The Old Newspeak & the New Newspeak
- Pamela Paul, "What It Means to Call Prostitution ‘Sex Work’", The New York Times, 8/17/2023. It's interesting to see this article in the NYT.
Last week at the National Organization for Women’s New York office, women’s rights advocates, anti-trafficking groups and former prostitutes convened to galvanize New Yorkers to take action against the city’s booming sex trade. In addition to arguing for enforcement of existing laws…they wanted to send an important message about the language used around the problem.
“The media uses terms like ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ in their reporting, treating prostitution as a job like any other,” said Melanie Thompson…. The language of “sex work,” Thompson argued, implies falsely that engaging in the sex trade is a choice most often made willingly; it also absolves sex buyers of responsibility. … “I urge the media to remove the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ from your style handbooks,” she said.
In reporting the event afterward, The New York Post used the term “sex workers.”1 The Post is hardly alone. In what at first glance might seem like a positive…move, the term “sex work” suddenly appears to be everywhere. Even outside academic, activist and progressive strongholds, “sex work” is becoming a widespread euphemism for “prostitution.” It can also refer to stripping, erotic massage and other means of engaging in the sex trade. It’s now commonly used by politicians, the media, Hollywood and government agencies. …
It should be noted that the NYT itself used the phrase "sex work" as a euphemism for "prostitution" as recently as last month2, so just because this article appeared in its opinion pages doesn't mean that it will drop the doublespeak.
"Sex worker" as a euphemism for "prostitute" has been around for a long time, and I discussed an example of it in a headline fifteen years ago3. As I explained then, William Lutz documented the phrase "sex industry worker" from as long ago as 1988. A book entitled Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry4 was first published in 1987 and was popular enough to spawn a second edition in 1998. A search for "sex work" and "sex worker" in Google's Ngram Viewer shows that the phrases were practically non-existent before the late-1980s5, so the book may have actually started their spread.
So, given that "sex worker" is an old euphemism, and euphemisms lose their power over time, we should be getting a new one soon. Given the current fad for "person-first language"6, I expect that "sex worker" will soon be Oldspeak and the new euphemism will be "person who works in the sex industry", which has the advantage of being five words longer with over twice as many letters.
Why, you might wonder, does exchanging money for sex need a rebrand? Derogatory terms like “hooker” and “whore” were long ago replaced by the more neutral “prostitute.”
"Hooker" is slang and always has been. More importantly, whatever negative charge attaches to the word "prostitute" and even "whore" comes from what they mean. As with words such as "murder" and "rape", "prostitution" has a negative charge because of what it refers to. The negative charge flows from the activity to the word, not from the word to the activity. Changing the word for "prostitution" will work only until people figure out what it means, then a new euphemism will become necessary.
But “sex worker” goes one step further, couching it as a conventional job title…. Its most grotesque variant is the phrase “child sex worker,” which has appeared in a wide range of publications, including BuzzFeed, The Decider and The Independent. (Sometimes the phrase has been edited out after publication.)
If you can't write "child prostitute" because it's politically incorrect to write "prostitute", what can you write?
The term “sex work” emerged several decades ago among radical advocates of prostitution. People like Carol Leigh and Margo St. James, who helped convene the first World Whores' Congress in 1985, used “sex work” in an effort to destigmatize, legitimize and decriminalize their trade.
After they had convened a "whores' congress"?
