Cheap talk

Sapir-Whorf politeness, virtue signalling etc

Is talk cheap? Why are we so concerned with who pays for it? A placeholder.

Words kill

Virtue signalling

Prescriptive language use, mechanisms thereof

Grab bag of links here. I woudl like to dive in to what we argue about when we argue about appropriate language, but I have not had time to muster my thoughts. Here are some pieces that I would like to respond to (although not necessarily agree with).

Prescriptive language, language police, morality of virtual signalling versus community engagement, safe space, irony. Mention that most uses of virtue signalling that I am aware of seem to be about failure of virtue signalling to the intended audience.

Does inclusive language increase inclusion? The most salient case study in this for me is gender-inclusive language and there are some further musings there, although they are not particularly deep either.

I would be mildly surprised if using gender-neutral job description had in isolation a substantial effect on the friendliness of a job for a person of a given gender, because I was taught as a linguistics undergraduate to dismiss the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. However, I could be wrong; see Sczesny, Formanowicz, and Moser (2016) for a review of research in this area.1

But maybe language-to-change-individual-behaviour directly is not the aim, language-to-change-organisational-behaviour is. Perhaps using gender inclusive language, as a slightly tedious thing to orchestrate, is an effective signal of institutional commitment to non-discrimination. That is certainly why I attempt to use inclusive language, even though I personally sceptical that this small change in itself will do anything to my own latent sexism. If that is table stakes for more substantive action, it does not seem to me personally unaffordable.

Here are some think-pieces.

Freddie deBoer, Planet of Cops declaims on this theme.. In between the invective there is an interesting attempt to tackle process, rather than intention or outcome, which we do have a hard time disentangling in online arguments about who is being sanctimonious and who is being a troll. This process-based argument is prominent in many pundits, and at this point we have wandered perhaps into community governance.

Ben Burgis, discusses symbolic versus substantive battles. His concerned that the coalitions formed by arguing over speech might be the wrong ones to enact change that the speech seems to concern.

Don’t mistake the makings of a festival for a coalition with meaningful power.


See Simulacra.

Letting rip on that joke

What is the role of humour? Irony? Is edginess blameful or necessary? What does it even do?

For sure humour requires context.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom discusses context in this form:

That means we all now have to be thoughtful. We all have to consider, oh, wait a minute. Is that what we say in this room? We all have to reconsider what the norms are, and that was the promise of like expanding the discourse, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. And if that means that I’m not sure about letting it rip on a joke, that’s probably a pretty good thing.

See also Laughing to Transgress:

I also think that if they had known I was gay, they wouldn’t have joked around, or been embarrassed after, and then it would have been a Big Thing. The way it went, a concern about a person they shared a house with could be brought up and made legible. I joined the “one of the guys” dynamic, by understanding its rules, context and intent. I can get the same effect now just by saying something funny and insensitive about gay people behind closed doors, to show that it’s not a personal landmine at all.

It’s also entirely in line with existing LGBT culture. Drag queens in particular have used sass and mockery as a shield, but no mockery is complete without self-mockery.

Different again, Robin Hanson argues against irony for being outgroup-exclusionary. I don’t think blanket discouraging irony is plausible or desirable, but… there is an insight in there. It is important to remember that indicators of in-group membership, such as irony, are shibboleths, not indicators of any intrinsic quality. I like this idea as a trial balloon for some better ideas that do not conflate local culture with hostility to wider culture, or assume the plausibilty of operating without in-groups. I am not convinced that it shows a plausible kind of group organisation, where future human only operate in simple, maximally unambiguous declarative statements without any attempt to

Martin Sustrik considers irony in a totalitarian state :

That brings me directly to the topic of subversive jokes. Nobody had told you directly that they want to rebel against the communists. Well, few did, but those were mostly in jail. Everyone else had to find a more subtle way to communicating the message. And jokes turn out to be the optimal medium for doing that.

Yet another caveat: Not everyone who told you a “subversive” joke was planning to overthrow the regime. Telling the joke could mean a range of things from being violently hostile to the system to being generally in favour of the system but signaling your insider status by making it clear that you don’t buy the official propaganda.

A drunk Russian man in front of the Kremlin shouts, over and over again: “Down with the mustached dictator!” A policeman arrests him and brings him to Stalin. Stalin asks: “Who did you mean?” The man, suddenly sobered up, answers: “I was shouting against Hitler, of course.” Stalin turns to the policeman: “And what did you mean?”

All in all, it seems that spreading of common knowledge under oppresive system is a subtle and delicate matter. It's a system where everyone balances close to the line where propaganda becomes indistinguishable from irony.

But in the end, everybody must participate in the game lest they inadvertently wander into harm's way and by participating in it and by seeing others participate in it everybody gets at least some level of insight about the state of common knowledge.

Common knowledge

Nerds love this one as an example of when apparently empty


Does narrative fiction sublimate our urges for what it depicts, or encourage it?

I first became aware of this debate in the context of porn: Do violent pornographic scenarios normalise and therefore encourage violent behaviour, or do they allow people with troublesome violent urges to sublimate them into fiction? But it works for everything. Are rom-coms harmless recreations for people living in an unromantic world, or do they setup for unrealistic expectations in vulnerable people?


Dobbin, Frank, and Alexandra Kalev. 2021. “The Civil Rights Revolution at Work: What Went Wrong.” Annual Review of Sociology 47 (1): null.
Farrell, Henry. 2012. “The Consequences of the Internet for Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 15 (1): 35–52.
Feltovich, Nick, Richmond Harbaugh, and Ted To. 2002. “Too Cool for School? Signalling and Countersignalling.” RAND Journal of Economics, 630–49.
Richards, Diana. 2001. “Coordination and Shared Mental Models.” American Journal of Political Science 45: 259–76.
Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2001. “The Evolution of Subjective Commitment to Groups: A Tribal Instincts Hypothesis.” Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment 3: 186–220.
Sczesny, Sabine, Magda Formanowicz, and Franziska Moser. 2016. “Can Gender-Fair Language Reduce Gender Stereotyping and Discrimination?” Frontiers in Psychology 7: 25.

  1. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, IMO, is better described as a family of hypotheses, on the theme of ”how the language we use affects our ability to think things.” It is dual to Lexical hypothesis, which supposes that language adapts to the kind of things that we think, i.e. same kind of thing with the direction of causation reversed. Neither is in much scientific favour in linguistics.↩︎

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