Diagnosis: Russell Aphasia

russellThere is a particular trick of language that, once understood, you will start to see everywhere. It goes like this:

“I am firm. You are obstinate. They are pigheaded.”

The three statements mostly describe the same thing: strong personal conviction. But they are each loaded with additional meaning, which colors the perception. By placing them next to each other, the differences are magnified and readily legible.

You could say that “firm” appeals to our inherent dignity, that we each have the right to make our own decisions. “Obstinate” is more neutral, and mainly focuses on the factual effect of blocking productive resolution. “Pigheaded” on the other hand is clearly negative, suggesting the issue is the selfish attitude of the person in question.

It’s also no coincidence that the progression goes from “me” to “you” to “they”: we judge others more harshly than ourselves, especially third parties and strangers, and the phrasing makes that clear too.

The pattern is called Russell Conjugation, and it’s essentially a mash-up of Public Relations Spin and Fundamental Attribution Error.

The implication is hard to miss: when people or events are described, the words are often loaded with additional meaning and sentiment, and carry judgements that the author usually wants us to agree with. If they wish to elicit sympathy, they use empathetic language and a personal perspective. If they wish to provoke dislike and rejection, they will use blame and appeal to principles that were violated.

This generally works too, based on studies with focus groups. People will form opinions based on the particular sentiment of the statement, not the underlying facts described. We’re generally aware of this, and we are indeed surrounded by it, in advertising, politics, art, diplomacy, and so on. But we often seem powerless to recognize it in the moment. Russell Conjugation is a great antidote, and it can be fun to try and find triplets of your own. Invariably you will step on some sensitive toes.

“I believe in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You are a very spiritual person. They are religious fundamentalists.”

“My country promotes democracy. Yours destabilizes countries. They support terrorists.”

A clear example are the recent leaks about Google’s Machine Learning Fairness and the subsequent framing of Jen Gennai, the Google employee who was [entrapped / recorded / exposed] with a hidden camera. This can be contrasted with James Damore, the ex-Googler who was fired after [promoting viewpoint diversity / writing an internal memo / perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes] and having his memo leaked to the press.

In both cases we have a Google employee whose words are used against them, in edited form. In Damore’s case, all the citations were missing, making it seem like unsupported pontification. In Gennai’s case, the conversation is chopped up into small one or two sentence segments, lacking context, possibly out of order. Damore claimed to receive threats from coworkers and stayed home. Gennai claimed to receive threats from internet people and deleted her Twitter account.

In the subsequent coverage, Damore was called a white male brogrammer and generally denounced by the usual outlets as an offender, creating a drawn out media trial. In the coverage of Gennai’s case, … well there isn’t much coverage of it at all, actually, but Google acted on her behalf by censoring the offending video from YouTube, as did Reddit and Vimeo, for privacy reasons.

“I report. You gossip. They dox.”

This is related to another big one, namely:

“I am being harassed. You have randos in your mentions. They are discovering freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.”

This is where the usual lesson of Russell Conjugation ends. We are stuck with the fallibility of the human mind, which receives emotional messages as well as factual ones, and often accepts the comfortable spin wholesale over the precise, dry facts. Everything is subjective and socially constructed, and pointing out hypocrisy is merely treating the symptoms. But I don’t think that’s the entire picture, and that’s ceding far too much ground to postmodernism.

The distinction between reporting, gossiping and doxing is about much, much more than just sentiment and affect. “Report” carries positive connotations because it carries all the ethical and moral pomp of the profession of journalism. It implies a professional code is being followed, that information is being collected seriously, and disclosed responsibly, for the public interest. “Gossip” implies an idle, innocent, freeform informality, free from professional obligations. “Dox” implies targeted, premeditated malice, shared entirely in bad faith. That these words are used to refer to the same events tells us something very crucial.

A culture that cannot tell the difference between “reporting” and “doxing” and merely considers it “doxing” when they do it, is a culture that cannot accurately talk about behavior anymore. It’s a culture where the words have been spun so much, that they have lost their objective meaning, and are now instead used more interchangeably to deliver more subjective messages. It’s also a culture where not enough people feel the need to define their words, and to actually figure out what counts as reporting, as gossiping, as doxing, because this way the words can be used strategically in the moment, without having to be fully consistent with next time.

A culture that cannot tell the difference between “harassment” and “inevitable consequences” is one where accountability is irrelevant, because whether or not someone is responsible for their own actions and those of others is undefined and completely subjective.

If I had to name it, I’d call it Russell Aphasia. The brain can no longer find the right words, and instead instinctively selects an adjacent word with a more self-serving meaning than what is actually being described. The patient is unaware, and just can’t understand why others insist up is down. When asked to explain or provide examples, they are either at a loss, or insist on things that never happened, because there was never an objective checklist of criteria to check off. Just the desire to draw a distinction between what “I” do and what “they” do, so that “I” can feel better about myself.

“I make funny jokes, you are a political activist, they are dogwhistling hate.”

Russell Aphasia goes beyond affect or sentiment. It’s what happens when accountability goes completely out the window. After all, the danger of actually defining the expectations you have for other people, is that you yourself may have to live up to them. It suggests a widespread erosion of meaning, a cargo culting of the principles of civilized society, whose words are spoken but not lived. Instead they are used as handpuppets, to compel others into compliance with rules we do not want to follow ourselves.

One solution is to try and fix your label printer. Use labels to aspire, rather than to self-identify. Don’t identify as an artist, a reporter, a philosopher, a humanitarian—act like one, by adopting the necessary qualities. We seem to have forgotten that status derives from respect, and respect is earned based on admirable conduct. If you expect respect instead to flow from status, enforced on pain of punishment, you will end up breeding hostility. You may even feel the need to rearrange reality into a more comfortable illusion to hold on to your position, when that strategy fails.

About samuelthefifth

Iconoclasm as a service. It's not only all true, it's extremely possible.
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5 Responses to Diagnosis: Russell Aphasia

  1. NonSumQualisEram says:

    I feel the political tribes of the present have built their ideologies on such towering spires of lies upon lies, self-serving distortions piled atop spin that even if they want to _they can never climb down again._ The descent is too steep, too perilous.

    I confess, I do not know what an exit from this place looks like.

    It’s somewhat worrying.


  2. Can you Describe what ‘The Edge’ is about? I read the article on Russell conjugation, and then I looked at the collection that it’s a part of. Having Jared Diamond writing in the same circles as Eric Weinstein is bizarre and rare (though as some people would have it, not as rare as you’d think), and I want to know more about a source like that.


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