Instigation and intention

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A couple of weeks ago, Yale University Press decided to remove the illustrations from Jytte Klausen's forthcoming book The Cartoons that Shook the World. (See "Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book", NYT, 8/12/2009). Among the many condemnations of this decision that I've read, Christopher Hitchens' ("Yale Surrenders", Slate, 8/172009) is the only one that makes a lexicographical argument:

[YUP director John] Donatich is a friend of mine and was once my publisher, so I wrote to him and asked how, if someone blew up a bookshop for carrying professor Klausen's book, the blood would be on the publisher's hands rather than those of the bomber. His reply took the form of the official statement from the press's public affairs department. This informed me that Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that "[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence."

So here's another depressing thing: Neither the "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies" who were allegedly consulted, nor the spokespeople for the press of one of our leading universities, understand the meaning of the plain and common and useful word instigate. If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it's a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it's a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won't wear the veil have "provoked" those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that "logic" as its own.

Samuel Johnson, the first great English lexicographer, wrote about the connotations of instigate from a slightly different point of view ( The Plan of an English Dictionary, 1747):

There are many other characters of words which it will be of use to mention. Some have both an active and passive signification, as fearful, that which gives or which feel terror, a fearful prodigy, a fearful hare. Some have a personal, some a real meaning, as in opposition to old we use the adjective young of animated beings, and new of other things. Some are restrained to the sense of praise, and others to that of disapprobation, so commonly, though not always, we exhort to good actions, we instigate to ill; we animate, incite and encourage indifferently to good or bad. So we usually ascribe good, but impute evil; yet neither the use of these words, nor perhaps of any other in our licentious language, is so established as not to be often reversed by the correctest writers. I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies on both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed, whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

In his dictionary, Johnson defined instigate as "to tempt or urge to ill", which asserts that the instigated action is a bad thing, and also supports the view that the instigating party intends it. The OED gives two senses, corresponding to different syntactic frames: instigate (someone) to VerbPhrase meaning "To spur, urge on; to stir up, stimulate, incite, goad (now mostly to something evil)", and instigate NounPhrase meaning "To bring about by incitement or persuasion; to stir up, foment, provoke". In all of the citations, the subject does seem to desire the result. But following Johnson's prescribed method, let's collect recent "testimonies on both sides". Among the first 20 uses of instigate that I found in this morning's Google News, 17 (read in context) support Hitchen's contention that "[i]f you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen":

In another video, a resident was told to push another far bigger resident to instigate a fight.
WUC member spreads faked video to instigate riot
Greenpeace Uses Design to Instigate Corporate Change.
Russia, it seems, has had enough of the constant bickering and wants to instigate a change in Ukraine, one which will play in its favor.
To fail to instigate an inquiry will continue to hide the truth from terrorism’s victims and from the public.
Flintoff himself will certainly not instigate a return to Test cricket.
It would be left up to the United States to continue on its own in Afghanistan or instigate an emergency withdrawal.
… any people who are coming into the community that just want to have their way, trying to instigate the community to create more tension within the community, is just not acceptable for the Council …
Hodgson hardly had the manpower to instigate sweeping changes, so Chelsea remained largely unruffled after the interval.
O'Brien's approach enables him to instigate emotional reactions from the less stable and immature portions of our society.
It is particularly offensive when this is expressed by political hacks who are well-known to instigate such tactics.
The Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna says it is alarmed at an attempt by unknown persons to instigate religious antagonism
… the aim was to instigate indoctrinated Muslim youth to fight against the Russian armies …
With electron beams used widely to instigate industrial and manufacturing chemical reactions, the company’s offerings could add up to substantial energy savings if it can increase its market share.
The primary focus of this role will be to instigate a strategic marketing campaign in terms of online e-commerce and direct marketing…
100 reformists, including senior officials, stand accused of trying to instigate a so called “velvet revolution”.
The best evidence Ms. Kadeer did not instigate the riots paradoxically comes from the Chinese themselves.

