Don’t Look Now But Your Concept Is Creeping

It’s a pretty common conversation among parents of young children. Clichéd even. Usually starts with […]

David Zahl / 4.28.16

It’s a pretty common conversation among parents of young children. Clichéd even. Usually starts with a reminiscence about what things were like when we were kids:

  • “Can’t believe I was allowed to ride my bike to the library by myself when I was 7.”
  • “In summer I’d leave the house after breakfast and not come back home ’til it was dark”.
  • “A classmate of mine and I walked to school every day of first grade, no chaperone.”
  • “When I was a kid, parents weren’t allowed to stay to watch T-Ball practice–and they didn’t want to.”

The next part of the conversation involves indignation about how such actions would qualify as neglect today. I mean, did you hear about that lady who got arrested for letting her 9-year old play by himself at the park? No wonder we keep our kids inside, glued to screens.

If it sounds a little curmudgeonly, I suppose it is. I also suspect that most everyone who has had a conversation like this has felt an internal twinge of “Gawd, I sound just like my parents.”

5177WAYSurely each generation looks back with rose-colored glasses on some aspect of their own childhood, some social norm that has shifted in a more burdensome direction. We forget about all the things that have gotten better. For example, as overprescribed as it may be today, we all remember the kid in class who really could’ve benefited from some Ritalin–had it been available.

And yet, you can’t dismiss these conversations on nostalgic grounds completely. The boundaries of what constitutes “parental neglect” have expanded. Undeniably so–as have those of a number of other stigmatized categories, such as abuse, trauma and prejudice.

Those who grew up with narrower definitions (AKA pretty much everyone) have begun to perceive the increasingly broad application of such conversation-ending words as evidence of a worrisome emotional fragility among the emerging generation. Not so much entitlement as an inability to handle anything unpleasant. ‘How did we become so sensitive?’ we wonder (the impolite translation being, ‘when did we all become such babies?’). That is the question that Conor Friedersdorf set out to answer in an article for The Atlantic Monthly on the phenomenon of “concept creep”. He explains it this way:

A new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers as useful a framework for understanding what’s going on as any I’ve seen. 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.” He calls these expansions of meaning “concept creep.”…

According to the paper in question this creeping, which isn’t anything new (just accelerated), takes two principal forms, “horizontal” and “vertical”. Take “abuse” as an example:

Classically, psychological investigations recognized two forms of child abuse, physical and sexual, Haslam writes. In more recent decades, however, the concept of abuse has witnessed “horizontal creep” as new forms of abuse were recognized or studied. For example, “emotional abuse” was added as a new subtype of abuse. Neglect, traditionally a separate category, came to be seen as a type of abuse, too.

Meanwhile, the concept of abuse underwent “vertical creep.” That is, the behavior seen as qualifying for a given kind of abuse became steadily less extreme. Some now regard any spanking as physical abuse. Within psychology, “the boundary of neglect is indistinct,” Haslam writes. “As a consequence, the concept of neglect can become over-inclusive, identifying behavior as negligent that is substantially milder or more subtle than other forms of abuse. This is not to deny that some forms of neglect are profoundly damaging, merely to argue that the concept’s boundaries are sufficiently vague and elastic to encompass forms that are not severe.”…

Haslam goes on to note what is perhaps the most dramatic (and problematic) annexation of recent years: the inclusion of internal, indirect and even unconscious factors in what constitutes “abuse” or “prejudice”.

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.

The article then describes how the same has happened to “bullying” and “trauma”. To his credit, Friedersdorf is careful to note how such creeping by no means always a regrettable phenomenon. It can be a very good thing, in fact, a way of incorporating fresh breakthroughs in the study and experience of human beings. In the case of war veterans, for example, expanded understandings of what it means to be “traumatized” have led to considerably more effective (and humane) methods of care. Expanding our notion of “prejudice” to include less conscious forms of racial bias allows for deeper compassion and greater opportunity all the way around. And so on. 

As you might surmise, though, concept creep has plenty of downsides, not the least of which being children who are never permitted to exist unsupervised. Indeed, many would say that concept creep lies at the heart of the ideological impasse that administrators are encountering on college campuses.

The issue isn’t so much that sensitive concepts can creep so far that the painful realities to which they refer become trivialized, though that’s certainly a part of it. The problem is that in the hands of sinners, concepts invariably creep in the direction of power. That is, words like “abuse” and “prejudice” come to be wielded as weapons, instruments of the very power they are theoretically decrying, a mighty convenient way to justify one’s position/self and silence or invalidate one’s opponents. (It should probably come as no surprise that Friedersdorf goes on to reference Jonathan Haidt’s work at some length.)

Of course, no one disagrees that abuse and prejudice are bad things, worthy of stigmatization and recourse. The disagreement has to do with what behavior those terms actually refer to (AKA horizontal creep). Progressives seem intent on widening the circle as much as possible, usually out of solidarity with and compassion for victims, while traditionalists sense the not-so-hidden power dynamics at work (an implicit attack on, or at least refusal to acknowledge, any moral foundation other than Care-Harm) and push back in defense of who they consider to be ‘real’ victims. It’s a logjam, and not one we’re going to solve here.

Oddly enough, from a theological perspective, concept creep is something of a gift. Because what we’re talking about, essentially, is a ratcheting up of the law. It’s not just that more and more external actions are falling under the condemnation of contemporary little-l law, but internal attitudes as well. Sound familiar?

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Jesus was pushing a much, much larger concept of “murder” than his listeners (not to mention you and me) would have been comfortable with, one that included motivation as well execution in its scope. He did the same thing with adultery, and a host of other behaviors. The only sane responses to such a radical re-conception would be either heartfelt conviction/repentance or rationalization as a rhetorical eccentricity.

Ironically, most of those pushing for expanded understandings of “abuse” and “trauma” today are doing so out of moral conviction–to right wrongs and prevent them going forward. Which is a noble project if ever there was one, certainly the opposite of the moral apathy and cynicism that plagued previous generations.

If only the underlying anthropology weren’t so perilously high!

Meaning, the circle of victims is not the only thing that grows when the boundaries of transgression creep outward. The circle of perpetrators does as well. And such is the human condition that the moral concepts we defend, uphold and expand on our good days have a way of boomeranging back on our worst–until all of a sudden we find both our feet planted in the same circle, that of humanity, where the only concept left creeping larger is that of a possible savior. You know, like the one Brother Martin once so eloquently described:

“God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to one but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.” (W.A. 1.183f)