Thinking about thinking words

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Chris at The Lousy Linguist takes up an implicit challenge due to Edward Skidelsky, "Words that think for us", Prospect Magazine, 11/18/2009, who wrote:

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.

Chris observes that

This article makes four testable linguistic claims:

  1. The words inappropriate and unacceptable have increased in frequency over the last couple decades.
  2. This frequency increase is due to replacing other words:coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd, improper, and indecent.
  3. These other words are "older"
  4. These other words are "more exact"

And he does a great job of using Mark Davies' Time Magazine corpus to check the first two claims, producing a table and graph of word frequencies by decade. You should go read it.

Since Chris already got the numbers, I couldn't resist graphing them in a slightly different way, adding up the frequencies of the two alleged representatives of the "jargon of political correctness" and the six "older, more exact" terms:

I put a link to this graph in a comment on Chris's post last night, and he added some discussion in the body of his post.

Our exploration of this topic is limited at best: TIme magazine is not an adequate mirror of the language and culture as a whole; the semantic field that Skidelsky waves his hand at includes more than eight words; words that name concepts in that field (e.g. coarse) may have common meanings other than the moral or aesthetic evaluations that Skidelsky has in mind; and so on.

But people with a nose for trends should be sniffing the air. There are two things worth noting about this relatively trivial little exercise.

First, as Chris points out, it's now starting to be possible to get quantitative information, relatively quickly, about the distribution of linguistic features in space and time and society.  Words and word sequences are easiest and first, but in the not-too-distant future less superficial characteristics will be accessible as well. (Mark Davies already allows users to break searches out by genre, and makes part-of-speech tags and lemmas available for search — if there were only a usable standard for sense disambiguation, for example, his back-end search engine could easily offer that as well.)  This opens up a new source of information about cultural as well as linguistic history. Or rather, it becomes possible to access such information in minutes rather than hours or years of work.

Second, some new modes of intellectual discussion are starting to emerge, based on the ability to share and discuss data in the context of rapid forms of publication. Again, this is not really different in kind from the way that people have interacted for centuries, except that now it can happen in the course of hours rather than months or years.  How this will develop, and into what, isn't clear yet. But it's going to go somewhere.



47 Comments

  1. JimG said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    I wonder if there's another explanation for the decline in use of coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd, improper, and indecent. Are these words being replaced because of some shrinkage in the body of words people use? Are they disappearing because the specification has become less important in terms of values or, as Skidelsky said, because their value judgments are undesirable? Or perhaps it's not worth learning and discerning the nuances of some old words when there are so many new, more important words to be added to the sack that one carries around. As an example, who needs umpty-nine words for snow when the climate is warming and words for heat and flooding are needed?
    Whoever hits the mega-lottery might resolve the problem by endowing a foundation to pay TV scriptwriters for each appearance of these endangered words, thereby revitalizing their presence in the mass mind.

  2. Picky said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    There's a wee flaw in the science: Skidelsky doesn't make Claim 1 – he says there has been an increase in frequency in circumstances where previously coarse/tactless etc would have been used. Use of inappropriate/unacceptable in other circumstances might have risen or fallen independently (or fallen as a result, of course).

    And when he says "older" he may mean, and seems to me to mean, merely "older with those specific meanings" – ie previous to the time of "their modern careers".

  3. Bloix said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    My children (teenagers) say "inappropriate" in conversation to mean transgressing a sex-related taboo (eg a 'dirty' word or style of dress) – this is a new usage, and it doesn't replace "coarse" or "lewd' or 'vulgar," which are words that as a teenager I would never have said in conversation.

  4. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Interesting. Whilst there are some modern adoptions that make me cringe (e.g., "leverage" [v.t.], "pilot" [sb., contr. of "pilot project"], "resource" [sng., sb., replacing "staff"], and the many and various manifestations of management-speak), "unacceptable" and "inappropriate" have slipped unobserved under my mental radar. Remembering Fowler's precepts ("prefer the old word to the new, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the native to the foreign, the short to the long" — paraphrase, from memory, e & o. e.), I shall henceforth endeavour to eschew them and to resurrect "coarse", "lewd", "vulgar" and friends whenever possible.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    Could the search be refined a bit by looking for occurences of those words within a certain distance from "joke" "gag" "remark" and similar words?

  6. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    Anyone in education knows from experience and anecdote that "inappropriate" has been on the rise since the 1980's. (Anyone old enough to remember, I suppose.)

