Sexism Against Men And Other Word Overloading

There’s a great tumblr post that does the rounds occasionally. It’s a powerful and pithy explanation of how authority figures exploit words with multiple but related meanings to sound reasonable while saying unreasonable things.

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”

and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”

and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.

(archived source, as the blog appears to be gone? I don’t tumblr very good so it might be fine and I just can’t find it)

I don’t know if there’s a word for this. It’s doublespeak-adjacent, but it hinges on using one word to mean two things in different contexts, while doublespeak can just be using euphemistic language to imply things you don’t want to say outright.

It’s interesting that this example, of how “respect” can be used to trick people into feeling guilty by subverting their expectation that the speaker is acting in good-faith, came out of tumblr, which is sort of notorious for being a hotbed of young lefty people and SJ rhetoric and so forth. It certainly fits that example well, but I think a lot of people in that category do the exact same thing without realizing they’re exploiting language in the exact same way.


There’s a conversation that happens all the time, that goes approximately like this:

Alice: I never want to talk to men because men are scary.

Bob: Saying all men are scary is sexist!

Alice: lol sexism against men doesn’t exist

at which point Bob thinks that Alice is braindead, because that is obviously a statement that is, in fact, sexist towards men, and Alice thinks Bob is braindead because women have been oppressed for millennia by men.

They are, of course, both right, and they are simply using the word “sexist” to mean two very different things. Bob thinks Alice is sexist because Alice is openly stating a preference that discriminates against men. Alice thinks this is not sexism because sexism is a large-scale pattern of abuse towards women.

Neither of these things is good, but the society-wide marginalization of women over thousands of years is, well, worse. And so we have people who say sexism against men doesn’t exist, because in their mind, sexism refers to patterns, not to individual attitudes. It’s unfortunate that we use the same word for both of these things, because it becomes impossible for Alice to even engage Bob honestly and try to explain this; they’re just talking past each other, each assuming the other a dullard.

Alice is exploiting the same tactic from above. Bob writes “sexism-as-individual-attitude,” and Alice reads it as “sexism-as-societal-problem” and writes Bob off based on that. This is basically just a silencing tactic; it refuses to engage by dismissing Bob on a misreading. I will not speculate as to how many people on either side of this short exchange are doing it maliciously; I suspect in a large fraction of cases, Bob is employing whataboutism to detract from Alice’s point, and I think in a lot of cases Alice is deliberately missing the point in an attempt to discredit Bob as profoundly uneducated. I also think that a lot of people hear about some isolated incidence of sexism towards men, point it out, are told such a thing does not exist, and then wonder why feminists are so stupid as to pretend they don’t see what’s right in front of their eyes.

My point here is not that you must engage with every asshole who tries to distract you with language ambiguities. My point is that abusing ambiguous language is bad when you do it, too. I suppose my point is also that if you’ve never noticed there are two separate things that “sexism” can mean, then you should be aware of that. And if you do want to engage someone, knowing that this ambiguity is commonplace is helpful in taking it apart.

I hope this does not require pointing out, but this whole thing applies to racism as well.


I wish I had a good name for this, but “doublespeak” is already taken. It’s sort of like antanaclasis, but instead of being clever it’s either deceptive or not even noticed. It’s also sort of like if-by-whiskey, except hidden instead of called out. Maybe “halfspeak” — you’ve found a word with two different meanings, and you’re pretending that they’re the same, thus using only half the meanings? I’m not entirely sold.

This entry was posted in language, pedantry, politics, social justice, things i will regret. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sexism Against Men And Other Word Overloading

  1. mingyuan51 says:

    I know this post is like a year and a half old, but are you familiar with SlateStarCodex? He’s written quite a lot about this; he calls it ‘motte and bailey’ (which was actually originally coined in this paper https://philpapers.org/archive/SHATVO-2.pdf, as far as we can tell). Someone also once coined the term ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’ for this, but that sounds a bit silly.

    Also I really like your blog! But dang it, I’m supposed to be working 😛

    • acorwin says:

      First off, thank you! I’m glad you enjoy it.

      Yes, I am familiar with Slate Star Codex and that essay in particular. However, I don’t think this is quite the same thing. A motte and bailey is one person dishonestly using a term to refer to two different things, one of which is normally a subset of the other (i.e. feminism is the radical belief that women are people vs. if you think women aren’t systematically marginalized in hiring you’re subhuman); the issue I’m trying to articulate here is where two *different* people interpret the same word in radically different ways. I don’t think Alice is doing anything dishonest in my example; she’s using the word in a jargon-ey way, while Bob is using it in an intuitive, lay way, and neither of them is parsing the other’s statements correctly.

      That said, either person certainly *could* be aware of the dual meaning and deliberately abusing it to make the other look ridiculous, which in Alice’s case could be considered a sort of motte-and-bailey.

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