And He Said unto the Social Theorists, “Go Forth and Multiply”

Returning to “Allyship”: theorists rely on the mutability of language. Words are not hard, unchanging nuggets of meaning, they are cloudy penumbra of associations. Or perhaps they are like the type of firework known as the “willow” or “falling leaves”: when somebody says a word it triggers an explosion of associations that drift slowly down through your mind[1].

I suspect very little racist behaviour is motivated by a sincerely believed in system of racist ideology (at least in Britain.) Conscious acts of racist cruelty are acts of bullying and oppression, using whatever vulnerability the chosen victim has; unconscious bias is a product of this word-cloud of associations. [2]

However, some associations are more prominent than others. The more one string of ideas is dwelt upon, the more easily it will come to mind and the more it will dominate your thinking. It’s straightforward neural reinforcement. If the emphasis of a word shower begins to shift, the whole network of associations will migrate. This is how words change their meanings. 

Traditionally, this would take decades or centuries of slightly altered usage – millions of repeated utterances. Nowadays, the internet can so amplify your message that this shift can be effected in a few months, if you have the authority and hence the receptive audience. 

Critical race theorists exploit this flexibility of meaning. They worm their way into the gaps and try to push the meaning in a particular direction, using the internet’s enormous power to multiply messages.


[1] These associations can be very random and idiosyncratic. This morning, I had to turn a yogurt pot sideways to get it out of the fridge between two other items. It reminded me of the Millennium Falcon turning sideways to escape down a trench in the Death Star. I realised that my brain has made this association a lot!

[2] Systemic racism, though very real and very iniquitous, need not concern us when dealing with individuals. It is a numbers game, relevant when we are trying to improve society’s systems. It is an issue of policy and law.

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