Words that think for us

Prospect Magazine

Words that think for us

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Beyond inappropriate

No words are more typical of our moral culture than “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.” They seem bland, gentle even, yet they carry the full force of official power. When you hear them, you feel that you are being tied up with little pieces of soft string.

Inappropriate and unacceptable began their modern careers in the 1980s as part of the jargon of political correctness. They have more or less replaced a number of older, more exact terms: coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd. They encompass most of what would formerly have been called “improper” or “indecent.” An affair between a teacher and a pupil that was once improper is now inappropriate; a once indecent joke is now unacceptable.

This linguistic shift is revealing. Improper and indecent express moral judgements, whereas inappropriate and unacceptable suggest breaches of some purely social or professional convention. Such “non-judgemental” forms of speech are tailored to a society wary of explicit moral language. As liberal pluralists, we seek only adherence to rules of the game, not agreement on fundamentals. What was once an offence against decency must be recast as something akin to a faux pas.

But this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom. When I call your action indecent, I state a fact that can be controverted. When I call it inappropriate, I invoke an institutional context—one which, by implication, I know better than you. Who can gainsay the Lord Chamberlain when he pronounces it “inappropriate” to wear jeans to the Queen’s garden party? This is what makes the new idiom so sinister. Calling your action indecent appeals to you as a human being; calling it inappropriate asserts official power.

The point can be generalised. As a society, we strive to eradicate moral language, hoping to eliminate the intolerance that often accompanies it. But intolerance has not been eliminated, merely thrust underground. “Inappropriate” and “unacceptable” are the catchwords of a moralism that dare not speak its name. They hide all measure of righteous fury behind the mask of bureaucratic neutrality. For the sake of our own humanity, we should strike them from our vocabulary.

  1. November 21, 2009

    Lindsay Beyerstein

    Saying that something is inappropriate isn’t necessarily an opaque appeal to institutional power, it’s just a more general category of condemnation.

    If I assert that it’s inappropriate to wear white shoes after Labor Day, someone can still ask me why I think so. I might make an empirical argument about the norms of polite behavior in a certain context. Or I might make a normative case about what I think decency or modesty or fashion forwardness demands. If they think it’s appropriate, they can say, “Actually, it happens all the time. It’s no big deal, get over yourself.” or “Maybe it’s not done. But so what?” It’s not like “inappropriate” shuts down the conversation.

    Calling something crass or vulgar is just as much an appeal to social norms and standards as calling it inappropriate. If anything, it’s more of a conversation-stopper because it’s a way of shaming or stigmatizing. It’s harder to argue with the conversational equivalent of a grimace. “Inappropriate” leaves open the possibility of a fact-based discussion.

  2. November 21, 2009

    jack

    Well said Mr Skidelsky. \In appropriate\ also replaces the simpler and clearer \wrong.\ The teacher acted inappropriately by having an affair with her student. As you say, how much more po-faced and evasive than saying the teacher acted wrongly.

    Bureacrats also love the word \encourage,\ a velvet glove in which to hide the coercive iron fist of compulsion. I once heard a bureaucrat challenged on what she meant by the word \encourage.\ Will you take their licences away? No we will encourage them to comply. And if they don’t? We will counsel them …

    \Age-appropriate\ has been another nice piece of psycho-babble, a term without meaning, or rather meaning anything you want it to mean.

    Mr Skidelsky is not incorrect. It would be most appropriate for us to drop the word, even at the risk of being wrong …

  3. November 21, 2009

    jack

    Apologies to Lord Skidelsky. From the other side of the world I didn’t know that he was a member of the House of Lords. I inadvertently referred to him as Mr Skidelsky, which was wrong at best and inappropriate at worst.

  4. November 21, 2009

    Jim McCue

    “Unacceptable” very often means “we’ll have to accept it”.

    It is a word of childish rage or impotent embarrassment — the protest of the minister who is powerless to do anything about bankers’ bonuses, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or declining standards in schools. When they tell us that they don’t accept these things — the facts — politicians are admitting that they live in dreamland.

  5. November 21, 2009

    sian

    No, Jack, the teacher did not do anything wrong. I agree with you that, if you’re going to descend to base moralising, it is better you should do so honestly; but it is better still that you should cut the cant entirely

  6. November 21, 2009

    LAGrant

    Ed, your statement, “we strive to eradicate moral language, hoping to eliminate the intolerance that often accompanies it” is an accurate and sad commentary on modern wishful thinking.

    The worst aspect, though is not that intolerance is “merely thrust underground.” Rather, it is that we become unable to call evil by its name. Good men are condemned for doing so, and named or not, evil expands.

  7. November 21, 2009

    Rick Haden

    You are so right…I had been feeling uncomfortable with the politically correct terminology being used lately, but was unsure why. You have succinctly explained it for me.

    Thank you

  8. November 21, 2009

    ashok

    Agreed with the post, but while I’m very conservative, I do have to say Lindsay Beyerstein’s comment above has a really good point. “Inappropriate” and “unacceptable” bring up serious questions about social norms and are not merely political correctness gone overboard necessarily.