    At first it was used by ultra-liberals to describe speech and behavior that was exclusional, derisive of minorities, and so on. And then for a time both "PC" and "[in]appropriate" took on a somewhat ironic bent, as we simultaneously recognized their good intentions and the puritanical spirit with which they were used. This trend continued until PC more or less fell out of use. (A testable claim, though I haven't done the test myself.)

    And then "[in]appropriate" was co-opted by the conservatives (also testable), who continue to wield it as a club with no sense of irony at all (not so testable).

    Less exact than lewd or vulgar? A casual perusal of Supreme Court censorship cases (think of Potter Stewart here) suggests quite the opposite: that inexactness has always been the weapon of the puritanically minded. I know it is fashionable in some circles to poke fun at Orwell, but there is a spark of truth in the idea, isn't there? Claim that Person A disrobed in front of a child, and Person A can, in principle, present facts to contradict the claim. Claim that Person B is lewd or behaved inappropriately, and what evidence to the contrary can be brought to bear in Person B's defense?

  7. Mark P said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    "TIme magazine is not an adequate mirror of the language and culture as a whole …"

    Will the increasingly large body of searchable language exclude any important types or features of language? For example, it seems to me that the recent cases of expressions like "step on me a dog" are unlikely to be in a written record, or at least not in the proportions they would have in spoken language.

    I have always thought that computers make it easy to stop thinking. I know of people who run a particular code (very long, complicated, easy to generate input errors, sometimes runs to completion with execution errors etc) and, once they get a result, think they have the answer. A lot of your posts address analogous cases.

    I suppose it will end up depending on the thoroughness of the researcher. As usual.

  8. empty said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    At some point I believe that many parents began labeling children's behavior "inappropriate" instead of, for example, "wrong". The impulse behind this was, I think, to avoid damaging the child's self-esteem. Don't say "bad boy". Don't even say "bad thing to do", because maybe that's too close to saying "bad boy" …

    But then of course, by the well-known process of euphemistic creep, "inappropriate" enters family life and fills the old niche. "Mommy, Bobby did something inappropriate! He hit my dolly!"

  9. TB said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    To me "vulgar" has an inescapable class connotation that I find really gross. If it is becoming less common, that's fine with me.

  10. Chud said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    When I lived a former life in first-line customer service, I noticed that although people sometimes said "This is unacceptable!", they pretty much ended up accepting the situation. I'd imagine that most of the people who go on shooting sprees are the folks who say "This is unacceptable!" and aren't exaggerating.

  11. Robert said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    How long were the words like lewd, vulgar, and common in use with the relevant meanings? What's the typical turnover of words in that lexical field?

    Intensifiers and euphemisms don't tend to last long, for differing reasons, though other words are much more stable. If words like aren't dropping out of use significantly faster than the historical average it's unlikely that they're being pushed out by modern trends alone.

  12. sls said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    I'd think that behavior that is coarse, tactless, vulgar or even lewd can be appropriate in certain limited circumstances. So "inappropriate" seems more fitting for a society in which something being coarse isn't by definition considered outside the scope of "decent" people.

  13. Karen said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Of course, something can be "inappropriate" or "unacceptable" without being "coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd" or even "improper" (though I'm not sure how "improper" is meant to be different from "inappropriate". So the 'new' words (if indeed they are) are of broader use than the old ones.

  14. Acilius said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    I think Picky is too modest. His/her 9:21 AM comment does not identify "a wee flaw" in Chris' analysis, but in fact demonstrates the total irrelevance of that analysis to the claim Skidelsky makes.

  15. mae said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    The words "inappropriate" and "unacceptable" may be replacing judgmental words like coarse, tactless, vulgar, lewd, improper, and indecent. But they also have a use for indicating other criticisms or negative thoughts that aren't well-covered by this list. "Inappropriate" or "unacceptable" language these days includes jokes or other statements that employ racist words or stereotypes, that make fun of disabled or mentally challenged people, that propagate no-longer-accepted ideas about women's abilities or women's place in society, or that show disapproval of gays.

  16. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    @Philip Taylor: "Remembering Fowler's precepts ("prefer the old word to the new, the familiar to the unfamiliar, the native to the foreign, the short to the long" — paraphrase, from memory, e & o. e.), I shall henceforth endeavour to eschew them and to resurrect . . ."

    Are you joking?

  17. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    PS It was precepts like those you attribute to Fowler which led to the coining of the short-lived "folkwain" as a substitute for "omnibus".

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    I consider inappropriate to have about the same strength in condemnation as indecent and improper, so I wouldn't describe the replacement as "euphemism". I'd say unacceptable is much stronger. (It's also often an example of the agent-free language—not saying who can't accept the thing being described—that's often miscalled "passive".)

