The other day a friend linked me to a tweet from one journalist to another: “i think you want to be really careful,” it said, “about using language that sounds like you might be [doing something that the second person had explicitly disavowed doing].” Ethan Strauss, a Twitter friend and first-rate sports journalist, suggested (after he saw me reply in my customarily truculent way) that there is a phenomenon here that needs a name. I think we should call it rhextortion. It’s a rhetorical extortion racket. (This phrase seemed a bit too extreme to some early readers, so if you like, substitute in “misinterpretation by proxy.”)

Let’s outline a few important features of rhextortion. One important thing is that the rhextortionist knows exactly what the target means. The potential misinterpretation is entirely in the hands of generally unnamed third parties who are not present. The rhextortionist then presents themselves to the target as doing them a favor. Here, for example, the target learns from the rhextortionist what the target themselves “wants.” How kind! They’re not the ones trying to control your language; they’re simply warning you that the misinterpretation is out there, somehow, without commenting on whether it’s justified.

Now, what’s the goal of the rhextortionist? Let’s just look at the facts. When someone prevents you from saying P on the grounds that someone else might interpret it as meaning Q, you haven’t been prevented from saying Q. You’ve been prevented from saying P. A realist has to assume that the goal, therefore, is to prevent people from saying P. Further, we should ask: would the rhextortionist ever be satisfied by a superficial recasting of your statement? You rephrase P as P*, which means pretty much the same thing as P but is harder to interpret as Q. But now the rhextortionist says: “P* could easily be interpreted as P. And we now know that P is a dog whistle for Q. So you want to be really careful about saying P*.” The treadmill never ends; symbolic power can always be continuously redshifted as the universe of unspeakable objects relentlessly expands.

Rhextortion should be thought of within a broader picture of linguistic voodoo, and within a broader system of interpretive freedom in which the ability to appear to demonstrate that words mean something other than what they obviously mean confers both virtue and power. It is kind of like the negative side of the Living Constitution, or of progressive interpretations of millennia-old religious documents. Intentional, creative exegesis also falls squarely into hot take culture. These absurd interpretive machinations are buttressed by dubious psychological hypotheses about unconscious associations and implicit biases: “When people hear that, what they actually process is this,” and so on. Sometimes the presentation is more nakedly political: “None of the Good people should ever read anything that could even conceivably make them feel Bad, and none of the Bad people should ever read anything that could even conceivably make them feel Good.”

I suspect that the fact that the censorship in question is effected through precisely the sort of clever literary finagling and back-of-the-napkin social pseudoscience that’s in vogue at many of our best institutions of higher learning helps the rhextortionist feel that they are being smart as well as doing good. It is the truest and best use of the contemporary liberal arts education. “Nobody but me,” I imagine they occasionally think, “could so intelligently find these awful sentiments lurking in these anodyne phrases; thank goodness I am also such a paragon of progressive virtue and thus can use my powers for good rather than for evil.” It seems never to occur to them that they are, in fact, just a certain kind of corrupt cop whose goal is control of what’s said and what’s sayable in the public sphere. Do what we say, they tell you, or we won’t be here to protect you when the mob comes with their wrenches and their baseball bats. Then they call the mob down.

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  1. Thanks for this. One problem is the people often do misinterpret what you’re saying, either because they haven’t been listening properly, because transmuting a nuanced opinion into a coarse ones saves them the trouble of thinking, or for baser strategic motives. I haven’t seen any data on how common this is, but I personally feel that it’s very difficult to put forward a nuanced opinion at the moment without it immediately being shoe-horned into some pre-conceived ideological category. But I think you would agree that the answer isn’t to stop putting forward nuanced opinions out of fear that they may be misunderstood or misrepresented. The onus should be on those who can’t or won’t listen to be more sensitive and less tribal about ideas. How we actually encourage people to do that – well, I think that’s one of the great political questions of today.

  2. Thanks. I think we should popularize the use of this word as much as possible.

    As a Moral Libertarian I believe in free speech and the free market of ideas being moral requirements of society. Rhextortion makes this impossible. We therefore absolutely NEED to defeat Rhextortion.

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