In the midst of an interesting Spiked essay on the disconcerting popularity of “denier” (as in “Holocaust denier”) as an increasingly broad descriptor for people who demur from the majority view on issues like climate change, Frank Furedi has a passing remark about how we increasingly tend to suppress overtly moral rhetoric, to conceal the normative claims we’re making:
Instead of enforcing a explicit moral code, the authorities seek to police behaviour through diffuse rhetoric that avoids dealing with difficult questions; they talk about ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, for example.
And just this weekend, lo and behold we read about YouTube pulling down a video that criticizes Islam with a slideshow of quotes from the Koran. The video was removed, they say, “due to its inappropriate nature.”
And it certainly does seem like that little adjective, “inappropriate” is quite popular, probably for two related reasons. First, it’s about as vague a term as one can use. It allows you to “explain” your objection to something without actually articulating what’s wrong with it, or stating any kind of principle, which makes it easier to be inconsistent or ad hoc in one’s judgments. Second, as Furedi suggests, it casts normative claims as claims about etiquette. Eating your appetizer with the entrée fork is “inappropriate,” and that isn’t really a contestable claim because it’s just a brute local rule, it’s “what we do around here.” Whereas actually coming out and saying that something is wrong or harmful raises a whole series of potential questions: Wrong given what moral premises? Harmful on what view of “harm,” and based on what empirical evidence? A more humble-seeming term like “inappropriate” avoids those demands for justification even where the institutional consequences of doing something “inappropriate” and doing something “harmful” are indistinguishable.