  9. November 21, 2009

    NoCarsGo

    “As a society, we strive to eradicate moral language, hoping to eliminate the intolerance that often accompanies it.”

    Strongly disagreed.

    I am part of this society, and I for one believe there is too much tolerance in our society, and freedom all too frequently degenerates into license. Surely I am not alone. Surely other members of this society would not choose a moral-free zone. A society is defined exactly by the sharing of values. What exactly is a society without morals?

  10. November 21, 2009

    Jon Monroe

    The first problem with this argument is the obvious one embodied in the contradiction stated in the article:

    “This linguistic shift is revealing. Improper and indecent express moral judgements, whereas inappropriate and unacceptable suggest breaches of some purely social or professional convention.”

    But, of course, morality is “some purely social or professional convention.” What is indecent requires the imposition of a social convention to consider it so.

    The second problem lies in the assertion that there is something different about the use of “inappropriate” in terms of it having an official character. But, of course, when terms like indecent were in fashion they also had an official character: one that could land you in a lot more trouble than in the current state. I get the impression that the author is preparing to go Hayekian on modern language. Perhaps we’ll hear later that this is all part of the Left’s attempt to slip feudalism in through the back door via a political correctness regime (whereas it ought to go through the front door, as it always has in the past, using good, old, straightforward language like “indecent”).

    Nevertheless, I do agree with the author that this modern language, like many such instances (euphemism has a much broader and more politically diverse pedigree than is mentioned here), is ugly and degrades the language. It is ugly in precisely this way: it allows people to judge without standing behind their judgement. It brings the passive-aggressive rhetorical tactics of committees into everyday social life. The author is correct to identify this as a corrosive cultural phenomenon. There is little reason, however, to expand the point further. The problem is now obvious: how to invoke a genuinely moral discourse that is consistent with the conditions of modern life?

    The term “inappropriate”, for example, is not simply neutral and bureaucratic, in the sense discussed in the article and in my own response, it is also a sincere attempt to navigate the acknowledged fact that much of the behavior that causes us to react with moral approval or disapproval is indisputably subjective and purely a matter of social convention. “Inappropriate” allows people to speak carefully and with full awareness that it is morally unacceptable to judge someone according to a standard of which they have no awareness and to which they have never allied themselves.

    In short, we will get nowhere with a project of improving modern moral discourse until we acknowledge that much of what has previously been considered a matter of morals was really a matter of ethics or manners; and we need to be aware of the boundaries.

    It is good, too, to remind ourselves of the tyranny of petty, self-interested moralizers that existed in the Good Old Days, before the political correctness people decided to steal the spotlight.

  11. November 22, 2009

    anonymous

    very interesting.

    perhaps political correctness has been endorsed by both the right and the left because of the mechanism you describe — the assignment of power to institutions.

  12. November 22, 2009

    anonymous

    jon monroe –

    the author is arguing something quite subtle and important and it relates to the core of what the “politically correct movement” (PCM) is all about.

    the PCM is all about assigning behavioral control to institutions and taking it away from the traditional players — the church, the monarchy, the moneyed class, the bourgeoisie and even “mom and dad”.

    if behavior is contextualized as either “right or wrong”, then the arbiters of morality control what is morally acceptable and what is not. morality has been primarily the domain of the church and through its extension into the monarchy. the church defined what was right or wrong and everyone was required to comply.

    in contemporary times, political authority has been transferred from the church and monarchy to secular political institutions — who are interested in maintaining power. political institutions are supported by the news media, the educational system and the entertainment industry. all these players make it their business to develop, adopt and enforce politically-correct policies and language which is at the core of the PCM.

    why? because of what the author argues — that by removing morality from the equation, the user is only responsible for “knowing the rules” as opposed to understanding “the difference between right and wrong” and that this requires that the individual assign authority to the rule-makers.
    if it is “inappropriate” for a husband and wife to kiss at home or in public, but not at work, then the employer has effective control. if the couple’s child’s school adopts the same policy, then the school has control. if the the institution says it’s “not right” or “it’s wrong” to kiss at work or school, then this opens a debate about why it’s right/wrong, if it really is right/wrong and, ultimately, is anything really “right” or “wrong”. making it “inappropriate” behavior eliminates personal morality, institutional morality, popular morality and even mom and dad’s morality — and through a subtle change in language, all those players are kept out of the rule-making operation, leaving authority to those who set policy and define it through terminology. this creates a positive-feedback system that continues to reinforce institutional authority: create the terminology and policies, promote the adoption through media and in-house policy and enforce the rules. just using the institutional language supports the authority of institutions by conforming to institutionally-defined behavior and excluding the influence of all other would-be authorities.

    the PCM is promoted by both the right and the left in government and with the support of the educational system, corporations, the news media and the entertainment industry. all these institutions are interested in obtaining (more) power and maintaining it. when individuals conform to their authority, they profit, and they all use language to encourage the individual to assign authority to institutional power. if they used terms laced with moral subtext, they would be sharing their authority with God, the church, the queen and mom and dad.

