Thursday, April 14, 2016

Concept Creep

A long, but interesting piece on “concept creep,” the idea that “concepts extend outward to capture qualitatively new phenomena and downward to capture quantitatively less extreme phenomena."
The concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice are examined to illustrate these historical changes. In each case, the concept’s boundary has stretched and its meaning has dilated. A variety of explanations for this pattern of “concept creep” are considered and its implications are explored. I contend that the expansion primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, reflecting a liberal moral agenda. Its implications are ambivalent, however. Although conceptual change is inevitable and often well motivated, concept creep runs the risk of pathologizing everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.
For mental illness, the risk of misdiagnosis or over-diagnosis is very real and has some very serious consequences; however, in certain communities, under-diagnosis is more of a problem, and expanding the definition of affective disorders especially allows for people who would have slid under the radar because they express symptoms atypically (because of class, gender, etc,). This isn’t a bad thing. But widening definitions carries the risk of pathologizing normal behavior and sets up a kind of victim hierarchy.

Social scientist Jonathan Haidt further explains concept creep in a companion piece in the Guardian:
Concept creep does not happen to all psychological terms – it happens primarily to those that are useful in what sociologists have called a “culture of victimhood”. In such cultures there are two main sources of social prestige: being a victim or standing up for victims. But victimhood cultures don’t emerge in the most racist or sexist environments – they tend to emerge in institutions that are already highly egalitarian (such as Emory and Yale) and in which there are authorities (such as deans and college presidents) that can be entreated to step in on the side of the victims. In such settings political potency is increased by amplifying the number of victims and the degree of their victimization. Concept creep serves as a rhetorical weapon of victimhood culture.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time in liberal spaces, I'd say this used to be true but now has moved on from victims and their allies to simply victims and oppressors. If you're not a victim, then you must be an oppressor. This is why you see so much self-diagnosis and queer being used to label anyone not 100% straight and gender conforming. In its most extreme, you get someone like Rachel Dolezal.