"I never do x" vs "When I do x, it doesn't count, because it's justified".

It’s important to have morally neutral language to describe actions. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong. 

For instance:

  • In English, ‘killing’ and ‘murder’ mean different things.
  • ‘Murder’ always means killing that is either illegal or morally wrong. 
  • ‘Killing’ can describe any act that causes someone to die. 
  • This distinction makes it possible to talk about when killing is and isn’t justified. 
  • Even for people who think that killing is always murder, this is important. 
  • Without morally neutral language, it’s impossible to express a clear opinion on whether or not killing is ever acceptable.

For instance (names randomly generated using http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/gen-random-us-us.php): 

  • Heather: *shoots Sonja*.
  • Sonja: *dies as a result of being shot by Heather*.
  • In this situation, Heather definitely killed Sonja. Whether or not she murdered Sonja is something people can argue about.
  • Eg: If Sonja was trying to kill Heather and Heather shot her in self-defense, almost everyone would argue that this isn’t murder.
  • Eg: If Heather was trying to rob Sonja’s store and shot her to prevent her from calling for help, almost everyone would consider that murder.
  • Eg: If Heather felt threatened by Sonja in a public space and shot her rather than trying to run away, most people would consider that murder, but some people would vehemently disagree.
  • Because ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ are different words, everyone would be able to express their opinion in a clear way.

When it’s impossible to describe actions without condemning them, it can be impossible to describe what people are actually doing. This makes it hard to have an honest conversation, and even harder to hold people accountable. 

Here’s a disability services example (randomly generated names): 

  • Charles (a staff person): I don’t believe in coercion. I never control my clients or tell them what to do. They’re totally in control of their own lives.
  • Patricia  (a disabled adult client): I want to eat some cookies at 3am.
  • Staff person: You can’t eat cookies at 3am. You agreed to take care of yourself by making healthy choices, and it’s important to keep your agreements.
  • Patricia: You’re telling me what to do instead of letting me decide. 
  • Staff person: No I’m not. I’m telling you that you can’t eat cookies at 3am because staying up past your bedtime and eating junk food aren’t healthy choices. I would never tell you what to do.
  • Patricia doesn’t get access to cookies, and is put on a behavior plan if she leaves her room after 10pm.

In this example, Charles is blatantly and unambiguously controlling Patricia and telling her what to do. When Patrica says ‘telling me what to do’, she means it literally. When Charles says, ‘telling people what to do’ he really means ‘telling people what to do (without a good reason)’. He doesn’t realize that coercion is still coercion even if he thinks it’s justified coercion. Without a direct literal way to refer to the act of controlling people, it becomes nearly impossible to discuss when coercion is and isn’t justified. 

This happens a lot, in any number of contexts, often following this kind of pattern:

  • Person: I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing!
  • Person: *does The (Unacceptable) Thing*.
  • Someone else: You literally just did The (Unacceptable) Thing.
  • Person: No, I didn’t do The (Unacceptable) Thing. I had a good reason, so it wasn’t The (Unacceptable) Thing. I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing.

Sometimes people who talk this way are lying — but not always. Sometimes it’s that they don’t understand that reasons don’t erase actions. Sometimes they think actions only count as The (Unacceptable) Thing when they consider the actions to be unjustified/unacceptable. If you point out that they are, in fact, literally doing The Thing, they think that means you’re accusing them of being bad — and that you couldn’t be right, because they have a good reason.

This language problem is breaking a lot of conversations that need to happen, particularly around privilege and misuse of power. 

Tl;dr: It needs to be possible to describe what people are doing in morally neutral terms. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong. Scroll up for more about why and a concrete example.

 Image description: Quote text "coercion with a good reason is still coercion" on top of a photo of grass growing.

Image description: Quote text "coercion with a good reason is still coercion" on top of a photo of grass growing.