  13. November 22, 2009

    michael

    Dear Mr. Skidelsky,
    Thank you for your insight. It is the nature of the modernists to be sly, and to chip away at virtue in small ways – just so. You are correct, and anyone who denies it is merely rationalizing and defending the slow bleed as being “progessive”.
    Best regards,
    mr

  14. November 22, 2009

    Dex

    When someone tells you something is inappropriate or unacceptable answer ‘how?’ for the former and ‘why?’ for the latter. Guaranteed to engender evasive looks, shuffling of feet, red faces, and other signs of discomfort. If no answer is forthcoming, just walk away.

  15. November 22, 2009

    Chris Cunningham

    These terms are used in an attempt to assert authority while avoiding conflict. Conflict avoidance is another catchword of our society.
    Both appeal to the idea of ‘consensus’, which itself is a velvet covering for an imposition of will.

  16. November 22, 2009

    Ryan Ruby

    This intellectually slight article is a tempest in a teacup.

    Consider the author’s two examples of infelicitous uses of the word inappropriate. Both of them make sense as examples only because they explicitly refer to particular institutional settings, viz. the academy and the monarchy. Whether having affairs or wearing jeans is wrong (in the more robust, moral sense the author seems to desire) independent of any possible institutional setting is a matter for debate, but one that certainly doesn’t impinge on the point that in those particular settings that behavior is not condoned.

    As a replacement for “inappropriate,” the author really doesn’t get as much conceptual mileage from “improper” as he supposes, since the two words have more or less the same meaning, which becomes very clear when one looks at their etymologies. In the Latin words from which they are both derived, “proprio” refers to something of one’s own. Negating this, we see, in the case of both “inappropriate” and “improper,” that we do not “own” in these instances is precisely the prerogative to make moral judgments, and that these are “owned” by a collectivity, or even, you might say, an institution.

    Finally, as regards “unacceptable,” the author has also chosen a poor example, in which he has confused the semantic content of a statement with the rules for its performance. A joke may be lewd, but if so, what’s lewd about it is the content. What is unacceptable is telling a joke with lewd content in an inappropriate situation. Once again, there is the question as to whether a joke can be unacceptable independent of all possible institutional contexts, but I think we can all agree that certain things can be said in a pub amongst friends that ought not be said in the presence of one’s students, say, or one’s Queen.

    I hope readers will excuse the pedantic tone of this comment, but I thought it appropriate to show at length how misguided the author’s faux-outrage is. In doing so, I hope I’ve shown what happens to philosophical problems when we carefully examine the use of our language: they disappear.

  17. November 22, 2009

    Tim Schoettle

    Outstanding! Great article!

    I wonder what Skidelsky makes of the practice of Rosenberg’s “non-violent communication”. I would see NVC as the flip side of the phenomenon that Skidelsky is pointing out. Either we talk about perfectly objective, neutral rules of etiquette or else we merely express our subjective opinions about how things make us feel. I wonder if what Skidelsky is responding to is thus the growing bifurcation of the objective (e.g. rules, codes of conduct etc.) and the subjective (e.g. our feelings). This bifurcation obscures our negative evaluative judgments making them more difficult to deal with, rather than less.

  18. November 22, 2009

    Humble Truth

    Not a bad article, but has been covered in exceptional fashion by George Carlin in much more humorous detail.

  19. November 23, 2009

    linda Crowe

    Felt invigorated!!

  20. November 23, 2009

    Ted

    Thank you Mr. Skidelsky for your refreshing comment–(no doubt someone will take exception to such an inappropriate opinion!). Ah-I see the official representative of political correctness has just posted that response below…It is important we be ever vigilant in case someone should escape the regime once in awhile and lose it. One often finds these maladjusted types listening to the evening news and yelling to themselves “God help me ‘inappropriate behavior’ does not cover it!!-”swine child terrorists, childhood murderers!” and the like, because to do so anywhere else might offend, and worse still, ‘tend to stigmatize’ …
    For a truly belligerent expression, what about ‘normative’..

  21. November 23, 2009

    Ted

    hilarious comments from the PC ‘class monitors’..
    pedantic is perhaps not the word; however the more accurate descriptors that come to mind might not be appropriate. But if you have to post such dreary mini -treatises, could you just spare everyone the inflated tone (“we of the pomo cognoscenti..”)

  22. November 23, 2009

    Ted

    This little article is such an intelligent synopsis of the problem (or one of the symptoms of the problem) at the end of the postmodernist regime. We are still too close in time to really see what we are left with, but I think it can only be called the ashes, as the only true legacy of PM seems something like the Berlin wall– a big, grey mound of detritus, its own ‘discredited’ assumptions, ‘false realities’, ugly language, worse art–an experiment with monumental destruction, coercion, hollow and pretentious ideologies that the worldwide Marxist association–one of its (self selected) patron saints- has long disavowed . I’m looking forward to reading Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, very much.