Not surprisingly, this shift toward acceptability has been welcomed by many men, who make up a vast majority of customers. The term subsequently gained traction in academic circles and among other progressive advocacy groups, such as some focused on labor or abortion rights. …
No advocacy worker wants to stigmatize the women or children who are trafficked or who resort to prostitution. Survivors of the sex trade should never be blamed or criminalized. Nor should the humanity of individuals working in the sex trade be reduced to what they do for money. Both opponents and advocates of the term “sex worker” share these goals. …
The term “sex work” whitewashes the economic constraints, family ruptures and often sordid circumstances that drive many women to sell themselves. It flips the nature of the transaction in question: It enables sex buyers to justify their own role, allowing the purchase of women’s bodies for their own sexual pleasure and violent urges to feel as lightly transactional as the purchase of packaged meat from the supermarket. Instead of women being bought and sold by men, it creates the impression that women are the ones in power. …
In recent years, language has undergone drastic shifts in an effort to reduce harm. Sometimes these shifts result in contorted language that obscures meaning. Sometimes these shifts make people feel better without changing anything of substance. And sometimes they do move the needle toward positive change, which is always welcome. But the use of “sex work,” however lofty the intention, effectively increases the likelihood of harm for a population that has already suffered so much. To help people hurt by the sex trade, we need to call it like it is.
The only thing I disagree with in this last paragraph is the claim that doublespeak sometimes does "move the needle toward positive change"; I've seen no evidence of this and Paul offers none. Does she really believe this or did she just write it in a futile attempt to mollify critics? To deal with any problem, we must understand it, and how can we do that if we refuse to speak honestly about it?
- Matt Taibbi, "Tracking Orwellian Change: The Aristocratic Takeover of 'Transparency'", Racket News, 8/21/2023.
“Transparency” was one of America’s great postwar reforms. In 1955, a Democratic congressman named John Moss from California…introduced legislation that would become one of the great triumphs of late-stage American democracy.
The Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] took a tortuous path to becoming law, opposed from the start by nearly every major government agency and for years struggling to gain co-sponsors despite broad public support. … After a series of final tweaks it eventually passed the House 307-0 in 1966, when it landed on the desk of Lyndon Johnson, who didn’t like the bill, either. Johnson signed it….
The Freedom of Information Act gave reporters and citizens alike extraordinary power to investigate once-impenetrable executive agencies that conduct the business of government. … Transparency for decades was understood to mean a pro-democratic concept giving ordinary citizens the power to see how their government operates, how taxes are spent, and whether or not public officials are complying with laws. …
By 2023, the transformation of the term “transparency” has advanced to a stage where the word is now commonly understood by politicians to mean the mathematical opposite of what someone like John Moss would have thought. When elite politicians and media figures speak of “transparency” now, they mean giving government power to obtain “transparency” into the activities of private citizens. … Transparency is what authorities…want to have into your every action, transaction, and thought. It’s a terrifying idea, and…something Hitler or Stalin would have been reluctant to say out loud, though of course this exact idea was foundational to both totalitarian societies. …
The easiest way to understand the language of contemporary politics is to assume that words mean the opposite of what they purport to mean; for instance, "diversity" is "celebrated" by holding racially-segregated ceremonies, and people are excluded from events in the name of "inclusion"7. "War is peace. Freedom is slavery.8"
One last note. The extraordinary pro-democratic ideal of FOIA was underscored by the fact that the tool was available to every citizen. Not just New York Times journalists, but every private digger, potential whistleblower, even crackpots were granted the power of “transparency.”
The chief way you know the new version of transparency is a fraud is that it’s limited to “qualified” researchers. We’re even seeing lately news stories sourced to some of these same “researchers” complaining about having to comply with FOIA requests…. Ideologically, these self-appointed intellectual vanguards do not believe information is for everyone, nor do they believe they should have to answer to the people funding their “research,” while simultaneously believing that private companies and individuals should get used to the principle of endless inquiry.
When the meanings of noble words are turned inside out, we have to pay attention, and this example is about as infamous as this sort of thing gets. Don’t let anyone tell you transparency means surrendering your privacy to the state. It’s supposed to be the other way around.
- Jared Downing, Priscilla DeGregory & Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, "Politicians, prosecutors dropping the ball on booming NYC sex trade: advocates", The New York Post, 8/8/2023.
- See, for instance: Teo Bugbee, "‘Kokomo City’ Review: Dispatches From the Down Low", The New York Times, 7/27/2023.
- Doublespeak Headline, 8/3/2008.
