Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: Capitalism

I recently finished reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. When I was about halfway through, I told a friend that Solzhenitsyn’s descriptions of the Gulag’s forced labor camps served as a thorough indictment of the Soviet regime and its communist ideology. It was truly corrupt at every imaginable level. He then asked me if I thought that the reliance of the southern antebellum economy on slavery served as a similar indictment of capitalism. And I said no.

“Capitalism” has distasteful connotations. We instinctively assume that anyone in favor of capitalism is on the side of soulless corporations and unscrupulous financiers. The way the word is put together (“capital” plus “ism”) makes it seem like it should refer to an ideology which values the accumulation of capital above all else, which is pretty much how Marx described it. So it shouldn’t surprise us that this is the working definition of “capitalism” for dumb Marxists on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s instinctive because the word itself is misleading, and it’s also a good straw man.

A much more accurate term to describe the ideology behind free market economies is “liberalism.” (This term has its own baggage, as the “liberals” of today tend to favor greater government involvement in the economy, unlike the OG liberals such as Adam Smith.) The whole point of free markets is that individuals get to make their own choices. That’s it. I dispose of my labor and my property as I see fit, and no one can force me to do anything. Of course, if I want to last long in the world, I’ll probably need to make some cooperative arrangements with others, but no one will force me to enter such arrangements.

How does slavery fit into this? Simply put, it doesn’t. Which is why it frustrates me to no end when Marxist fools try to link slavery with “capitalism.” If each individual person has the right to dispose of his labor as he sees fit, then no other person can enslave him. Slavery can occur only when government either fails to secure fundamental rights or actively deprives people of these rights. In the case of the southern states, the government was on the side of the slaveholders. The laws and the slaveholders teamed up to deprive the slave of his rights.

The other reason I dislike the use of the term “capitalism” is because it shifts the focus away from the most important feature of free market systems, i.e., that they are free. It’s certainly nice that free markets have resulted in astounding prosperity and economic growth over the past two centuries. But the main reason that we ought to prefer free markets to other systems is because other systems rely on coercion and theft. No one should be able to force you to dispose of your labor or your property in ways that you do not want to. You do not belong to the state or to the collective or to the guy with the biggest gun. You and your possessions are yours.

Of course, “capitalist” countries aren’t always successful at keeping their markets and their people free. That’s not a result of the “capitalist” ideology, though. It’s because people have an incentive to cheat the system if they can get away with it. If there is no rule of law and I can enslave people without being punished, then getting a bunch of slaves can make me a lot of money. But problems of this sort are far, far worse in non-capitalist countries than in capitalist ones. They are not peculiar to liberalism; indeed, liberalism has been the most successful way we’ve devised to solve them.

Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: Homophobia

There are a lot of terms we have for people who harbor prejudice against others. Racist. Misogynist. Antisemite. &c. I think most of these terms are overused, because our culture confuses self-righteous name-calling with “advocacy.” But they can still be useful words. Some of them, however, are just bad. “Homophobia” is a prime example.

“Phobia” is a technical psychological term referring to an irrational and debilitating fear of something. Arachnophobia is the irrational and debilitating fear of spiders, claustrophobia that of enclosed spaces, etc. Homophobia, however, is not the irrational and debilitating fear of homosexuals. We use the term to refer to a prejudice, rather than a psychological condition. This creates the subtle implication that prejudice against homosexuals is a psychological disorder and not an ideological one, which is dumb.

Moreover, the idea that prejudice against homosexuals is necessarily a fear of some sort is preposterous and unhelpful. For whatever reason, we have linked hatred with fear. This is a bad idea, as it suggests that we should try to combat hatred in the same way that we do fear, i.e., through gradual exposure to the hated/feared stimulus. This is how psychologists treat phobias. If you have Arachnophobia, then you will gradually be exposed to images of spiders until you can look at a real one without fainting, for example. But people who are prejudiced against certain groups don’t necessarily become less prejudiced after exposure to those groups. This is because what they feel is disgust, not fear.

Suppose, then, we create a word to replace “homophobia.” This will take care of the problems above, but I still think that most uses of the new term are likely to be misleading if not completely wrong, given the way that “homophobia” is used today. I most often see the term used to refer to people who hold political positions that are culturally conservative, especially with regard to same-sex marriage. This is wrong.

It is possible that opposition to same-sex marriage is sometimes motivated by prejudice against homosexuals, but not necessary. You can believe that it is immoral for men to have sex with men without being prejudiced against homosexuals. You can believe that the institution of marriage is about more than personal fulfillment without being prejudiced against homosexuals. The first belief is one concerning the morality of certain behaviors, and the second is one concerning the nature of marriage itself. Neither beliefs require a corresponding belief in the inferiority of any class of persons.