  23. November 23, 2009

    Ted

    Thank you Mr. Ruby for your tome which begins “This intellectually slight article is a tempest in a teacup…”
    and then carps on the author’s “infelicitous uses of the word inappropriate”…and so forth..
    It is wonderfully comic –you almost had me convinced it was serious. well done!

  24. November 23, 2009

    PatheiMathos

    Prove it! This article doesn’t prove a thing. It merely asserts that a language shift has happened based on the author’s own feelings and subjective observations.

    We can do corpus counts–it’s easy, and linguists do it all the time. You could also cite a dictionary, or the work of a lexicographer, but, no, you fall back on easy tropes. No empirical proof whatsoever. Just an argument that feels right.

    I see one of the tags for this article is “linguistics.” Unfortunately, this is the kind of unsupported drivel that passes for “linguistics” all too often in the public sphere.

    Go read Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/) and maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. Until then, please stop writing on a topic you clearly do not know how to research.

  25. November 23, 2009

    Gerry Needham

    Another bland, meaningless word that is used in innumerable situations is “issues”. I would like to see it given a rest.

  26. November 23, 2009

    footnoteHooligan

    @ Jack: I fear you’ve skidded your Skidelskys. You concern yourself needlessly: last I heard, Edward Skidelsky was not a member of the House of Lords, His father Robert Skidelsky was, however, made a member of the upper house by Margaret Thatcher.

  27. November 23, 2009

    Seasoned Reader

    Bravo! Such newspeak as “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” blunt our moral sense and disguise the self-righteousness of the new politically correct regime. As George Orwell warned us several years back, language signals to us the threats to our freedom; and Dostoevsky’s underground man declares that he would rather be outrageous and perverse than live by the rules of the game if they are purely arbitrary. .

  28. November 23, 2009

    Gwan

    Thanks for this – I remember how much I used to hate these mealy-mouthed (to my mind) Americanisms some time ago. Now they’ve become so common I think I barely notice them any more, well done on reawakening my entirely appropriate hatred :)

  29. November 23, 2009

    Jon Monroe

    I believe Mr. Skidelsky has missed something very important: that while it may be true that the political correctness movement institutionalizes and degrades the character of some moral judgements, that is is nevertheless also true that the members of the PCM movement are the people today who are taking morality most seriously. The fact that they have turned to the state as a means of enforcing their codes (and where else could they turn. I wonder?) does not alter the fact that they are engaged in a moral enterprise of great seriousness. The resentment directed at them by advocates of traditional morality only highlights their success, and the fecklessness of tradition: tradition has only to whine or to radicalize. Tradition has been overturned, and yet it is somehow expected that its moral weight should survive.

    No doubt, at some time in the past, the imposition of law by monarchies would have struck traditionalists with the same horror with which they now view PC. And if the slippery slope arguments used to foster fear of progressive agendas is also applied to traditionalist nostalgia… well, then… warlords anyone?.

    Better to spend energy finding a new balance of social forces to underpin modern morality.

    BTW: All this anxiety about moral language does need to come to grips with moral behavior at some point. I am quite sure that if we set what some people consider to be bad manners aside, that modern societies will be found at a moral peak in world history, not in the gully (even taking into account the casualties of both world wars, people have never led safer lives in conditions of greater stability to pursue genuine improvements in the human condition; only the sensitivity that has been engendered by our material and moral improvement permits us the luxury of looking on the 20th century with horror… so what, exactly, is the underlying worry here?).

  30. November 23, 2009

    Ian Stuart

    Excellent article. Edward Skidelsky is describing the way in which language is becoming benevolently imprecise. Consider the use of “around.” and “issues” A politician will say “There are issues around the Health Service” rather than daring to say ” There are problems WITH the Health Service.” All this is a shameless blurring of meaning and now part of our regular political discourse.

    George Orwell would have torn “issues” to shreds

  31. November 23, 2009

    jack

    Thanks Footnote Hooligan. First I demoted the author to “Mr” instead of “Dr” and then I elevated him to the House of Lords. But perhaps it’s an hereditory title after all?

    I emailed Dr Sidelsky at Exeter University to apologise but he isn’t speaking to me. He wasn’t speaking to me before, either, so I suppose that’s an appropriate response.

    But seriously Footnote and folks, here’s the starkest affirmation of the point Dr Skidelsky made. It’s a quote from a Weekly Standard article on US Major Hasan’s murderous mayhem at Fort Hood:

    ‘There are, of course, many reasons not to trust the words of an al Qaeda cleric. But late last week, ABC News offered more details of the 18 emails between Hasan and Awlaki. In one, Hasan tells Awlaki, “I can’t wait to join you” in the afterlife.

