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?