Definitional Creep and Psychological Salient

Recognizing Harms Without Eroding Our Terms

This nytimes article made salient a certain harmful dynamic that often occurs in liberal circles.

There is some class of behavior like domestic abuse or sexual assault which has a relatively clear cut and highly salient definition, e.g., domestic abuse (unmodified) is physical violence by an intimate partner or family member and sexual assault is sexual touching despite a clear lack of consent.

Then people (correctly!!) observe that some related behavior which doesn’t quite fall under the existing definition can be just as bad and harmful and start using the existing word to describe that behavior. For instance, in the article below using digital smart devices to harass, intimidate and stalk ex-partners and calling it domestic abuse. Or calling situations where an older man puts a young impressionable woman in a situation she feels uncomfortable and unsafe and applying substantial pressure (or legal but unsavory social threats) to coerce her into sexual activities sexual assault.

Individuals who then protest that such behavior isn’t domestic abuse or sexual assault are often accused of not taking the suffering of such related behavior seriously and this creates a strong social pressure to expand the category. When those on the right stand up and mock such expansions as not really being domestic abuse or sexual assault it further cements the narrative that this is all about whether or not one takes the suffering of victims seriously.

This is unfortunate because measuring harm is not the only, or even primary, purpose served by such categorizations. Rather, such categorizations serve to clearly delineate certain kinds of blameworthy activity which can be clear adjudicated to provide deterrence (legal or social) as well as creating a clear, psychologically salient bright line which people will be reluctant to cross.

For instance, while having someone grab your ass without permission or tear off an item of clothing is obviously sexual assault it is almost surely less harmful and traumatic than being tricked into a sexual relationship with someone based entirely on lies and finding out they were mockingly journaling the entire course of their deception online. Yet the former is sexual assault, in part, because we can clearly define the offense while it is hard to draw useful lines about how much deception in a relationship or how much sharing unflattering details with friends justifies punishment. It’s deeply unfortunate but the sad truth is that the lack of clear standards means we can’t use punishment to deter all kinds of deeply harmful behavior.

When we use the fact that some kinds of non-violent behavior perpetrated by intimates are just as harmful as physical abuse or that some types of technically consensual relationships have, via lies or pressure, the same kinds of harms as sexual assault to justify expanding the terms we erode the deterrent barriers that make negative behavior less likely.

Yes, there are ways to hurt people we can’t yet deter well but every time social norms and fear of legal consequences cause someone to refrain from hitting their spouse or touching someone without permission that’s a victory. The more we blur those lines that are being crossed the more we imperil those victories. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to introduce new terms that characterize other classes of behavior we also wish to deter but there is no cause to undermine the terminological clarity of the words we already have. Respecting such terminological clarity doesn’t deny the suffering of victims who don’t fall under the description. It’s just a recognition the world is far from perfect and we need to preserve our partial victories.