- Frédérique Delacoste & Priscilla Alexander, editors, Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry (2nd Edition, 1998).
- "Sex Work, Sex Worker", Google Books Ngram Viewer, accessed: 8/31/2023.
- Close Encounters with Doublespeak of the Third Kind, 9/8/2019.
- Anemona Hartocollis, "Colleges Celebrate Diversity With Separate Commencements", The New York Times, 6/2/2017.
- George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Part I, Chapter 1.
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing of the excerpts.
How to Solve a Problem: Backtracking1
As usual in these entries on problem-solving, let's start out with a puzzle.
Puzzle: A Delivery Dilemma
If you work delivering packages nowadays, you are expected to deliver a diverse assortment of items to the same address. For instance, suppose that you are tasked with delivering to a house on top of a high hill. Unfortunately, no one is home so that you'll have to leave the packages on the porch of the house. The road ends at the bottom of the hill, and the only way to get to the porch is a steep and narrow footpath up the side of the hill. Suppose, further, that you are to deliver a live goat, a hungry dog, and a pizza. Because of the steepness of the hill, you can only take up one item at a time, so it will require at least three trips to deliver all three to the porch. That's a lot of climbing! However, you can't leave the goat and the pizza alone together in the delivery van or on the porch, because the goat would eat the pizza. Similarly, you can't leave the hungry dog alone with the goat, since the dog would attack the goat. Luckily, you can leave the dog alone with the pizza, since everyone knows that dogs don't like pizza.
How can you get all three items alive and intact to the porch? What is the minimum number of trips up and down the steep hill that you will have to make?2
This puzzle looks like a prime candidate for hill-climbing3, and indeed that will play a role in solving it. Since your problem is to get all three items from the base of the hill up to the house on top, you have a clear measure of progress, namely, how many objects are on the porch. So, let's work our way through it.
The first step, of course, is to carry one of the objects up to the house and leave it on the porch, but which one? You can't take the pizza up first, since that would leave the dog and goat alone together in the delivery van. Also, you can't take the dog up first, since that would leave the goat and pizza alone. So, the only alternative left is to take the goat up first, leaving the dog and the pizza in the van4. So far, so good.
However, now you're stuck. You can't take the dog up and leave it on the porch alone with the goat since the dog will attack the goat, and you can't take the pizza up and leave it on the porch because the goat will eat it. The puzzle appears to be insoluble! In fact, it is impossible to solve if you stick to hill-climbing.
To solve the puzzle, you must backtrack, which is the topic of this entry. Here's how to do it: take the dog or the pizza―it doesn't matter which―up to the porch and leave it, then take the goat back down to the van! This step goes against common sense, which is what makes the puzzle hard. It also violates the hill-climbing algorithm, since all you've done is switch one object on the porch for another. The hill-climbing algorithm tells you to always take an action that increases the number of items delivered, but you can't do so and solve the puzzle.
To continue the solution: you return to the van with the goat, leave it in the van, and take the pizza or dog, as the case may be, up the hill. You can safely leave the dog and pizza together on the porch as you return to the van for the goat. Finally, you take the goat back up and place it on the porch. It took four trips up and down the hill to deliver the three items!5
Hill-climbing alone is usually not enough to solve a problem. Instead, you need to combine it with backtracking, that is, when you get stuck and can't seem to make further progress towards the goal, backtrack to an earlier stage and take a different route. For instance, in trip-planning, we often use hill-climbing by choosing among routes that lead in the general direction of where we want to go. However, sometimes the shortest route to a destination may require that you backtrack to gain access to it, or it may take a road that sometimes heads in the wrong direction.
In the above puzzle, you must backtrack because you have two different goals that sometimes conflict: one goal is to get all three items on the porch―and if this was your only goal you could accomplish it with hill-climbing alone―but your other goal is to deliver the items undamaged, and for that you have to backtrack.
