Setting injustice back

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Mitch Albom, "Austin pastor’s false cake charge sets real injustice back", Dallas Morning News 5/23/2016:

Brown set back every future case of intolerance, allowing critics to ask if it’s real or fabricated.

As Albom's column explains, Jordan Brown is the openly gay pastor who accused the bakery at Whole Foods of adding an anti-gay slur to the decoration of a cake that he ordered there. Store surveillance video from the check-out line demonstrated that part of his story was false,  and eventually he confessed to having fabricated the claim.

What motivated Vance Koven to send in this link  was the use of the verb set back in the headline and the body of Albom's column. Wiktionary defines the relevant sense of set back as "to delay or obstruct"– and Albom obviously meant that Brown's attempt at deception will delay or obstruct future campaigns against the type of "injustice" or "intolerance" that Brown claimed to have suffered.

But Albom's column leaves out the "campaigns against" part, so he ends up asserting that Brown's lies delay or obstruct intolerance, rather than delaying or obstructing  campaigns against intolerance.

Although there's no overt negation involved, this seems similar to the phenomenon of misnegation. Here we have valence oppositions between truth and lies, tolerance and intolerance, action and reaction — and just as with instances of misnegation, it's easy to lose track of how the semantic equation comes out in the end.

It wouldn't surprise me to find other examples of the same reversal of values. But a scanning a few dozen example of sequences like "set back every" or "set back the" in recent news stories, I don't find any.

I wondered whether words like injustice and intolerance have come to have extended meanings along the lines of "campaigns against injustice/intolerance".  But no — I don't think Mitch Albom would identify himself as "supporting injustice" or "supporting intolerance", as opposed to "supporting campaigns against injustice" or "supporting campaigns against intolerance".



  1. maidhc said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 1:02 am

    Canberra Times, 2016-05-25:
    Which is the best dash cam?
    We test a trio of dash-mounted cameras that could help you avoid an accident – or help if you do.

    Do what?

  2. Gwen Katz said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 1:52 am

    From the Seattle Times:

    "Tukwila to pay $100k after man is punched, tased, bitten by police dog during arrest."

    Sadly, the killjoys have since revised the headline to "bitten by police dog, punched, tased," but the original URL remains.

  3. unekdoud said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 2:02 am

    It's not too far-fetched to say that campaigns supporting/against intolerance may be set "back in time", i.e. regressed to an earlier, less tolerant state. I don't know if using "regress" instead of "set back" would solve those problems, but it could just be an issue of word choice.

    [(myl) So it would mean the same thing to say that Brown's deception "set tolerance back"? I'm skeptical. And I don't think it helps to say that Brown's deception "regressed intolerance".]

  4. Lazar said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 3:57 am

    I don't think "campaigns against intolerance" are exactly the thing being set back – I think what the author has in mind is particular allegations of intolerance, like Brown's, which critics will (supposedly) now be more dubious of. If you stretch the meaning of "case" to mean not merely an instance of something happening, but rather a case laid forth by a complainant, then the sentence makes sense.

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 5:46 am

    It's possibly unfair to Albom to blame him for the headline. My understanding is that newspaper writers don't write the headlines that appear over their stories, and often aren't even consulted about them.

    [(myl) Albom is almost surely not responsible for the headline. But the headline echoes almost exactly the wording in his text, as cited in the post.]

  6. Graeme said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 6:06 am

    I stumbled on 'false cake charge' long before the set justice real back thing finished me off.

    Are headings to the pettiest stories more prone to such crash blossoms and curios?

  7. Ellen K. said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    I see a distinct different between the headline (which we can't blame on Albom) and the text from the article. I can see "case of intolerance" used to mean "case against intolerance". Taking "case" to mean something like "legal case" instead of "instance". That sentence reads okay to me and I didn't notice it was off until really paying close attention to the wording.

    The headline, though, just sounds weirdly backwards. Though if the point of a headline is to get people to read the article, rather than to say something meaningful, I suppose it works.

  8. Mr Punch said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 6:30 am

    There is something to Mark L's last point, though – a flexibility, let's say, in the use of words for things that are obviously bad. Nobody thinks the American Cancer Society is in favor of cancer, for example, although this construction usually indicates support (cf. National Rifle Association).

  9. Charles Antaki said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 8:43 am

    Following Mr. Punch's line: The UK government for a time had a Social Exclusion Unit which, in a not-very-improving change of name, became the Social Exclusion TaskForce.

    It's now the Office for Civil Society.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    I have heard people referred to as "domestic-violence advocate" and "homelessness advocate". As far as I could tell, they did not advocate domestic violence or homelessness.

  11. Darryl S said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 9:22 am

    Mr. Punch already alluded to this, but this reminds me very much of people talking about "supporting" cancer (or some other clearly-negative thing), when of course they mean supporting victims of cancer, or the fight against cancer. Following that model, it's not a stretch to imagine someone saying they are "supporting intolerance", and meaning the exact opposite.

