Cancer is terrible. Even the treatment for it (when one is available) is terrible; surely we’d only be performing a combination of a series of invasive surgeries and bombarding the body with harsh chemicals and radiation if the alternative was grisly doom.
I’m going to make a statement, and then I’m going to present several possible meanings behind the statement. In other words, the statement will be what I say, and then all the choices that follow are possibilities of what I mean. I would like you to guess which choice is the correct one.
Okay, here’s the statement: “Not every disease is cancer.”
Now here are the possible things I might mean when I say that:
- “It’s possible to morally rank diseases, and I’m doing so right now.”
- “Cancer isn’t real; there’s no such thing as cancer.”
- “Because you didn’t/don’t have cancer, I’m dismissing any other harm you may have suffered from other diseases as irrelevant.”
- “I’m pro-cancer; I actually want there to be more of it, and I especially want people I don’t like to get it.”
- “Different bad things can have different causes, effects, and – most importantly – solutions.”
So, which do you think is most likely to be the actual meaning behind my words?
Well, if you’re smart, you picked number 5, which is the only reasonable meaning to infer. But if you don’t like me, there’s a strong chance that some part of you practically screamed that it was one of the other four, or something equally uncharitable.
There are some words that universally represent negative concepts. Bad Things. Words like “rape,” or “terrorism,” or “racism.” Each of those words is, to our society, as bad as “cancer.”
Because those words are universally bad, they carry power. No one wants to condone those things. This means that a certain kind of grifter can pull a certain kind of grift by referring to something that isn’t one of those things as one of those things.
Why this grift is so effective is that it’s never used to make a good thing seem bad. It’s just used to make a mild-to-medium bad thing seem horrible. And if you raise any objection, you’re defending something bad!
Example: someone violently attacks someone else. An assault. Someone else calls it “a terrorist attack.” If you object and say “that wasn’t a terrorist attack,” someone else will yell “why are you apologizing for terrorists?! Why are you defending someone who attacked an innocent person?!”
See the position you’re in? Unless you love being a pariah, you pretty much have to keep your mouth shut and let everything become terrorism.
Okay, so why is that bad though? If someone does something bad, why should we care if they’re labeled as worse? Here’s why: even leaving aside the issue of justice (that people should get the punishment they deserve, but not more), different problems have different solutions. Remember the cancer example above? Imagine if we treated every single disease with invasive surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. That would be bad! And not just in a “doing more than is strictly necessary way,” but in a way that actually harms way more people than it would help.
Some things are rape, racism, terrorism, or cancer. When that happens, we should respond accordingly. But lots of bad things, even very bad things, aren’t those bad things. And the solutions may be very different.
Because of the nature of communication, tribalism, rhetoric, and so on – you don’t gain much by fighting against this grift. That’s a shame, but I don’t want to change your position there. I just want you to recognize the grift when you see it. I want you to see the shell game for what it is. People don’t always want a reasoned, just response – even to a bad thing. They want something extreme, especially if it’s in their favor. So they’ll pull a switcheroo and take a bad thing and label it as a Horrible Thing to put you in the position of accepting that or defending the bad thing.
It’s a good trick. That’s why you should be savvy when it happens.