An Extended Lexicon for the Moral Maze

In my previously published Lexicon for the Moral Maze, I set out a number of phrases commonly employed in what passes for contemporary moral debate and offered some assistance on how anyone starting to find themselves bewildered can unpack the jargon and glean an understanding of the proponents’ real agenda. The debate has moved on considerably since then (not that anything has particularly been resolved; rather the list of topics where anything approximating to “debate” is still possible has simply been curtailed), to the extent that an update would appear to be merited. Below I have sought therefore to elucidate a few of the phrases which have made their way into common usage in recent days.

  • “Gaslighting a community”
    This phrase originates from a 1940 film in which a man seeks to deceive his wife into believing she is going insane. Its preferred contemporary usage is when a member of a “community” with designated “victim” status has the audacity to question the prescribed left liberal strategy put forward to address “injustices” perpetrated against that community. The suggestion in this case is somewhat the opposite of the original context since it is the gaslighter on this occasion who is deemed to have lost a grip of reality.
  • “Sounding a Dog Whistle”
    This phrase originates from the idea that humans are unable to hear high frequency notes that dogs can. The correct usage in the context of contemporary moral/political debate is when a statement is made which is at odds with a left liberal narrative but cannot reasonably be construed as inimical to any community deemed to have victim status. The allegation of dog whistling is used to suggest that the statement will nonetheless be interpreted by those with prior inimical attitudes as an invitation to misbehaviour. The virtue of such usage is that it is immaterial whether the original statement was true or not; or indeed whether it would ever be interpreted in the manner alleged. The main point is that the person issuing the “dog whistle” is discredited irrespective, so the views and their originator can be discounted without any consideration of veracity.
  • “Hate Speech”
    This is a nebulous criticism similar to the dog whistle idea. The first condition of hate speech is that hatred is not actually expressed but is rather inferred, usually on behalf of unspecified third parties. The second condition is that it shouldn’t be speech but rather written down and published online so that its imagined impact on persons other than those originally addressed can be complained about after the event. Naturally the veracity of what is said is again irrelevant. It is disputed whether a time limit applies in relation to “hate speech”, but there is general agreement that three centuries should normally suffice.
  • “Violence”
    This is another nebulous label which can be used to discredit the views of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a progressive left agenda. It has the convenient feature that, in current parlance, it can be used in relation to views which are imputed rather than actually expressed, as in “Silence is violence.” Also, somewhat unintuitively, physical harm caused deliberately to a person who is not (sufficiently) on board with the progressive left agenda is not to be considered violence but “natural justice.”
  • “Unconscious Bias”
    In the event that there is insufficient basis for any of the above strategies to be deployed, a useful alternative tactic is to accuse non-progressives of perpetrating or perpetuating injustice without having intended or having been aware. The sure sign that unconscious bias is at play is that the person accused will invariably deny the suggestion in the most emphatic terms.
  • “White Privilege”
    This is another very useful label to bandy about, since it can facilitate the delegitimisation of the views of a majority of the population of a country before they have even been expressed. It has the added virtue that the better informed a person is, the easier it is to infer privilege and justify excluding them from any debate.
  • “Microaggression”
    In a developed society where the most iniquitous injustices have been addressed to the point where it gets difficult to excite social protest against those which remain, smaller, less easily detectable injustices need to be pointed out instead. This can be problematic, making the complainants look unreasonable. So instead the many small injustices can be aggregated together implicitly under the banner of “microaggression”, a useful name which, while acknowledging their smallness, creates a sense of deliberate oppression which magnifies their seriousness without the need to demonstrate any “aggressive” intent.
  • “Woke”
    This is an egregious case of misgrammaring the past tense of the verb “to wake”, treating it unjustly as an adjective, or even in extreme cases as a noun. It is the more serious in that it defies even the modern convention that misgrammaring may be permitted when a noun is used as a verb, as in “to party”. It is furthermore an instance of mislabelling as it refers not to an awakening but to an entering into a state of reverie where normal common sense and judgement are suspended and everything is seen through a prism of identity politics.
  • “Identity Politics”
    This is a perspective whereby people can be peremptorily divided into victims and oppressors by being associated with or attributed to one or other group. Those who identify with victim groups generally do so as a matter of choice. Those in oppressor groups are, not surprisingly, usually assigned to those groups, whether or not they would choose to label themselves in this way. In a second phase of identity politics, membership of a victim group comes instead to be associated with adoption of the narrative of oppression and grievances, with those not subscribing to this narrative being excluded. (See also “Gaslighting…” above.) Naturally members of oppressor groups are not permitted so to excuse themselves.
  • “Intersectionalism”
    This is really just another term for identity politics. It is the preferred terminology for use in academic papers to avoid association with the more commonly used label, which has acted as a lightning conductor for a certain amount of disapprobation from the non-woke community.
  • “Cancel Culture”
    This is when a group of like-minded zealots on social media take offence on behalf of a group they deem to be an oppressed victim class over a comment made by some (usually) unsuspecting individual they deem to be part of an oppressor group. They then seek to act as expert witness, counsel for the prosecution, judge, jury and sentencing board in a show trial by (social) media. As with most show trials, the main evidence used against the accused is invariably their protestation of innocence. When objections are raised by others about the unfairness of such a process, their defence is a) it couldn’t have happened because there is no such thing as “cancel culture”, but b) if it did happen there is no agreed definition of what “cancel culture” is so we can’t agree that it happened. And for good measure c) the people claiming that there is such a thing as “cancel culture” deserve to be canceled. Rinse and repeat

Hopefully, this addition to the previous list will help you with unpacking the jargon around you and save you time you might otherwise have wasted listening to sanctimonious humbug passed off as moral argument.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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