    Two samples, dug up with a few seconds of Googling: "Shop in support of breast cancer" ( and "raising money in support of cancer" (

  12. Rodger C said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    @Coby Lubliner: This has been discussed here (?) a little while ago. Apparently "advocate" has become a polite replacement for "activist."

  13. Jason said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 11:16 am

    I think the meaning is that he's set back every /legal/ case of intolerance. A case of intolerance is worth big bucks to the plaintiff, after all. The frame is unintentionally revealing, perhaps the perspective of a torts lawyer or professional in the grievance industry.

  14. Vance Koven said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

    Jason, I can't let that go unanswered. As a lawyer (hiss! boo!) I know that "a case of libel" exists, because there really is a legal category called "libel" that you can sue for (good luck with that, though). But "a case of intolerance" is more like "a case of influenza" in that it means an *instance* of the thing. Perhaps my mind was poisoned by reading the headline first, but Albom's use of the term "sets back every future case of intolerance," while admittedly weaker in isolation than the headline, looked a lot more like "obstructs future instances of intolerance" (as if that were a bad thing) than "obstructs future attempts to fight intolerance," which is what I'm sure he meant.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    I certainly think a phrase like "intolerance activist" (meaning someone who purportedly opposed rather than supported it) wouldn't strike me as too odd, for the reasons others have given. But "set back every future case of intolerance" still strikes me as weird (and comical) rather than as another instance of the same pattern. I think the problem is that (for essentially the reasons given by Vance Koven) I can't plausibly gloss "case of intolerance" as meaning "accusation of intolerance" or "claim of intolerance." And if I gloss it more plausibly as "set back future instances of intolerance" I'm still baffled, either because the polarity is affirmatively reversed or because an instance just doesn't seem like the sort of thing that is subject to being set back (it sorts of sits there, without any natural direction you would expect it to move in unless hindered). "Set back every future case of tolerance" also sounds weird to my ear.

    In terms of the lawyerly use of "case," in addition to the fact that "intolerance" is not idiomatically a standard label for a type of lawsuit or legal claim (at least in the U.S.), there's a word order problem. "Set back every future employment discrimination case" seems perfectly idiomatic to me (i.e. it means "will make it more difficult for future plaintiffs in lawsuits alleging employment discrimination to prevail"), but "Set back every future case of employment discrimination" gives me approximately the same WTF reaction as "every future case of intolerance."

  16. Viseguy said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

    "… sends real injustice to the back of the bus" would have worked better, IMO, but I suppose that's too long for a headline.

    As my 9th grade English teacher would have written (in the margin): "Awk — rephrase".

  17. chris said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 5:39 am

    Nobody thinks the American Cancer Society is in favor of cancer, for example, although this construction usually indicates support (cf. National Rifle Association).

    Similarly, the fire department and the transportation department have very different relationships to the subjects they're named for. Departments like labor, education and environmental protection can swing either way depending on who's in office.

  18. Jason said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    "Case of discrimination" gets 1,1200,000 ghits, FYI.

  19. Michael said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 10:54 am

    Now, whenever there are crash blossoms and such, we see a chorus of voices raised saying "I was able to read the intended meaning right away" (which is generally irrelevant). In this case, however, it wasn't until I clicked to read below the cut that I even CONSIDERED that "set intolerance back" could mean the opposite of what was intended (I actually expected this to be about a new type of split infinitive peeving – where "set back" would be a verb that "should" be kept together). That may just mean I'm stupid, but it makes me curious how often people accept reversed meanings in print. Has anyone ever tested this, say by showing people a series of mis-negated phrases and seeing which ones they mark as errors?

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    @Jason – a lot of those hits from the first few pages are for the longer phrase "prima facie case of discrimination" (and many of the shorter ones mean in context approximately the same thing), which is certainly idiomatic lawyerese. There "case" doesn't mean "the legal proceeding" or "the allegation/claim advanced in the legal proceeding" or "the thing that happened in the world that gave rise to the allegation/claim/proceeding." It means more or less "the aggregate of the testimony and other evidence you rely on within the proceeding in order to prove your allegation or claim (or rebut the other side's allegation/claim)," as in a judge saying at a pre-trial scheduling conference "and how many days will the defense need to put on its case?" So it would be close to nonsensical to say "set back any future [prima facie] case of X" in this sense of "case." I am reasonably fluent in lawyerese (the American dialect, at least), and I have no idea what that would mean.

  21. BZ said,

    May 26, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    For some reason I find any "Set X Back" construction in headlinese to be incomprehensible, though they ork fine in regular prose

  22. ryanwc said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 1:11 am

    >Nobody thinks the American Cancer Society is in favor of cancer, for example, although this construction usually indicates support (cf. National Rifle Association).

    Every morning on my local public radio station, after the report on the local highways, they say "support for traffic comes from [name of donor]" and I think, who in heck supports traffic?

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