Signaling in social justice language

Social justice activists like myself have a tendency to construct a lot of rules about which words to use or avoid. For example, “gay” is preferred to “homosexual” because the latter is too formal, clinical, and distant. On the other hand, “homosexual” may be acceptable when it’s used in parallel with “heterosexual”, or if it’s contrasted with “homoromantic”. These rules can be frustrating to learn, but they have some rationale behind them.

And then there are other rules which just don’t have any clear rationale. For instance, “gay” is to be used only as an adjective, never as a noun, and certainly never as a plural noun (i.e. “the gays”). Why? We don’t have a problem with using plural nouns for other identities, such as “Americans”, “liberals” or “atheists”. Even other sexual orientations are usually acceptable, as in the case of “lesbians”, “bisexuals”, or “asexuals”.

On an individual level, the only rationale is that “the gays” just sounds wrong, and conjures negative associations. It makes me think of conservative preachers talking about all the evil things the gays are up to.

On a broader scale, this is a clear example of signaling. Following arbitrary language rules indicates that a person has taken the time to educate themselves and exercise a little empathy.

Signaling and card games

In the game The Resistance,* everyone wants to look like they’re part of the resistance, and nobody wants to look like a spy. Even the spies don’t want to look like spies, because spies are more effective when hidden.

*Mafia, Werewolf, and Avalon are also suitable examples.

This presents a communication problem: no one has a way of verifying whether you’re communicating honestly or dishonestly. Whatever people say to show their loyalty to the resistance, the spies can just say the same thing.  Signaling is a form of communication that gets around the problem of trust. Basically, a signal is a costly action which costs less when it’s message is honest, and costs more when it’s message is dishonest.

For example, in The Resistance, players choose who to send on missions.  Many groups have arbitrary and non-binding conventions restricting who you can choose to send on missions (e.g. yourself and the person to your right).  These conventions can be costly, since you might distrust the person on your right.  But it’s even more costly to spies, who have even stronger preferences because each spy knows exactly who the other spies are.  Obeying arbitrary conventions is a form of signaling.

Here’s another way to think about it. Using signaling to communicate is like using the falsification theory of science. Your goal is not to confirm that you’re part of the resistance. Rather, your goal is to falsify the alternative, by doing something that a spy usually wouldn’t do.

What about “the gays”?

When it comes to social justice language, nearly everyone wants to look like enlightened people who aren’t racist, sexist, or homophobic. This is true even of most people who are racist, sexist, or homophobic.

Obeying arbitrary and intricate rules is the signaling solution. It costs time and effort to learn the rules, but you’re more willing to spend that time if you actually give a shit about minorities. You’re also more likely to have encountered the rules in the first place. If you don’t give a shit about minorities, you’re less likely to encounter the rules, and you’re less willing to invest the time to internalize them.

Signaling tends to get a bad rap, but my intention here is not to criticize it. Instead, I wish to make a couple observations.

First, the signaling value of any rule tends to go stale. Once the rule has been around for long enough, everybody learns it without much effort. I chose “the gays” as an example because I think most readers are already familiar with the negative connotations, but this same property makes it no longer really useful as a signal. Useful signalling requires an endless production of new rules. I believe this is what Julia Serano called the “activist language merry-go-round“.

Second, most social justice language rules are not purely about signaling. Even my example of “the gays” is not purely signaling, because the phrase does in fact produce negative feelings in people. And well, why needlessly cause people negative feelings? The language we use also influences the way that we categorize things and apply stereotypes. For example, it’s good to use “they” for people whose gender you don’t know, because it reduces sexist stereotyping and also allows that they might be non-binary

So what do you think? How important of a role does signaling play in social justice language? Is it good, bad, or a necessary evil?


  1. cartomancer says

    This kind of linguistic practice also comes up against personal and local idiosyncrasies. Your example of “gay” versus “homosexual” for instance. I myself much prefer “homosexual” to “gay”, precisely because it is distant and clinical and formal, and I prefer to think of my sexual orientation as just an unimportant biological fact rather than a statement of culture, identity or self-definition. Indeed, “gay” also has connotations of “happy”, “joyous”, “frivolous” and “colourful”, and I am uncomfortable with those.