    @empty: I recall hearing "You're inappropriate," meaning "You said or did something bad," from an adult in the '90s.

  19. lhc said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    seems to me that "inappropriate" is about context, not just content. There are comments and even ways of talking–even tones of voice–that would raise no eyebrows when chatting among friends, but would be called "inappropriate" if I said them as a teacher in class.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    The couple who "gatecrashed" the recent state dinner at the White House may have behaved inappropriately in asking a Pentagon person to get them tickets, but they were dressed appropriately when they arrived ticketless. Their behaviour was deemed unacceptable once it was found that they had no business being there and should have been refused entry, but it was not indecent, lewd or vulgar.

  21. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

    Simon : Joking ? No. Rather reminding myself that I was able to express myself perfectly clearly before I allowed "inappropriate" and "unacceptable" to insinuate their way into my vocabulary. And (if I may say so), I didn't "attribute" those precepts to Fowler, although I did paraphrase him, as I stated in the original message : his exact words were (I believe) "Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.", of which I think mine were a reasonable extempore paraphrase.

  22. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    The difference between coarse, tactless, vulgar, and lewd and the words inappropriate and unacceptable is vast. The first are not judgmental, but are instead descriptive words with clear-cut meanings. They are opinions of the speaker or writer used to characterize behavior. The latter are vague judgments of a nebulous authority, which may not even exist, Oz-like.

    For an officious functionary to say that your behavior is unacceptable is an insolent act of tyranny. See Spell Me Jeff's entry above for his statement on the weapons of the puritanically minded, and empty's thoughts above on labeling children's behavior. On the other hand, if I called you tactless, you might be able to derive from me a citation of the act(s) that brought me to that conclusion.

  23. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    marie-lucie, think about this. When requesting tickets, the gate crashers' behavior was pushy, deceitful, and presumptuous. When found out, their behavior was preening, smug, and duplicitous. You may feel these were inappropriate or unacceptable attributes, but these were not the primary characteristic of their behavior. In fact, I don't know how to go about performing an "inappropriate" behavior, although I do know how to be pushy, smug, or an number of other, more specifically named behaviors. I think this difficulty is at the heart of the issue with the words unacceptable and inappropriate.

  24. Terry Collmann said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    Philip Taylor, I think Simon was removing the micturation at your expressing a call for simpler language by saying: "I shall henceforth endeavour to eschew them and to resurrect …" rather than by saying: "In future I shall try not to use them and bring back …"

  25. marie-lucie said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Mr Fnortner, "inappropriate" and "unacceptable" can cover a multitude of behaviours. These terms reflect the judgment of someone with some authority (parent, teacher, social secretary, etc) in some area of behaviour which has at least some covert standards, not necessarily backed up by the force of law but by a significant segment of public opinion. No one ever thinks their own behaviour (pushy, etc) is "inappropriate" or "unacceptable", and there are circumstances where it is "appropriate" to one's own circumstances to behave in ways which may conflict with those of public opinion. But my point was that those words are not always synonymous with "indecent, lewd, vulgar" and the like, even though they seem to be frequent euphemisms for those terms.

  26. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

    Terry : Ah, I did wonder whether it was the intentionally gravity-removing incongruousness of that part of my message to which Simon was referring …

  27. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    "Inappropriate" is a perhaps preferable to "unacceptable" in this age of helicopter parents precisely because it suggests that other contexts might be appropriate.

    But any half wit recognizes that such a suggestion is disingenuous, and that users of "inappropriate" don't mean any such things at all.

    "Your novel is different" means "Gawd, what a waste!"

    "You're remarks were inappropriate" means "No one in his right mind calls a woman a ho."

    Seriously: we all know this, don't we?

  28. Chris said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    @Mark P: You make a good point that using a resource and understanding it are different things, to be sure. But this is ultimately true of any sophisticated tool. One analogy I'll make is with online weather web sites. There is a tremendous amount of science that goes into those web sites, but they are very easy to use. I don't want to know about weather models, I want to know if it's going to rain tomorrow. They help me answer that question. Perhaps I'm being optimistic to believe that online linguistic tools will one day be able to help people answer questions about words and language usage in somewhat analogous ways. I certainly hope so.

    @Acilius & Picky: it's certainly fair to point out that my analysis took liberties with the original claims. My goal was to show that there are wonderful online resources available freely to everyone that can help answer linguistic questions. But part of my goal too, though I failed to articulate this, was to show how to ask linguistic questions. The original author had not formed his claims in easily researchable ways. This is exactly why I have this McCawley quote permanently on my blog:

    "Laymen are generally lousy linguists: they do not know what questions to ask, they do not know how to look for answers to them and they are too ready to accept generalizations to which they could easily find counter examples."