But I found 3 examples where instigate seems simply to mean "cause" or "start":

If an inmate were to read the article and told other inmates, that in itself could be enough to instigate a riot.
A title certain to instigate debate is Princeton University Press's Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History
The media does not look the other way when phrases like "loosely based", "inspired" and "heavily borrowed" are thrown casually in interviews.
If anything, these types of responses instigate further grilling.

It's not clear that these count as examples of "the correctest writers", but at least with respect to contemporary journalistic prose, Hitchens' view that "If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen" needs to be qualified by Johnson's "commonly, but not always". And though I'm certainly in favor of Hitchens' general oppposition to "blame the victim" theories of moral responsibility, the whole argument is probably beside the point. Martin Kramer, among others, makes a plausible case that the Yale administration's motivation was not to avoid bloodshed, but rather to preserve access to money.

[Update: we can check the status of instigate's implication of intentionality more directly, by searching for things like {"unintentionally instigate|instigated|instigates|instigating"} in various places. Google Scholar turns up e.g. this

It may surprise some to learn that the pop star has, albeit unintentionally, instigated a broader examination of HIPAA violations. But HIPAA, as a relatively new law, was festering behind the curtain, waiting for a high-profile patient privacy violation before enforcement could truly begin.

where the odd use of festering doesn't give us a lot of confidence that this counts as one of the "correctest authors"; or this one

This alternative hypothesis would be in keeping with the “victim precipitation” model of aggression that assumes that victims of aggression intentionally or unintentionally instigate some negative acts such as aggression.

which is more convincing as English prose, and also suggests that for some people at least, the connection between instigation and intention is at best an implicature. This impression is strengthened by a search of Google Books, which turns up examples like

But the truth is, I unknowingly and unintentionally instigated my own seduction.

Yang Changjun unintentionally instigated the Hezhou violence by trying to save characters in his announcement. Instead of writing "Sa-la-er Hui", which unambiguously means "the Salar Muslims", he wrote "sa Hui", which might refer to the Salars or might mean "disperse and scatter the Muslims".

… by annexing a significant portion of tribal lands, had unintentionally instigated an uprising in the mountains that threatened to overwhelm the Ottoman forces in the region.

These examples seem plausible and idiomatic to me.]



  1. Boris said,

    August 24, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    My personal non-scientific feeling is that he meaning of instigate changes when the word is used by the person doing the hypothetical instigating to describe a hypothetical scenario, acknowledging that this hypothetical instigation is a bad thing.

    As for instigating debate, surely this is some sort of ironic or figurative usage where even the "something bad" portion is not present.

  2. Rob Van Dam said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 1:32 am

    Of the 3 counter-examples the 2nd and 3rd feel very forced to me. As if the writer pulled a fancy sounding word out of a thesaurus when they almost definitely meant to use something more akin to 'invite'.

    I would also argue that 'instigate a riot' is almost idiomatic in its usage here as well as implying that riots are always instigated, even if we don't yet know the offending party.

    Overhaul, pretty weak counter-evidence, but then, maybe I'm just trying to instigate a flame war.

  3. jaap said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 2:01 am

    Rob, is "overhaul" a new eggcorn for "overall"?

  4. Dierk said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    Hm, the argument given sounds a lot like this postmodernist nonsense leading up to politicians actually believing they change reality by describing it differently. Sure, words can and do change their meaning over time, and it is possible the turn around 180°, in cases of doubt, however, I tend to handle word meaning quite technically, that is, like a scientist would do: define what you mean and stick to it.

    Hitchens doesn't just presuppose a meaning for 'instigate', he sets out to define it; coincidentally his definition meets up with the [primary] one commonly understood and historically used. 3 out of 20 – about 15% – show a different use, but are they relevant for a caveat? I think not, as, for one, there is the possibility they are simply using the word wrong.

    In the past 'parsing' had a very narrow sense, one still in use among linguists. Some … academics thought it a good idea to transfer the term to longer texts, to literature. This application is still defensible as long as the pure technicality of the original meaning is maintained. Well, it wasn't, it turned out people just wanted to get away with re-defining in their image.