    ‘Citing officials familiar with the emails, ABC reported that Hasan also asked Awlaki “when is jihad appropriate, and whether it is permissible if there are innocents killed in a suicide attack.”‘

  32. November 24, 2009

    Edward Skidelsky

    Many thanks for your comments, some of them very useful. I’m relying on contacts to provide me with material for this column, so if any words particularly irk you, do please send them to me, if possible together with examples of their misuse. \Issues\ is one that has cropped up a lot already. My email is e.b.h.skidelsky@ex.ac.uk.

  33. November 24, 2009

    padkins

    use of “inappropriate” differs from use of “indecent” mainly by asserting the identity of the party who will be offended by the act. The latter suggests that some higher morality is breached; the lack of direct access to a source of which enables debate. The former suggests a group of humans as those subject to the unfavorable nature of the action being thusly labeled. It is more difficult to argue with this since the possibly-to-be-offended humans themselves are the source from which the notion that would have had to be discussed in the more moral case actually springs, and would be the incontrovertible experts on the surrounding facts. So in essence, the substitution of the words substitutes the offended parties; one with which there could be no communication for one with whom the speaker has direct access. This causes an obvious difficulty in argument.

    In essence, when one invokes the use of “inappropriate” they are not making a statement about the action which is being labeled as such; they are making a statement about their own reaction to such an action. This of course cannot be argued with. The speaker of the words “indecent” or “wrong”, by using god or a super-human moral as a proxy for themselves, has left their statement up to argument by adding an object to the conversation with which they could never claim to have full expertise .

    Then, though the word “inappropriate” has this sort of inarguable nature (when used in the context I’m describing) which would seem to give the increase in power that mr. skidelsky is attempting to argue, I would say that it gives up just as much power in the form of range of applicability. Labeling something as “lewd” describes the more fundamental nature of the action and hence is a general condemnation. Labeling something as “inappropriate” only serves to illustrate the nature of the relationship between the object of discussion and the speaker of the word himself. The environment in which the label retains its power is tiny. And this is the exchange that is made. This word certainly has a different power in usage. But it hasn’t a larger absolute value, but merely a restructuring or focusing effect in its point of application.

  34. November 24, 2009

    Peter

    Inappropriate is to broad a word to use in certain contexts.

    Passing gas in an elevator is inappropriate (and tasteless). Wearing ratty shorts and a torn shirt to a wedding is inappropriate.

    A teacher having an affair with a student is to serious a matter for a word like inappropriate. It would be better to say that such an affair is wrong or exploitative.

  35. November 25, 2009

    Jacob the Jew

    Miss Beyerstein I think you’re confusing the point while at the same time dismissing it without tackling what’s being said.

    “A more general code of condemnation” is exactly what the problem is here. When you remove the reasons why something is wrong and just tell us that it’s wrong because it’s against the rules, the rules begin to have far less meaning because then they only exist in order to exist..when the laws serve only their own existence (read the people in power) they necessarily serve no larger purpose.

    When the laws serve no larger purpose than themselves, whoever is in power can do with them what they please. Someone like Hitler built an entity that was more powerful than the German laws of the day which had been devalued by the same thing that affects us now, moral relativism …Such new fangled entities like Hitler’s or Pol Pot’s regimes are always defeated by a unified and universal morality, but never by changing secular laws which some people might say “are the same thing as universal moral laws” but quite obviously aren’t.

    In this way abortion is fine because “life is sacred” becomes just an old law that is now obsolete because of human overcrowding. When “life is sacred” is a universal moral law delivered by the Creator of All nothing never no way no how can change it. It’s eternal, always was and always is, even if we choose to ignore it and belittle it as an archaic superstitious intolerant nonsense rule.

  36. November 25, 2009

    Ted

    I am so thankful to read the responses of ‘Jacob the Jew’, “Jack’ Jim McH , Michael, and others, which are much more thoughtfully expressed than my own. The ‘mealy-mouthed’ postmodernist agenda is so thoroughly entrenched here in Canada that the only thing it inspires in me now is a sort of incoherent spluttering. I have no way of knowing where you are all from, or what your day to day experience is like..but here, and especially in academia, the PCM regime has been total…everything must be passed through that tedious inspection, and given a ‘reading’; everything one says or thinks or writes must conform to some arcane yet not very subtle or modulated code..
    it has been and is still exerting a stranglehold on culture, reducing everything to the same predictable forms. But beneath the porridgey grey and pernicious blandness– there’s a crome yellow effect like those hideous coiled fluorescent lightbulbs we are urged to buy… and which will undoubtedly create the same kind of depressing effect. Its language, as someone noted above, is an extreme form of passive aggression. I see it in all the ever-so patiently worded replies, gently correcting our thoughts and putting them back in line.. Ms Beyerstein, I know you don’t see it this way, but it is a fascistic sort of line to take…it is choking the life out of things

  37. November 25, 2009

    Kevin Riley O'Keeffe

    I’ve been saying this since 1994, when some dippy broad on a BBS tried to tell me that my criticism of something or other was “inappropriate.” I kept asking here, “on what basis?” And she just keep responding that I should be aware that what I was saying was “inappropriate,” and it wasn’t her responsibility to “educate” me. Basically, it just comes down to people trying to stigmatize disagreement. Its somehow “inappropriate” to come to conclusions different from the ones they have reached.