  29. comwave said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    The quantitative orientation built on computing power is more than a trend, I guess. For more advanced computing capacity will provide sophiscated and well-selected data, which people won't refuse to use. However, too much emphasis on it may result in another prescriptive perspective because quantitative data will play a master role.

  30. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    marie-lucie, I can't disagree with any of your points. I hope somewhere among them is the resolve to minimize the use of inappropriate and unacceptable, personally. I cringe at manipulative language, and these words are potent manipulators. Once, many years ago, I was challenged on a decision I made by a boss who said to me "I'm surprised you did that, in your situation." That stopped me cold. "In my situation?!" I wondered. In MY situation? In my SITUATION? What? After calling my boss's hand, it turned out to be nothing, really. But language is a marvelously dangerous thing, and we do need to watch how it's used.

  31. Picky said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    @Chris: You would have been happier if Skidelsky's comments had matched the research tool available to you. No doubt. Thoughtless chap. But your research is, I'm afraid, for that reason, still a wee bit flawed.

  32. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    I haven't found an exact source of the passage in Fowler that Philip Taylor paraphrases from memory, but the articles in MEU (1926) on "Anti-Saxonism", "Love of the Long Word", and "Avoidance of the Obvious" do say very similar things.

  33. slobone said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    This seems like a pretty coarse [sic] sieve to me. "Unacceptable" in particular has numerous other meanings besides immoral or indecent. "The union declared management's latest offer to be totally unacceptable" and so forth. Less so with "inappropriate", but even there it's always been possible to say things like "to escalate the war of words into a shooting war would be a highly inappropriate response." Both the sort of thing you might expect to read in Time.

    Checking the NY Times archive, in 1981 "unacceptable" appeared 384 times. In 2008 it was 348, and sure enough, the first hit for 2008 is a headline that says "Leaders of Actor's Union Call Final Offer Unacceptable".

    As for "inappropriate", it's gone from 303 occurrences in 1981 to 443 in 2008. So I would say there's a trend for "inappropriate" but not so much for "unacceptable". ("Not so much" has stayed steady from 1981 to 2008…)

  34. Chris said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    @ Picky

    "your research is, I'm afraid, for that reason, still a wee bit flawed"

    Yep. Sure. It's a blog, not a dissertation.

  35. Ray Girvan said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    Out of interest:

    Only after the certainly not over- severe police of the Canton of Zurich, in consequence of the very inappropriate behaviour of the two aforesaid American citizens – 1851

    Inappropriate behaviour and proudness of spirit it will know to be at variance with the teachings of Scripture – 1859

    "That will do, what a dust you have made," said he, and Polly started and felt abashed at her inappropriate behaviour. – Charles Dickens, 1868

    See also: "inappropriate conduct"

  36. The other Mark P said,

    December 3, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    But any half wit recognizes that such a suggestion is disingenuous, and that users of "inappropriate" don't mean any such things at all.

    You're remarks were inappropriate" means "No one in his right mind calls a woman a ho."

    Seriously: we all know this, don't we?

    Not at all. As a teacher there are things I can say to a child in the classroom, things I can say on the rugby field and things I can say in public. The same sentence said by the same person to the same person, is inappropriate in one circumstance and acceptable in the next.

    I might tell my rugby players to stay right on the edge of the rules, and accept the occasional punishment when deemed to be straying. I would never tell my kids to do that in class (even in situations where I felt they should, it would be improper for me to express personal opinion as opposed to formal school rules). And it would be totally inappropriate to say to students to play loose with the rules when talking about drugs.

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 1:27 am

    Phillip TAYLOR must surely be issued an award of some kind for his apparently unironic resolution to "henceforth endeavour to eschew" latinate words "and to resurrect" pithy saxonisms. The resolution is easy enough, but avoiding irony is hard these days.

  38. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    There was indeed an intentional irony in the part of my original message that I later referred to as having "intentionally gravity-removing incongruousness", but at the same time there is a clear (and genuine) ambivalence in my mind : whilst I am very resistant to the tendency of modern management to express themselves almost entirely in jargon ("leverage", "stakeholders", "low-hanging fruit", and so on [1]), I have absolutely no problem with well-established words and phrases that nonetheless fail one or more of Fowler's tests. "Henceforth endeavour to eschew … and resurrect …", whilst clearly far too heavy when taken as a whole to use in every-day speech (or, indeed, in speech at all), nonetheless consists to my mind of a number of entirely unexceptionable words ("henceforth", "endeavour", "eschew", "resurrect"), none of which would I feel uneasy about using in a formal written document.