    Obviously if you parse meaning long enough you can come up with everything [that is, among sensible thinkers: nothing] – exactly what happened. During the 1980s and 1990s this kind of parsing was taken up by the Masters of Re-Def, public relation … guys and dolls. In the 2000s they had become so successful they didn't 'spin' anymore, they 'parsed'.

    Whatever one thinks of Hitchens, he has always been one standing against this Orwellian parsing, exactly what he does here. A scientific/sociological study of the impact and effect political satire – in this case cartoons about a violent interpretation of the Quran – needs to show its subject. Not doing it for fear of retribution is understandable if problematic.

    Not showing the cartoons out of fear, then claiming the well-being of others, claiming higher goods, is Newspeak of the worst kind and highest order. [Fraser's] Flashman cowardly ran away but he never claimed he did it so others wouldn't get hurt.

  5. fs said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    In his dictionary, Johnson defined instigate as "to tempt or urge to ill", which asserts that the instigated action is a bad thing, and also supports the view that the instigating party intends it.

    Indeed. But can we not also be told, for example, not to "tempt fate", even when we have no intention of doing so? Similarly, might not a publisher demur to "instigate riots"? I think that, in such hypothetical situations, one cannot really be faulted for blurring the line between volitional and accidental action.

  6. acilius said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    I agree with Rob Van Dam. To my ear, none of the counterexamples sound like anything an unselfconscious English speaker would be likely to produce.

  7. Tom Vinson said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    "Overhauls" as in "pair of overhauls" has been in common use in the US for a long time. I heard it more often than "overalls" in rural North Carolina back around 1960, and I thought it was peculiarly Southern, but this link shows some examples from Minnesota as well.
    But I never heard it used except for the garment.

  8. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    "Can you describe his overall appearance?"

    "Well, his overalls were fairly worn, but with no noticeable holes."

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    The examples with "unintentionally instigate" sound acceptably idiomatic to me, but by their explicitness would seem to support a notion that instigation is intentional unless otherwise specified. And they don't in any event fit the context Hitchins was complaining about, because they seem to suggest that the violent reaction was not only unintended but unforeseen. The situation here (without getting into the all-about-the-money alternative explanation) is more like, e.g., considering whether or not to invite the Dalai Lama to dinner at the White House knowing full well that it will make the Communist Chinese regime upset (and perhaps taking some sort of action in response) but not particularly desiring that outcome as opposed to accepting the risk of it occurring as a side effect. It would seem more acceptable to my ear in that circumstance to say the administration had provoked the negative PRC reaction (or perhaps "tempted fate") than to say it had "instigated" it.

  10. njkayaker said,

    August 26, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    Of course, with the two definitions of "instigate" (unqualified), one is left to wonder whether or not it was intentional.It does seem like we need a synonym for "started".

  11. Claire said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    There's another legal point too which may be relevant. Intentionality is important but there's also the issue of consequences of actions: for example, if I fire a gun into a car's front tire when it's being driven at 70mph on the freeway, and that causes an accident, even though I might not have "intended to cause an accident", any reasonable person could see that an accident is a likely consequence of the actions. YUP may have received advice about liability along those lines, since there does seem to be a cause and effect relation between publication of these cartoon and riots.

  12. Mitchell said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    I think that the simplest solution is the easiest one. The writer in question is simply misusing a word and due to his academic credentials he fails to consider that he might be wrong. I can explain to a young student the distinction between devastate and decimate, but it's pointless to undo the confusion amongst those who have established themselves as authorities in their own minds and institutions.
    Donatich has written instigate, simply conflating it with similar sounding initiate. Close enough for academic work, right?

  13. joseph palmer said,

    September 2, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    It is believed by the staff at language log that whether a word is being used "wrong" or not, and whether it is thus permissible to fuss about it, is entirely a matter of objective science. I await the verdict here.

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