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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Concept Creep - the Slippery Slope by another name

How 'Concept Creep' Made Americans So Sensitive to Harm

"In “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Haslam argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,”expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.”...

Society’s concept of what constituted an unacceptable risk, harm, or trauma expanded for ill. In Hanna Rosin’s words, it “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer.”...

How did a working-class mom get arrested, lose her fast food job, and temporarily lose custody of her 9-year-old for letting the child play alone at a nearby park?

The concept of abuse expanded too far...

“The concept of bullying has spread from its original meaning to encompass a wider range of phenomena,” Haslam writes. “It has expanded horizontally into online behavior, into adult workplaces, and into forms of social exclusion that do not directly target the victim with hurtful actions, as distinct from hurtful omissions.” (For example,being excluded from a group of friends is dubbed bullying.)

Bullying has expanded vertically, too.

“Behavior that is less extreme than prototypical bullying now falls within its bounds”...

Trauma originally referred to a physical injury to the body...

By the government’s definition, a Wellesley student who saw that statue of a man in his underwear, perceived the event as “emotionally threatening” and experienced “lasting adverse effects” on her “spiritual well-being” is a trauma victim. Since the same designation also encompasses victims of torture and brutal sexual assaults, and people who experience adverse effects as extreme as suicide, an inevitable effect of this “concept creep” is to leave us without language to distinguish classic trauma, even though isolating such cases might be useful or necessary.

Creep in the concept of “mental disorder” has been much debated in elementary education. Are boys displaying normal restlessness in school classrooms being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorders and medicated so that they’re more sedate for teachers?

“Ordinary vicissitudes of childhood now find shelter under the umbrella concept of mental disorder"...

“By misrepresenting normal sadness, worry, and fear as mental disorders, the mental health professions overmedicate, exaggerate the population prevalence of disorder, and deflect resources away from more severe conditions.”...

The backlash to America’s “ever-increasing sensitivity to harm” is about a lot of diffuse, sometimes contradictory things, but it is partly about an aversion to being scammed...

Within academia, “concept creep” expanded what counted as prejudice “from direct, expressed antipathy...to inferred antipathy,” and then the concept was expanded in two more ways. “The concept of aversive prejudice (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004) applies to liberally minded people who deny personal prejudice but hold aversions, sometimes unconscious, to other-race people,” Haslam writes. “These aversions are not based on hostile antipathy but on fear, unease, or discomfort.” And the idea of implicit bias—that subconscious attitudes and beliefs could shape actions—entrenched the notion that prejudice included negative racial sentiments held by people even if they were unaware of harboring them.

In yet another evolution, prejudice was no longer restricted to negative group evaluations. “The concept of benevolent sexism (Glick & Fiske, 1996) extended prejudice to include group evaluations that were at least superficially warm and positive,” Haslam writes. “Benevolent sexists idealize women as pure creatures who are too delicate and morally superior to inhabit the hurly-burly public world of men.”

And the concept of prejudice as understood in the academy would not be complete without mentioning the rise of the controversial microaggressions framework...

It seems like there ought to be clearly distinguishable words and concepts for klansmen and demagogues who deliberately stoke racial anxieties, on the one hand, and college students who take a test that suggests that they have mild, negative associations about a racial group, without harboring any animosity toward people in that group, acting badly toward any members of that group, or advocating for anything but full equality on the other. Those college students may be labeled “prejudiced” or “racist,” but few people will be inclined to exclude them from their homes or their workplaces...

“Concept creep” exacerbates failures to communicate.

When a concept is stretched to include “milder, subtler, or less extreme phenomena than those to which they referred at an earlier time,” any earlier judgment or consensus about how best to respond to that concept no longer applies...

Why has the direction of concept creep, across so many different concepts, trended toward greater sensitivity to harm as opposed to lesser sensitivity?

Haslam endorses two theories.

One concerns the field of psychology and its incentives. “It could be argued that just as successful species increase their territory, invading and adapting to new habitats, successful concepts and disciplines also expand their range into new semantic niches”... The other theory posits an ideological explanation. “Psychology has played a role in the liberal agenda of sensitivity to harm and responsiveness to the harmed,” he writes “and its increased focus on negative phenomena—harms such as abuse, addiction, bullying, mental disorder, prejudice, and trauma—has been symptomatic of the success of that social agenda.”...

“If an increasingly left-leaning academy is staffed by people who are increasingly hostile to conservatives, then we can expect that their concepts will shift, via motivated scholarship, in ways that will help them and their allies (e.g., university administrators) to prosecute and condemn conservatives”...

There are many reasons to be concerned about excessive sensitivity to harm:

“by applying concepts of abuse, bullying, and trauma to less severe and clearly defined actions and events, and by increasingly including subjective elements into them, concept creep may release a flood of unjustified accusations and litigation, as well as excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes.”

“...concept creep can produce a kind of semantic dilution. If a concept expands to encompass less extreme phenomena... then its prototypical meaning is likely to shift... If trauma, for example, ceases to refer exclusively to terrifying events that are outside normal human experience, and is applied to less severe and more prevalent stresses, it will come to be seen in a more benign light.”

“...by increasing the range of people who are defined as moral patients—people worthy of moral concern, based on their perceived capacity to suffer and be harmed—it risks reducing the range of people who see themselves as capable of moral agency.” There is a tendency “for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence...The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.”
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Expanding mental disorder “can pathologize normal experiences, generate over-diagnosis and over-treatment, and engender a sense of diminished agency.”...

Greater sensitivity to harm has affected college campuses.

“Of course young people need to be protected from some kinds of harm, but overprotection is harmful, too, for it causes fragility and hinders the development of resilience,” they wrote. “As Nasim Taleb pointed out in his book Antifragile, muscles need resistance to develop, bones need stress and shock to strengthen and the growing immune system needs to be exposed to pathogens in order to function. Similarly, he noted, children are by nature anti-fragile – they get stronger when they learn to recover from setbacks, failures and challenges to their cherished ideas.”


So the moral panic and obsession about bullying and mental illness are also the results of concept creep.

Concept creep is a great example of the "fallacy" of the slippery slope.
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