This is what LGBT advocates (and people on the left in general, it seems) often fail to grasp: One can oppose policies aimed toward advancing certain identity-groups’ agendas without being prejudiced against those identity-groups. Contra Foucault and his minions, not all classification is an attempt to subjugate and oppress. The way we understand sex and marriage has implications for the health of our society, and we want to get things right.

Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: “Offensive”

Yesterday I had a conversation with some acquaintances, during which one of the acquaintances said that she didn’t think that “political correctness” was a real thing. My other acquaintances concurred. The consensus in the room seemed to be that people who decry political correctness are really just complaining that they’re being held to a standard of civility that they don’t want to meet. I objected to this, as it is utter nonsense.

Civility has to do with the manner in which opinions are expressed. Political correctness has to do with the opinions themselves. There are civil ways to express opinions that are unpopular or provocative, but there is no politically correct way to do so. At least, not if you’re a white male. Certain elements of society have deemed certain opinions to be “offensive” and therefore unacceptable.

After I explained my point of view, I was asked for examples of politically incorrect opinions that might be expressed civilly. Several came to mind, but I didn’t want to say any of them out loud, because they might be too controversial for the setting of the conversation. People nowadays tend to think that “civil” means “unoffensive.” The problem with this understanding is that it makes civility entirely dependent on the hearer, and not on the speaker. I can choose to be offended by just about any statement. Does that mean I can place a burden on other people to modify their speech to accommodate me? Obviously not.

As far as I can tell, there’s no good reason we should ever label speech as “offensive.” The “offensiveness” of speech is determined by the reaction of those who hear it, and not by the speech itself. And who cares how people react to an idea? The emotional response that people may have to a person’s speech is irrelevant to the truth of that person’s speech. So let’s hear it. And if you’re “offended” by an idea someone else expresses, then explain why the idea is wrong instead of complaining that it hurt your feelings. No one is under any obligation to care about your feelings; they are your responsibility.

What we do have an obligation to do is try our best to speak the truth. If I have an opinion that is unpopular, sharing it and defending it is an act of intellectual courage. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as one can be made into a free-speech martyr while being nothing more than a bombastic opportunist who spews ill-formed thoughts. But if I believe, for instance, that marriage is a lifelong bond between one man and one woman, and I humbly explain why I hold this belief to people who will likely call me a “homophobe” for it, then I am doing something quite admirable. We need people who are willing to challenge the consensus, because sometimes the consensus is wrong.

Besides the subjectivity of using “offensiveness” as a way to determine which speech is unacceptable, we also have the problem of determining whose feelings matter for the purpose of gauging “offensiveness.” As far as I can tell, your feelings only really matter if you’re LGBT, a racial minority, or a woman. If someone says that men are socialized to be rapists, and I respond that they are not (because we aren’t), then I’m exhibiting “male fragility.” Indeed, if anything, any negative emotional response from a straight white male is taken as prima facie evidence that the speech that provoked the response is true. Because the biases baked into straight white males are oppressive and evil, anything that upsets a straight white male must be liberating and good.

This might sound like a caricature, but it’s not. See this article by Jessica Xiao from Everyday Feminism. The author of the article shared this article on social media and received a comment from a former intern of hers (who happens to be a white male). In the shared article, Soraya Chemaly blames all kinds of evils (e.g. rape, climate change, and the election of Donald Trump) on societal structures that privilege white men. Naturally, Xiao’s intern felt this wasn’t a particularly helpful take.

I shared The Establishment’s article “The White Male Effect Is Real and Dangerous to Us All” by Soraya Chemaly, and a sweet former intern who I really am quite fond of posted the quintessential, archetypal #NotAllMen argument, full of male fragility, hurt feelings, and a desire to be loved and respected and validated.

[. . .]

Former Intern: “Speaking as a white male and feminist, reading this article was very frustrating.”

Response: Good, this means that you experienced discomfort with your identity and took it personally  –  that’s a first step of engagement.

[. . .]

So yes, take it personally and take it very seriously when someone has a grievance with an identity you hold because you also hold the power to shape that identity, but first you need to hear and accept that negative truths about your identity exist, whether or not you, yourself, want to be associated with those negative truths.

That is the first step to dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy: within yourself.

