Concept Creep: An interesting idea about contemporary conceptions of harm

For those who don’t have the time (or access) to read Nick Halsam’s Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and PathologyConor Freidersdorf‘s Atlantic article, How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, does a nice job summarizing and responding to its primary arguments. In sum, Haslam and Freidersdorf agree that concepts like abuse, trauma, bullying, mental disorder and prejudice are broadening too much, resulting in an increasing tendency to use these concepts to accuse those who are not guilty of causing significant harm.

Freidersdorf mentions a number of examples including a mother who is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor when she leaves her son in the car while stepping into a mall and a high schooler who is suspended for “cyberbullying” after she complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher. Several more examples can be found here. I can also share stories of concept creep from personal experiences including a student who expressed the desire to launch a formal human rights complaint against a professor who once accidentally called a transgender person “him” (and apologized), or an incident in which a female teaching assistant expressed the view that a male professor was a sexist solely for asking to reschedule an appointment. Without any evidence, the teaching assistant claimed that this was the behaviour of a professor who, because of his gender, thought he had full control over his assistant’s time solely because she was a woman.

I do not think that these examples represent the thinking of movements that challenge sexism or other forms of inequality. However, they may represent a common and excessively broad use of ideas like prejudice that result in mild mistakes during conversation or rescheduling appointments (for legitimate reasons) being made equivalent with other clearer forms of harm (the social exclusion of transgender peoples or sexist pay structures). They also represent a type of thinking which feed life-ruining shaming rituals targeting individuals innocent of any real harm (as discussed by Jon Ronson in “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“).

Freidersdorf makes a compelling and balanced argument. He is carful to point out that concept creep is not a tool of a liberal agenda to criticize conservatives (he points out that concept creeping is common across political lines), nor is it an outright challenge to movements challenging social ills such as sexism or hidden racism. Having researched hidden racism, I can say that Freidersdorf avoids a common error (especially among those who allege that society is just “too sensitive” these days) in making the extreme leap from ideas similar to concept creep, to the conclusion that there is no such thing as harm caused by implicit or hidden actions. Avoiding such a trap is a key reason that Freidersdorf’s article makes a nuanced argument worth considering.

Still, I worry about the tendency to direct ideas like concept creep at liberals (Freidersdorf worries about this as well), and the potential for concept creep to be used to outright challenge the study of issues like hidden racism or sexism. Put simply, concept creep is likely to be subject to creeping as well.

Read the article. I imagine it will make those studying topics like prejudice and inequality (including myself) somewhat uneasy at times, but at the very least it’s likely to spark some discussions.

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