than mere self-affirming propaganda.

      • tmac57 says:

        What’s your position on not allowing ad hominem attacks,but allowing dissenting opinions as long as they can do it with argument and facts rather than insults and slander?

  6. Chris Howard says:

    Intent plays a huge role in this. If ones intent is to cause “hurt” (I’m not sure that “hurt” and “harm” i.e., actual damage are one in the same) then, well, that’s not nice. Probably shouldn’t do it.
    But considering that we have little control over what people will choose to take offense at, or reflexively have their sensibilities “hurt” by then all we can offer is “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” After that the balls in their court. If they choose to remain hurt, or offended there’s nothing the other party can do about it.

    • Chris Howard says:

      PS I suspect this is the underlying crux between DBAD’s, and SYHBAD’s (Sometimes You Have ta’ Be A Dick).

  7. Chris Howard says:

    And as a student of practical ethics, thank you for mentioning philosophy in your post. (We really need more exposure to it… but then I’m biased)

  8. Beelzebud says:

    Personally I’m going to continue calling crazy conspiracy nut kooks exactly what they are.

  9. Max says:

    “Using the term ‘retarded’ to mean stupid or silly is different. That one is still too close to home, and its use seems insensitive to me. It is intended to mean, in an insulting way, that someone is like a person who is mentally retarded.”

    Yeah, so? It’s an insult to the normal person who acts like a retard, not to retards who can’t help it. Like calling someone a pig is an insult to the person, not to pigs.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      Pigs, unlike retardates (that is the technically correct term), are not usually the children, siblings, or neighbors of human beings, and pig farmers are most probably not very upset to have their livestock referred to in a way that suggests they are less than human.

  10. Max says:

    “As an author, did Salman Rushdie have the right to write a book that was profoundly offensive to a large number of muslims?”

    Under Sharia law, no. Under Western secular law, yes.

    • Old Rockin' Dave says:

      Rushdie’s book was profoundly offensive to a large number of Muslims who never read it, a smaller number who may have read all or part of it and lacked the ability to grasp the nuances in it, and a likely even smaller number who understood but didn’t care because they could exploit it for their own ends.

  11. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    I fear for the future of the English language.
    Traffic reporter: “On the turnpike, a differently-abled vehicle is blocking the center lane.”
    Historian: “Admiral Nelson put his vision-denied eye up to the telescope.”
    Activist: “Our complaints to the city council have fallen on auditorially-challenged ears.”
    Decorator: “A room like this needs a window treatment of visually challenged Venetians.”

  12. MadScientist says:

    It’s not just “crazy”:

    + Your cartoons offend me! Die, infidel!

    + Music is the work of the devil, No True (insert religious affiliation here) would love music.

    Hell, if people are offended if I say their idea is crazy, I’m happy to call their idea stupid, ignorant, moronic and so on. Oh wait – in reality I use those descriptions far more frequently than ‘crazy’. For me it’s not a matter of me wanting to continue to offend someone, it’s usually a case of the other person not provoking me with the stupid ideas in the first place – if they would only grown a brain then they’d be less likely to provoke an offending response and the world will be a better place for it.

  13. BillG says:

    Take the Don Rickles path – mock all races and religions, including your own.

    Example: In 1-heap, apply lighter fluid to copies of the Koran, Torah, Bible, perhaps Huckleberry Finn, some science books (evolution, cosmic age theory) and finally the U.S.Constitution – because it says I can, and strike a match!

    Free speech is the ultimate form of civility.

    • Max says:

      You’d look like you’re just anti-reading. Book burning is an ironic expression of free speech.

    • tmac57 says:

      Free speech is the ultimate form of civility.

      I do not think that word (civility) means what you think it means.

      Maybe you had ‘licence’ in mind?

  14. I would propose that there is a shared responsibility. You can make a reasonable argument that speakers should make an attempt to be aware of the effect that what they say, including their word choice, has on others. I would also argue that people should make a reasonable attempt to not be thin-skinned, to not take offense where none was intended, and to accommodate for the vagaries of everyday speech.

    That’s really the core of the ethics of speech, in my opinion: the understanding that there is more than one stakeholder in any exchange. Given that the speaker and the target of speech both have some say in what is appropriate, the “There is no right not to be offended!” argument for unrestricted confrontationalism seems to me to be bankrupt. By the same token, speakers I think have a right to hope for reasonable charity of interpretation from others. After all, communicating on many topics is hard, and audience standards vary.

    It won’t surprise anyone that I feel that the speaker bears a lot of the burden, however. As I’ve often argued, some obligation to civility and decency seems to me to be packaged into the ethos of scholarship, science, and skepticism. (We’re obligated not to make stuff up, for example.)

  15. ejdalise says:

    Interesting . . . I wonder if there is a differentiation between insulting and hurtful? I ask because as far as I can tell, there is a fair amount of acceptance for the idea there is no such thing as a “right not to be insulted”.

    But change the word to “hurt”, and the acceptance swings the other way. That is, and it may be only my perception, the acceptance by many of the idea one has a “right not to be hurt”. I speak of rights not in the legal sense, but as colloquially convenient catch-all.

    Novella, like many others, point to intent as a possible differentiation.

    That to me seems a weak argument. For the life of me I can’t imagine restricting someone from thinking, and voicing, their opinion that I’m an asshole. For one, it’s feedback which might prompt beneficial levels of self-examination. For another, it may function as a mechanism by which I can promote others to asshole status.