I did not include substantial portions of the article. Most of it isn’t relevant to my point, which is as follows: When “people of color” and other groups that have experienced injustice in the past claim offense, we take that as a sign that whatever speech caused the offense should be stopped. But when a white man expresses the same sentiment in response to an idea, we take that as a sign that the idea is deconstructing oppression at the level of the man’s implicit biases. The double standard is obvious.

Of course, I want to be consistent. For the purposes of determining what speech is permissible, I could not care less about anyone’s feelings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, etc. If we’re aiming at truth, then someone’s feelings will always be hurt, because the truth isn’t always what we want it to be. In fact, we should expect the truth to upset us, because it will make demands with which we do not wish to comply. This isn’t limited to white men. Everyone has a duty to destroy and reconstitute himself constantly in order to better live in accordance with the truth.

Therefore, let’s stop referring to speech of any sort as “offensive.” All truth is “offensive” to someone, especially since we live during a time at which the very concept of truth is considered an oppressive phallogocentric construct. The meaningful terms you can use to describe speech are “true” and “false,” and the feelings a speech-act provokes has no bearing on which of these terms suits it best.

Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: Cisgender

We are obsessed with what is “normal.” We hear people saying not to “normalize” Donald Trump’s behavior toward women, or condemning our culture’s “heteronormativity” (i.e. the assumption that opposite-sex attraction is the norm, with same-sex attraction being anomalous). This concern with norms has to do with our wariness of the basic set of assumptions we share as a culture. Understandably, we do not want our assumptions to cause undue harm to any group of people. “Undue” is the key word, though. If there is, in fact, such a thing as human nature, then our assumptions should reflect that. It may be lamentable that these assumptions will inevitably impose burdens of various sorts on people who deviate from them, but it is not the role of society to assume these burdens. Indeed, there is no way to do so without imposing even greater costs on everyone.

The progressive-egalitarian left effectively wants to socialize all of the burdens borne by people who do not conform to our traditional norms. The way to do this is by radically altering our norms so that we no longer see anyone as deviant. Introduction of neologisms such as “cisgender” is one way in which the left subtly pushes to change our norms.

The term “cisgender” refers to people whose gender identity corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth. Even this is relatively ideologically laden language, though (you are chromosomally male or female long before you are born). I’d prefer to put it as follows: cisgender people are people who don’t suffer from gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is a psychological disorder. I think even most trans advocates would concede that. They do not, however, believe that the desire to change one’s gender is inherently abnormal. It is only the disconnect between one’s feelings about one’s gender and the way one operates in the world that is a disorder, for trans advocates. I don’t think this is quite right, because even if you manage to transition and operate in the world as the other gender, your dysphoria isn’t exactly cured. Transition might be a good treatment for gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t make the problem go away. It is a coping mechanism that may or may not be helpful.

Given the relatively small number of people who suffer from gender dysphoria, it doesn’t make much sense to have a category devoted to people who do not suffer from it. “Cisgender” people constitute the vast majority of the population. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, shouldn’t we just assume that people don’t have gender dysphoria, much as we might assume that people don’t have other ailments, like tuberculosis or AIDS? We don’t have a word that specifically describes the condition of not having each particular disease or disorder, so why do we have one for people who do not suffer from gender dysphoria?

To “normalize” the transgender experience, of course. To use the word “cisgender” is to tacitly affirm that being transgender is just as normal as not being transgender, even though this just isn’t the case. Sex and gender identity don’t vary independently. People who experience gender dysphoria are rare, and their experience is a deviation from the norm. The way we speak ought to reflect that. When I say that men can’t give birth, or that women don’t have Y chromosomes, I shouldn’t need to qualify my statement.

It’s important for me to add a disclaimer here: I am not expressing a moral judgment about transgender people and others who suffer from gender dysphoria. I am, however, making a claim about what we ought to consider normal, and how this should be reflected in our language. My hope for transgender people is that they will be able to find a good way to cope with their dysphoria and operate in the world without too much difficulty. But destroying our traditional understanding of the relationship between sex and gender just isn’t the right way to go about helping transgender people, as it’s not clear that it will actually make anything better for anyone, and it will almost certainly make things worse for most of us.

A Rule Regarding Words

As a general rule, you should avoid throwing around words that you can’t define in a coherent fashion. For example, you shouldn’t call Ann Coulter a fascist unless you actually know what “fascist” means. It’s not enough to have a coherent definition, though. Your definition might be completely wrong.

One way to attack people you don’t like is to do some linguistic sleight of hand to justify name-calling. If I define “fascist” as “a person whose political views are to the right of Bernie Sanders,” then I can call just about anyone a fascist, if I want to. The problem is that my definition of fascism would be entirely wrong. Fascism, in fact, refers to authoritarian nationalism. By using the word in a way that is inconsistent with its actual definition, I obscure the truth and weaken the force of the word.