  38. November 26, 2009

    Robert Szente

    Jack, Robert Skidelsky is a lord, not, as far as I know, Edward. So no impropriety there!

  39. November 26, 2009

    S Oliver

    How “appropriate” is it for the government to pay bankers to write financial education books for schools? People need confidence about daily money from INDEPENDENT sources. Frank forthright facts can be found in new plain-speaking financial literacy book http://www.moneybarebasicfacts.co.uk
    Superbly simple straightforward and, importantly, it is impartial.

  40. November 26, 2009

    JR_Marsh

    Ted, you are so right. The PC form of thought control is becoming so entrenched that anyone who questions it is now subject to shunning, as with cult members who question the cult’s dogma or leadership.

    I understand that the trend has gone wild in Canada, enforced by a tribunal. Do I understand correctly that a Canadian lady who repeatedly protested outside an abortion clinic was jailed for some years? If so, surely this is heading for the end of free speech and the unfolding of a Stalinist era of thought control. Like Mao devotees, we will each be carry our “Little PC Book” of politically correct thoughts, imposed by the cultural revolution.

  41. November 27, 2009

    Loki

    This author misses the most important points of the very issue he raises, using deceptively neutral and authoritative language to frame what were and remain moralistic values judgments some people thrust at others.

    It is inherently dishonest to frame personal or small group values judgments as if neutral. They are not.

    It is inherently abusive as well as dishonest to pretend bigotry driven values judgments are statements of absolute authority, as neutral boundary language attempts to make them appear. They remain relativistic complaints that someone hasn’t followed certain social or religious expectations, that others think should be universal, but are not. The change this article discusses in language is little more than disingenuous passive aggressive manipulation, to pretend those using faux-neutral language are saying something other than, \you’d better act according to my sense of hate cult bigotry.\

    The primary reason for dishonest reframing of moralistic cult dogma as if authoritative expressions of universal values or boundaries is that society and law have changed. The mix of increasing social and religious diversity, and adoption of civil or human rights laws more broadly, have resulted in archaic social traditions becoming dysfunctional and abusive in many cases, if not sometimes also criminal.

    The author is correct only on a superficial level. Passive-aggressive deception tactics to dishonestly mask bigotry are inappropriate, for a long list of social, psych pathology, and legal reasons. The real problem behind this shift of language isn’t the words, but the fact that millions of people haven’t grown up or died off fast enough to end the forms of social practices behind the language of imposing predatory and abusive tactics in efforts to violate and coerce oppression of the core rights of neighbors.

  42. November 27, 2009

    Jake Herrenstein

    Could Loki please translate his execrable tract?

  43. November 30, 2009

    mnuez

    Dunno whether me great grandpappy felt like a cog in a monstrous machine that knew all right, but I would guess that he did.

    Anyhow, my personal favorite is the term “unprofessional”, as though man’s place in this world is to practically define himself through his adherence to the social conventions of his chosen form of slavery.

    I wish I didn’t care so much about the judgements of the mentaly enslaved lifers who comprise the vast reaches of humanity. Oh what I would give to be a sociopath.

  44. November 30, 2009

    Ted

    re Loki and ‘PatheiMathos’ (one of whose comments ran as follows:
    \Go read Language Log (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/) and maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. Until then, please stop writing on a topic you clearly do not know how to research\.

    you each have posted sanctimonious little tomes to the author, and I suppose, to your fellow commentators. As it is something that seems irresistible to PCM apologists–there always has to be a sermon to the unenlightened–
    I wonder if you would mind commenting on that for readers. I would very much like to know what this is all about, and why it coexists with this presumed neutrality, etc… We can almost hear the familiar nasal shrillness in what you write–which amounts to a personal attack on the author \ you clearly do not know how to research..\ etc. It’s comic, but i know you mean it , so would you explain a bit what this is all about (without the pc sermon which we already have to refer to)

  45. November 30, 2009

    Ted

    Hi Jake-

    (I completely agree)
    what do you bet it will bring on another little soapbox speech!
    So odd that people think postmod jargon and cant somehow fills in for clarity or intelligence…

  46. December 1, 2009

    r4i

    This is great. Thank you both for your unintended collaboration in bring to light something we all do so brilliantly and often without being aware of it. Making judgments or pointing fingers at a situation or more commonly, another person without first seeing where that thread is connected to our own thoughts and actions is something we overlook within ourselves but see clearly outside ourselves.

  47. December 1, 2009

    Scott

    This story is BS! Sure, moralism is a palpable facet to our daily lives, perhaps even too much. This in itself carves out territory for the inappropriate and unacceptable. Judgements and offense are natural acts and often don’t even require any thought. The visceral, core emotional response cannot be rationalized. It is what it is. This is just another iteration of Moral Relativism, a contemporary journalistic/political cornerstone of intellectualism.

