Decisions are hard, words feel easier

by Hazard 4mo21st Jun 20194 comments


Categorization often serves the purpose of making decisions. Recall, making decisions is hard. Sometimes it's easier (but not necessarily more effective) to think about if a word applies, rather than to think directly about how a decision should be made. This happens on the in individuals and in groups.


Explicit note: When a word appears in quotation marks, I'm referring to the English word itself. When it appears unquoted, I'm referring to the concept it invokes.

Read this carefully. This post makes claims about "racism", not many about racism. If you disagree, please use your best inference powers to engage with what I mean, lest I become a "racist".

"Racism". Not racism, but "racism".

What do I know about someone who is racist? Depends on what I meant. What do I know about someone who is "racist"? I know that:

  • If I associate with them I'm in danger of being attacked.
  • Other people consider them unsavory.

The move to notice is that regardless of whatever racism actually is, there's a decently stable way that the word "racism" works in America. This is the lawyer. If the word sticks, game moves are allowed to be made. I'm allowed to dox someone on the internet for being "racist". I'm not allowed to dox someone on the internet who isn't "racist". But am I allowed to dox someone o the internet who is racist? Hard to say, unless I know they're "racist". Until that battle has been fought, I don't know what's going to happen.

My argument is not that you shouldn't use the word racism like this, but to make clear the actual cognition and social inferences that are happening. Defining racism is not a "just for fun" intellectual exercise. Through inter-subjective magic, the word "racism" has power. Maybe it should, maybe it shouldn't. Either way, it does.

Oops, we've got a situation on our hands that incentives being a lawyer. All parties know that if there is loud consensus on X being "racist", a certain outcome will happen. All parties want certain outcomes. Arguing about if the word "racist" applies becomes such a direct path to getting what one wants, why go a different route?

Being "racist" means that a lot of people agreed to use the word "racist" to talk about you. Being racist means [something].

Now, the "if... then..." decision rules are no longer applied to the neural categories. They are applied to things that the social fabric allows to be called a WORD.

You can argue if the CONCEPT of racism applies (what's active in your mind when you think of that? What decision rules? What memories?) Separately, you can argue if the WORD "racism" applies.


In some fields, one draws boundaries to convey a lot of meaning quickly and more easily make intellectual process. But remember, it's natural for neural categories to have corresponding "if then" decision rules. In my pursuit to figure out once and for what a friend really means, I might be a nerd who hates putting effort into figuring out social stuff and wants a straightforward decision procedure that will always lead me to outcomes I like.


That is the goal. But also, it feels like friendship is just a thing that's out there and it must mean something. This is the student again. The student wants to always get the test right. It's easier to talk about what the right word is rather than to talk about what gets me what I want.