    As to the degradation over time of the value of such things as virtue signalling tools, I would also note that some terms change in terms of connotation and acceptability independently. Use of “gay” as a noun, for instance, is much more acceptable than it once was, and I think a lot of this has to do with it being de-clawed through comedy and reclamation. People stopped using it in all seriousness and started using it ironically (in the UK at least I think Little Britain’s Dafydd had a lot to do with that one), and so it became a slightly silly way of talking about things that was humorous because it was out of step with mainstream usage. As a silly and light-hearted mode of speech, it stopped being offensive or loaded with negativity, and we may even see it becoming normalised at some point in the future.

  2. khms says

    Two points.

    First, I would like to point out that many people do, indeed, have problems with “the Americans”, or indeed most “the [classification]” especially when that classification is involuntary or people are members by growing up that way. (Plus, it “sounds bad” not so much by language rules, but by what people use it for, as your example shows.) Also see #notAll[classification].

    And second, don’t overlook the often significant irritation and resentment those rules cause in the majority if it’s a social justice situation. There’s a cost to the existence of this kind of signaling, and it can be significant. See also the anti-PC propaganda.

  3. says

    Signalling is, by definition, costly. It wouldn’t function as a signal if it weren’t costly. Is that the cost to which you refer, or are you talking about something else?

  4. invivoMark says

    An interesting perspective, and well-written. I’m not convinced that the signaling is invented by the social justice advocate, however; rather, the signaling evolves from the use of certain words to marginalize. In your example, a popular televangelist might blame some bad weather on “the gays,” and someone who is aware of social justice issues would want to distance themselves from that form of expression.

    To examine another similar instance, the word “crazy” is often considered ableist. I think it should be a perfectly reasonable word to use in normal parlance, as it is a versatile word that communicates tone very well. Unfortunately, some folks have used the term to describe people suffering mental health crises, or people who have obviously apparent mental illnesses, and here the word “crazy” is clearly used to marginalize those people. The problems with using the word “crazy” to describe a person or their actions arose without the help of social justice activists. We just recognize and respond to those problems.

    The signaling is therefore not intentional. It can, however, help to change the way we use language so that words lose their power to marginalize.

    I love Resistance, BTW. Played it a bunch with my friends. Right when we thought we had “solved” the game, my friend and I won as the spies by intentionally playing with a sub-optimal strategy. It’s a great game to ruin friendships and destroy trust.

  5. says

    Yes, I agree. Some of my wording might have implied that social justice activists are the originators of such signaling, but I did not intend to make any claims about that. I don’t know where the signaling comes from, probably from many different sources.

    While I used The Resistance as an illustrative example, I refuse to play it. I played it a bunch with the local games group years ago, and got sick of it. My robot boyfriend still likes it though.

  6. says

    That’s similar to what I was thinking. Certain word usages can gain negative connotations simply because they tend to be used by people saying either ignorant but harmful or outright bigoted things, and people start to associate those word usages with bigotry. Conversely, the people who are bigoted tend to also be ignorant of proper word usage for the group(s) they are bigoted against. They have little motivation to learn proper word usage, so they tend to pick word usages that sound awkward, hamfisted, and disrespectful to the people in that group (e.g. like how everyone is suddenly talking about “transgenders” since HB2 came up), and then whichever popular awkward phrasing the bigots and ignorant tend towards comes to be associated with bigotry. Which can be frustrating for the innocently ignorant because some people will assume they are bigoted because they didn’t know the right words to use. They can then choose to educate themselves, or they can react defensively, double down, and complain loudly about political correctness. The ones who are both ignorant and bigoted obviously tend towards the latter, and the innocently ignorant are more likely to be willing to learn, but you are still going to end up with people who do genuinely want to treat everyone respectfully but they just don’t really understand the nuances and feel like they are being attacked. Which is not to say that harm from innocent ignorance is not harmful, just that it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate innocent ignorance from ignorant bigotry.

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