    I think what this really means is that I am very, very, resistant to linguistic change within my own lifetime (which probably explains why I continue, to this day, to spell "shewn" with an "e").
    ——–
    [1] I once returned a document, intended for the web, to our then Principal with the words "binary line" crossed out, against which I had written in red "complete jargon : re-cast !"). "Binary line" was, at the time, a phrase used in British academe to refer to the abstract (but very real) separation between the universities and the polytechnics.

  39. scav said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 7:32 am

    My problem with "inappropriate" is that it is a lazy and vague condemnation when it is used as a synonym for "bad" but with 4 more syllables for extra officious pomposity.

    I don't think criticism that is lazy and vague and pompous can be very constructive.

  40. Acilius said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    @Chris: "But part of my goal too, though I failed to articulate this, was to show how to ask linguistic questions. The original author had not formed his claims in easily researchable ways." Sociolinguists do in fact conduct field studies to test claims of precisely the sort that Skidelsky made. Of course, it isn't nearly as easy to find and interview a good set of informants as it is to sit at your computer and do a corpus analysis, and no sane person would go to that much trouble for the sake of a blog post. But field research, and hypotheses that require it, are perfectly legitimate ways "to ask linguistic questions."

  41. Chris said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    @Acilius: agreed, native speaker intuitions/judgments are valuable data. And we're starting to see researchers innovate online ways to crowd source exactly this kind of judgment (see here for a great example). I hope we'll see a day when gathering native speaker judgments takes little more than a click (okay, that's a bit unlikely).

  42. Karen said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    "Inappropriate" at least attempts to define why something is "bad", though.

  43. Terry Collmann said,

    December 4, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

    Philip TAYLOR – I'm sorry, but "leverage", "stakeholders" and "low-hanging fruit" are all good expressions that carry a weight of meaning their synonyms do not necessarily match. I've always like "stakeholders" for its ability to imply that it's not just owners, workers and shareholders that have an interest in a concern, and I though "low-hanging fruit" was a fine metaphor when I first heard it. I fear you may be disliking the words because you dislike the sort of people who use those words.

  44. Mary Kuhner said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    I don't see "inappropriate" as normally a synonym for "vulgar, lewd, indecent" (it can be a synonym for "improper" which is a very vague word itself). Instead, it usually means "out of place" or "out of season". Wearing shorts to a suit and tie affair; wearing a suit and tie to the beach. Neither of these is lewd, but in both cases, you are not dressed the way you're expected to be–in the beach case you're also dysfunctional.

    I don't have any problem with the word myself. It seems clear and useful. I might send out a letter: There's a lot of mud here, so dress appropriately. And if someone comes in high heels and a dry-clean-only dress, well, that's inappropriate.

    What *is* a one-word replacement for "inappropriate" in the case of the person in dress and high heels wading through the mud? The person herself is foolish, but her clothing is ….?

  45. Paul Blankenau said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 4:19 am

    The relevant news item.

  46. Philip TAYLOR said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    Terry (Collmann) : Thank you for following up on my comments on leverage, stakeholders and their ilk. In a sense, you are right : I do dislike the sort of people who use such words, but my reason for disliking them is that I regard them as lazy and herd-following : too lazy to remember how they expressed such ideas before the current batch of vogue-words entered their vocabulary, they simply recycle the vocabulary of others, unable and/or unwilling to express themselves in simpler, less cliché-ridden, English.

  47. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    My problem with "inappropriate" is that it is a lazy and vague condemnation when it is used as a synonym for "bad" but with 4 more syllables for extra officious pomposity.

    I agree, so far as that goes. But Skidelsky's article nevertheless greatly rubs me the wrong way because he doesn't distinguish between the unarguably unnecessary usage you deride and the usages that "the other Mark P" and others describe. That is to say, there's a great number of behaviors which are correct in some contexts and incorrect in others; to declare them universally bad/wrong is misleading. Skidelsky's argument annoys me because it seems typical to me of a culturally conservative and personally narrow frame of mind that declares that his personal context for such judgments is the only correct one—here, there, and for all time.

    I make strong value and other similar judgments all the time; but not, I think, gratuitously and indiscriminately. Judgmentalism is the error of habitually making such gratuitous and indiscriminate judgments. From the mistaken viewpoint of people like Skidelsky, the caution of me and people like me is equivalent to surrendering entirely to a relativism that denies the possibility of such judgments altogether. But that's a strawman—I know no one who doesn't make such judgments regularly. Your own example and the arguments of others describing PCist puritanism that is merely disguised demonstrate this.

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