This is the problem that progressives have, nowadays. They just can’t stop themselves from referring to everyone on the right as Nazis, fascists, racists, white supremacists, etc., even though those terms aren’t at all descriptive of mainstream conservative views. They’re not even representative of “fringe” conservative views (like those of Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter).

Imagine the situation reversed. Suppose right-leaning young people deplatformed anyone advocating for single-payer healthcare on the grounds that it’s a Stalinist idea. That would be ridiculous. Even if single-payer healthcare is a bad idea, it’s not Stalinist.

Highly charged words like “Stalinist” and “Nazi” shouldn’t just be tossed around like they don’t mean anything. They have meanings, and if you use the words in ways that are inconsistent with the meanings, then you’re contributing to the polarization of political discourse in this country. You’re also creating more room for authoritarianism by inciting panic at all the so-called “fascism,” “white supremacy,” etc. in our country.

Stupid Words You Shouldn’t Use: “Toxic Masculinity”

This will be a series in which I tell the world how it ought to speak. My recommendations are not binding, as I have no authority to impose my speech preferences on the world. Hopefully, though, I can convince you that certain words and phrases are just not worthy of being uttered by intelligent human beings.

“Toxic masculinity” is one such phrase.

I will concede that the term is not entirely useless. If it weren’t for the constant misuse of the phrase by ill-informed wannabe social commentators on Twitter, then I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog post. A reasonable person can think of toxic masculinity as a pathological obsession with demonstrating one’s manliness through violence, sexual conquest, etc., combined with a pathological sense that being male entitles one to whatever one wants. The aforementioned social commentators have co-opted the term and use it to explain every act of violence any man ever commits.

Most recently, the Cleveland murder:

I’m guessing that the reason the tweeter above blames “toxic masculinity” for this incident is the killer’s saying, “She’s the reason why all this about to happen to you,” before committing the murder. He was referring to his ex-girlfriend, Joy Lane, who described him to ABC News as “a nice guy … he is generous with everyone he knows. He was kind and loving to me and my children.”

The problem with attributing incidents like this to toxic masculinity is that doing so implies that such incidents happen only because of the evil societal structures in which we exist. If only we were able to go back to some Rousseauian state of nature and be noble savages. Before the establishment of the patriarchy, I bet men never killed anyone for any reason, because there was no culture to make them toxic and violent.

Obviously, though, culture is not the culprit. If anything, culture has a moderating effect on men’s violent impulses (we have more of these than do most women, because we have higher testosterone levels). Violence, generally speaking, is maladaptive in modern society. People will like you better if you play nice. If you can’t play nice, then we’ll throw you in jail so that you can’t hurt us.

The whole idea behind the phrase “toxic masculinity” is that men are trained by society to be entitled sociopaths. As a man, I don’t think that this is at all close to the truth. I have always been taught not to assume that I am entitled to things that I want. Perhaps I’m an anomaly and my parents did an outstanding job at smashing the patriarchy in their parenting methods. But I doubt that, because most other men I know don’t display any symptoms of this so-called “toxic masculinity.”

It sometimes seems that “toxic masculinity” is used as a substitute for “antisocial personality disorder” or “narcissistic personality disorder.” You know, actual psychological conditions that aren’t entirely caused by the environment, but might have actual biological roots (i.e. brain damage, excess testosterone, etc.). But biology is anathema to these modern commentators. Everything is the result of socialization. There is no human nature. Plus, it’s obvious that not all men are antisocial or narcissistic. The threshold for accusing someone of toxic masculinity is much lower, and does not depend on the opinion of an expert in psychology.

I’m not denying that, in some communities, there are manifestations of something that might rightly be referred to as “toxic masculinity.” For instance, sometimes adolescent boys get together and say abhorrent things about the bodies of their female peers in order to demonstrate how sexually enlightened they are. But this is not, nor has it ever been, the ideal which western civilization has set up for men to emulate. Men are expected to be strong, but good. We are supposed to be capable of violence, but only for the purpose of protecting those we love from harm. Indeed, “toxic masculinity” isn’t masculine at all. Flipping out and trying to hurt other people when you don’t receive something to which you feel entitled is childish and contemptible.

Some better alternatives to “toxic masculinity” include “antisocial personality disorder,” “narcissism,” and “poor socialization.” It’s important for us to recognize that the acts of violence committed by men happen in spite of our cultural expectations for men, not because of them. To insist otherwise is basically to deny human nature.