  48. December 3, 2009

    Elaine

    A very interesting article. For some time now, at least since the time the murder of innocent children through abortion was legalized, I’ve noticed how the meaning of words have lost their meaning and have changed to make them appear to mean something else.

    George Orwell’s Newspeak is alive and well.

    In the near future, we will be imprisoned if we do not speak Newspeak. And if our thoughts are construed as thinking in the “old way”, i.e., before Newspeak, we will be charged with a hate crime.

  49. December 3, 2009

    janet smith

    Always questioning

  50. December 3, 2009

    janet smith

    who decides what is inappropriate

  51. December 4, 2009

    Topher

    This article was inappropriate and unacceptable. It’s not about intolerance, it’s about calling things as we see them. We need the words to do that.

  52. December 4, 2009

    Mo

    This was fascinating! I will keep this in mind the next time I hear the term “inappropriate” or “unacceptable”. I thought I was the only one annoyed by those words. But I never was able to put a finger on exactly why. This makes so much sense!

    It’s gotten so we can see someone slitting someone’s throat and all we can say is, “Tsk, tsk. That’s unacceptable!” ’cause y’know, calling the perpetrator a savage and his actions inhuman involves making a moral judgment. Worse yet, it might hurt the assailant’s feelings. And we all know that crime is always the result of the poooooooor criminal’s bad past, and therefore not anything that he should have to take responsibility for.
    /sarc

  53. December 4, 2009

    Jon Norton

    The best comment was by Ryan Ruby, but he spoiled it by the groundless claim at the end that ALL philosophical problems come from linguistic mistakes. The irony of this Wittgensteinian approach is that it is precisely the sort of generalisation, that neglects the diversity of cases, which itself condemns.

  54. December 5, 2009

    jamie heywood

    Edward Skidelsky’s article on the linguistic shift over the last 30 years from words such ‘indecent’ or ‘improper’, which imply a moral judgement, to those such as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unacceptable’, which do not, brought to mind a distinction drawn in social psychology between ‘guilt’ cultures and ‘shame’ cultures. Guilt cultures, traditionally assumed to be those in the West, use moral rules – together with the associated promise and threat of heaven and hell – to ensure that people’s behaviour conforms to certain norms; whilst ‘shame’ cultures, traditionally assumed to be those in the East, use social pressure – and the associated gain or loss in ‘face’ – to do the same.

    Perhaps, the linguistic shift from ‘indecent’ to ‘inappropriate’ does not indicate, as Skildelsky suggests, the growth of a “righteous fury behind the mask of bureaucratic neutrality”, but instead a trend in British society from holding God ultimately responsible for ensuring that we behave ourselves, to seeing that the definition and enforcement of our social norms is a responsibility that we all share.

    Would this be such a bad thing?

  55. December 7, 2009

    gokul vannan

    nice article, please do read it.

  56. December 8, 2009

    Ken Grace

    I don’t buy the argument here. If ‘indecent’ and ‘improper’ express moral judgements, it seems to me that ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’ express social judgements. Your contention that they merely express breaches of convention is false. Passing wind audibly in public is a breach of convention – a faux pas – but we tend to forgive it as an embarrassing accident. Doing something inappropriate or unacceptable is another kettle of fish entirely, and will likely earn the opprobrium of others, or even punishment (for example, being banned from future gatherings at the palace).

    A second point. The writer says a once “indecent” joke will now be “unacceptable”. What he hasn’t considered is that our sense of what’s not OK has not only shifted, but also broadened. 50 years ago, pretty much anything was fair game for a joke as long as it wasn’t indecent. Now, indecent jokes are common and widely (not universally) accepted. Jokes based on race, disability and gender, however, are far more likely to cause offence. What word do we use for them? “Indecent” is too narrow. “Offensive” covers them better, as does “unacceptable”.

    Which brings me to my final point. In stating that “this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom”, the writer sets up a false dichotomy. Who said that it was meant to provide more freedom? Surely the intention of calling something “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” is to express disapproval, just as our parents’ use of words like “lewd” and “vulgar” was intended.

    We’re no more or less judgemental than previous generations, and we’re no less vocal in stating our disapproval of those things we dislike. Unarguably, we approve of or tolerate some things they abhorred, and we won’t stand for some things they were willing to turn a blind eye to (anyone up for a return to apartheid in South Africa?). But that’s a discussion about morality and values, not about language.

  57. December 11, 2009

    jamesthompson

    I thought you’d be amused? Jim

  58. December 12, 2009

    Mark

    Perhaps the growing use of ‘inappropriate’ and ‘unacceptable’ is the result of people’s increasing lack of precision in language and the vocabulary to express oneself. On another note, I’ve found it interesting (a word in the same category) that childen and the mentally ill are often chastised by the phrase ‘that is inappropriate behavior’ as if they know what that means. Might as well just say ‘bad, bad!!’