    I will, however, agree that intent can (should?) be used as part of the post-processing. Not to excuse a person for being ignorant, stupid, or both, but to tone down the response to the “tsk-tsk” level, perhaps drifting into mild derision and mocking. (Note: this is almost a necessity as stupidity seems to be gaining a strong foothold in society.)

    I think there are too many permutations involving the person saying or writing something, the person who read or heard that something, whether it was specific or generic, whether the person initiating the comment merits any respect, whether the target merits any respect, and in my book, whether the someone is intentionally being mean, to make any definitive statement about the subject.

    I see no justification for ever being mean, but can think of many instances where one may be justified in being deliberately insulting, and even hurtful. Yes, “mean” has no merit as a applicable to anyone else (my definition may vary from others). It’s my arbitrary line in the sand, and it’s just my personal quirk.

    Of course, all this is just my opinion, so don’t be mean, or insultingly hurtful in any rebuttal/response, otherwise I’ll know you’re an asshole.

    Note 2: I choose “asshole” as a derogatory descriptor as I’m pretty sure the actual orifice has no feelings on the matter, and unlike idiots, morons, and crazy people, will not be insulted when referenced in the description of someone who is . . . well, an asshole.

    • ApuCalypso says:

      I think the difference between “right not to be insulted” and “right not to be hurt” you’re observing may be due to the connotation with physical harm that comes along with using the word “hurt”.

      • ejdalise says:

        Both the original article, and the above comment by Novella, refer to people being hurt by terms used as descriptors.

        I’m using the same connotation, where language is the vehicle inflicting “hurt”. The physical interpretation is, at least for most civilized and law-bound societies, an actual and reasonable expectation. Or at least it is for me.

        The quote from the original article states:
        “That maybe, if someone tells me that a term hurts them, I don’t get to decide whether or not I’m actually hurting them. I know they’re hurt.”

        If you replace the term “hurt” with the term “insult”, we get back to the “insulting” argument, and that’s been defended ad nauseum. (i.e. I can say “people who believe in the supernatural are less capable than those who don’t” without worrying about whether I’m insulting people of limited capability).

        The second part of that quote is:
        “My only decision is whether or not I want to keep hurting them or not. Usually, the answer is no.”

        Why would that not apply to “insulting”?

        Hence my surprise of hearing about this whole “hurtful” argument. I see it as a non-argument since, in my opinion, neither instance is reason enough to curtail the expression of one’s opinion.

        The original article mentions making up a word that, for all intent and purpose, has the same meaning, but having been made up, is less offensive. I posit the original meaning would quickly be substituted when appropriate, much like everyone knows what words are bleeped out from broadcast TV.

        I prefer substituting other words which less capable people would not find offensive.

        For example: People who believe in the supernatural are to nonbelievers what amoebas are to eukaryotes.

  16. Pooneil says:

    As a skeptic observer, I will note that the most notable items missing from this discussion are a definition of what constitutes a “right” and who, if anyone, is empowered to enforce our responsibility to interact civilly with or neighbors. Without the first, we are speaking abstractly about each individuals preferred rules for personal behavior with the possibility of only an abstract conclusion that has no authority over any one individual. Why do these distinctions matter, because a violation of rights usually require intervention by some authority to enforce a rule.

    • ejdalise says:

      But we do have rights when it comes to speech. Libel laws. Beyond that, and with rare exceptions which are usually hard to prove, we can express our opinions freely.

      And in this discussion I’ve not read of anyone suggesting a law against being hurt by words (or insulted by words).

      But yes; we generally codify our “rights” by defining them as well as limiting them.

      My observation is that something becomes a right only when someone else wants to restrict it.

      For instance, I like guns. It annoys me that owning and carrying one is discussed in terms of whether is is my right to do so. No one paid it much mind until some idiot came around saying “no, you can’t”.

      No one tells me I can’t walk around with a 2-lb rock in my hand. At least not yet . . . maybe if I move up to a 5-lb rock.

      • Pooneil says:

        “My observation is that something becomes a right only when someone else wants to restrict it.”

        Exactly, this is one of the problems that arises from not defining what we mean by rights. We have rights when dealing with governmental powers. I agree that no one here has suggested a law against words that wound, but in the absence of government involvement isn’t it less confusing to be discussing good manners rather than than vaguely defined “rights.”

      • ejdalise says:

        Maybe, but that’s just swapping one problem (if it is a problem) for another. Who sets the norm for good manners?

        Besides, this shifts the focus of the discussion (much like the original article does).

        Saying “People who push creationism are short-sighted” and having someone initiate a discussion as to whether that is “hurtful” to myopic people, or myopia in general, is a way to distract from the initial premise that Creationists rarely look outward from the posterior orifice from whence they speak.

        Clarification: the above quote is not meant to disparage people who are comfortable with the placement of their heads up that particular orifice by comparing them to Creationists, and that statement should not be taken as such. On the contrary, it raises such people to the status of social icons. They should stand with their heads held high . . . er . . . nevermind.

      • Pooneil says:

        Personally, I have always looked to Miss Manners to set my norms. ;-) Others will have their own preference and manners are always a personal choice. We are in agreement about not getting distracted from the goal of separating knowledge from nonsense by bickering about the appropriateness of analogies.

      • tmac57 says:

        I have a good friend in his 80’s who is greatly offended when a man (only men,mind you) wears a hat in a restaurant (even a fast food one).
        I do not argue with him,but for the life of me I can’t figure out why this is considered disrespectful,and also why is this rule gender specific? I realize that it was part of the custom in his day,but customs change,and how did it become the norm in any case?

  17. Adam vanLangenberg says:

    Once again, Steve brings us the voice of reason.