In the previous entry, I mentioned three different obstacles faced by hill-climbing: plateaus, ridges, and multiple peaks. If, in the course of hill-climbing, you get stuck on any of these obstacles, then backtracking will be necessary in order to get off. The above puzzle is a different type of obstacle―namely, a detour6―which comes about when you have more than just the goal of getting to the top of the hill. When you have more than one goal, you will often need to backtrack in order to accomplish all of them.
Now that you have another problem-solving tool in your kit, try the following puzzle for practice. Note that this puzzle takes place in a world of wizards and little people where magic is real, but you won't need magic to solve it.
Puzzle: To the Far Shore
The Great Gray Mage and his two traveling companions, both halflings, needed to cross a bottomless and nameless river. They dared not swim it for fear of monsters rising from its murky depths. The mage's magic was losing its power, and the three were on a quest to discover why. Luckily, there was a small rowboat pulled up on the bank that the three could borrow to make the crossing. However, the boat was of a size that could not hold all three travelers at the same time since it could carry only the weight of the mage without sinking. Of course, the halflings each weighed half as much as the mage so the boat could carry both across. If the mage rowed the boat across the river, the halflings would be left behind; and if the halflings rowed across, then the mage would be left. The mage's powers were so weak that he could not use them to draw the empty boat back across the river, and it appeared that only one crossing could be made. How did the Great Gray Mage get himself and the two halflings across the river without using magic?7
First, the Great Gray Mage directed the halflings to row the boat to the opposite shore, and one of them got out on the opposite side while the other rowed the boat back to the shore on which the mage waited. Then, the mage changed places with the halfling in the boat, and rowed across to the other side of the river. The halfling on the far shore took the mage's place in the boat and rowed back across the river to where his fellow waited. Finally, both halflings climbed into the boat and rowed across to join the mage on the opposite shore. Success, and no magic needed!
- For previous entries in this series, see:
- This is a version of a puzzle that goes all the way back to Alcuin in the eighth century. It's usually presented as the story of a farmer who buys a cabbage, goat, and wolf (?) at a market, and has to cross a river in a small boat that holds only one of the three items at a time. See: Marcel Danesi, The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life (2002), pp. 153-155.
- See: Climbing Up that Hill, 7/5/2023.
- Notice that we solved the sub-problem of which object to deliver first by elimination; see: Solving a Problem by Elimination, 6/20/2023.
- You might wonder what happens to the three items after you leave them on the porch, but that's not your problem!
- Wayne A. Wickelgren, How to Solve Problems: Elements of a Theory of Problems and Problem Solving (1974), pp. 85-88.
- This is a simplified version of another classic puzzle from Alcuin: as it's usually presented there are two adults and two children, but the solution simply repeats twice the process for getting one adult across the river. See: William Harston, A Brief History of Puzzles: Baffling Brainteasers from the Sphinx to Sudoku (2019), Puzzle 2.
Everybody's Somebody's Fool
Quote: "It can be tempting when learning about a simple con to think that you would never have fallen for it―or to assume that only less intelligent, less educated, or more gullible people can be victimized. But the fact is that everyone can be fooled, even the best and brightest among us. In this book, we reveal how people exploit our bias for truth―our inclination to accept too much and check too little―and we propose concrete steps we can take to bolster our defenses. We don't offer a compendium of scams and scammers or a treatise on the history, economics, or sociology of deceit. We also don't delve into the motivations, incentives, and emotional makeup of con artists and their victims. Rather, we explain the cognitive psychology of the cheated―the patterns of thinking and reasoning that make us all vulnerable."1
Title: Nobody's Fool
Subtitle: Why We Get Taken In and What We Can Do about It
Comment: As far as I can tell, not having read this book yet, its subject is how and why people are fooled, but the examples seem to be taken from con games and scam artists, rather than the more controversial politicians and religious charlatans. For instance, the "Introduction" begins by discussing the case of Elizabeth Holmes, the woman behind Theranos who recently began serving a prison sentence2 .