  59. February 25, 2010

    DG

    Ironically, the dichotomous nature of the two terms resembles the very moral system being rejected: good and evil, saved and not-saved, believer and infidel, clean and unclean.

    The language also forms the basis for political coercion. Governments enact hate-crime legislation to deal with what was once grotesque, hateful, spiteful, malicious, ignorant, etcetera… all, as you write, balled up in this one word, “unacceptable.” Once people were trusted to think for themselves and reject hate and grotesqueries. Not any more. The government must, like the language, think for us.

    Whereas people once had the freedom to disapprove and to exist in the midst of disapproval there is constantly a call to eradicate those who do not think like us… no matter who thinks what. This is leading societies of the West to ever less tolerance while paying lip service to the term.

    There’s something delusional in this speech too, as if one’s opinion were not just some weak-kneed moral opinion but something factual, solid, that gave the speaker an unquestionable moral authority. Perhaps that’s the drug that feeds the phenomenon we see escaping the lips of the impotent, like the ravings of men and women on street corners who, lacking the power to communicate with people long gone with whom they have outstanding issues, vocalize to ghosts.

    Thanks for showing us the tip of this very cold-civil-war iceberg! This is not an insult: I understand there are space limitations.

  60. June 14, 2010

    essays

    When you think of linguistics of modern internet, what do you see? Not one teenager considers it “cool” to use proper English with proper endings and time sequences. At first it starts as a fashion trend and with time young adults notice that they simply do not know how to write (correction – to type) without the spell check or the red OS underlines. Some can’t even find the right version of the word.

  61. September 19, 2010

    irishpoetry

    Hurray, hurray, hats off to you. Ahh, so there are still some people left in the world who are prepared to open their mouths and speak out and speak out to the world and stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. These are also two words the world seems to have forgotten. I agree with all you say 100% and I congratulate you on this article. I would be glad if you would put a link to my humble website back here in Ireland, which I am hoping to get up and running shortly. From it I will be selling my forthcoming book “Poetry celebrating the Gift of a Mother’s Love”. Anyone who is lucky enough to still have their mom with them will love this book to give her as a gift for Christmas or any other time. But my post here isn’t about that. I was just so encouraged by what you wrote when I stumbled upon your website. How I wish we had a lot more articles like yours on the net, for our young people to read. Improper and inappropriate – meaningless words – what next. Our moral principals and our values should never be watered down. In a world such as ours is today, you my friend are needed, to be doing your good work and posting on the net. You my friend rock! So rock on from your own little part of the world, from which you are rocking this world. Unfortunately, a lot of people are afraid to open their mouths and speak out, because the tide of the world is against them. I will keep your article in my thoughts the next time I hear the words “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” and I will blurt out No sorry, it’s downright – vulger, indecent, wrong, evil, filthy, sinful, immodest, brazen, corrupt, rotten to the core, or whatever.

    Your reader’s comment “…since the time the murder of innocent children through abortion was legalised”. Exactly, that’s what I call, calling a spade a spade”. Yea, let’s get back to calling a spade a spade and not something else. As Margaret Thatcher said back when we had our Troubles here “murder is murder is murder”.

  62. October 15, 2010

    Pensiuni Sibiu

    Who decides what is inappropriate, always questioning.

  63. November 4, 2010

    Cancer Palliative Care

    Loved the post especially “No words are more typical of our moral culture than “inappropriate” and “unacceptable.”

  64. April 5, 2011

    ebook

    Dunno whether me great grandpappy felt like a cog in a monstrous machine that knew all right, but I would guess that he did.

  65. August 26, 2011

    Chris

    Excellent article, with great insights summed up in a short, neat piece that says it all. I tip my hat to the author!

  66. December 9, 2012

    writings services

    Today, television is the mainstream medium, which influences substantially the public opinion and, what is more, it has the power to influence the formation of an individual’s identity. In such a situation, the television violence has a particularly significant and dangerous impact on the audience, especially youth, whose identity, moral values and beliefs are in the process of formation.

Leave a comment

  1. Words that think for us at izbrano11-21-09
  2. neutralised language « things of little relevance11-21-09
  3. Sunday Read: Extremely Inappropriate and Incredibly Unacceptable | BOOK SA - News11-22-09
  4. Words that think for us « Bedeutung Blog11-23-09
  5. Inappropriate jargon « Idea Anaconda11-24-09
  6. “Inappropriate” vs. “Improper” | Cranach: The Blog of Veith11-24-09
  7. Literature News | Dark Sky Magazine11-24-09
  8. The Indecent and Improper Use of Unacceptable » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog11-24-09
  9. The Blight of the Banal « Skyla Freeman11-25-09
  10. What I’m Reading — November 29th | Nathaniel Ward11-30-09
  11. From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Is Sen wrong on famine?; Krugman 4 Tobin; US as failing state; weasel words; China ain’t green; how Gordon can defend aid and pomo-babble: links I liked11-30-09


Author

Edward Skidelsky

Edward Skidelsky
Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University. His book "Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture" is published by Princeton University Press 


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