Authors: Daniel Simons & Christopher Chabris3
Comment: Both authors are psychologists and I read their previous book, The Invisible Gorilla4, over a decade ago.
Card Trick: Before we get on with the new book, let's take a break for a magic trick. Check out the cards below; pick one, any one you want, then concentrate on it. Focus your attention and memorize your selected card so that you'll recognize it again. When you've finished, click on the "Read my mind!" button below it, and prepare to be amazed.
Your chosen card vanished! How did I do that? Did I read your mind and predict the future? See below for an explanation of how the trick works.
Summary: After an Introduction, the book is divided into two parts of four chapters each, followed by a Conclusion. The first part covers four habits; here's how the authors describe them:
We begin with chapters on four key cognitive habits that we all have, crucial features of how we think and reason that unfortunately can be weaponized by people who want to fool us. They include our ability to focus on the information we care about…while ignoring distractions or irrelevant information. With experience, we develop expectations for what should happen or what incoming information should look like, and we use these expectations to automatically make predictions that are accurate much of the time. Our abilities to think and reason depend on our making fundamental assumptions about ourselves, other people, and the world around us; when these assumptions are strong enough, they constitute commitments that we rarely question or even realize we are making. And as we become practiced at any task, we increase our efficiency, meaning we develop routines, rules of thumb, and shortcuts that save us immense amounts of time and effort in making decisions.5
And here's how the authors describe the second part:
The remaining chapters explore four hooks: features of the information we encounter in our daily lives that we find attractive but that can snare us. … When the information we encounter matches or resembles what we already know and trust, we use familiarity as a signal of its truth. We rely on the consistency of information we encounter as evidence of its veracity. We associate great precision in predictions or evidence with the accuracy and truthfulness of the ideas that gave rise to them. And we are attracted to stories of potency, in which small causes have large consequences for our lives and society as a whole.6
The Blurbs: The book has positive blurbs from Annie Duke, Apollo Robbins, and Philip Tetlock7, among others.
Explanation of the Card Trick: The authors of the book present a version of this old trick8 in chapter one to illustrate how the habit of "focus" can be used to mislead us. The trick uses the principle called "misdirection" by magicians, that is, getting the audience to focus in one place while the funny business is happening elsewhere. If you were surprised that your card disappeared, it's because you focused your attention on the card you chose, as I asked you to do, rather than the other four cards. When you clicked on the button, four cards appeared and you looked for your chosen card, but it had disappeared. What you didn't notice is that all of the five original cards had disappeared and been replaced by similar looking ones, so of course the card you chose was not there. If you don't believe me, use the back button on your browser to look at the original row of five cards and compare them.
You can try this trick on a friend or family member by using nine court cards from a deck of cards. Separate them into two packets, one of five cards and the other of four. Have your audience mentally select one card from the five card packet. Now, the hard part of the trick will be to switch the initial five cards for the other four without it being obvious. One way to do so would be as follows: after your audience has mentally selected a card, put the packet behind your back and tell the audience that you're going to remove one card and put it in your pocket. Instead, switch the packet of five cards for the four-card packet, which you placed in your back pocket before the trick began. Then, produce the four cards and ask the audience if the chosen card is there; it won't be. Take a bow.
Disclaimer: I haven't read this book yet, so can't review or recommend it, but its topic interests me and may also interest my readers. Also, the above remarks are based only on reading a sample of the book.
- "Introduction", p. 3.
- "Elizabeth Holmes enters Texas prison to begin 11-year sentence for notorious blood-testing hoax", The Associated Press, 5/30/2023.
- See: Check it Out, 9/30/2010.
- See: Think, don't Blink!, 6/10/2010.
- "Introduction", p. 13.
- "Introduction", pp. 13-14.
- See: The Limits of Expertise, 12/28/2005, Check it Out, 11/6/2006, Check it Out, 3/26/2009.
- "Princess Card Trick", Magicpedia, 2/18/2017.