Skeptic » Reading Room » Concept Creep and the Policing of Words

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Concept Creep and the Policing of Words

According to Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Paris, when it comes to press freedom, the UK remains one of the “worst-performing countries” in Western Europe. Why? A number of worrying trends are at play, including a heavy-handed approach towards the press — often in the name of national security — and a climate of hostility towards the media. This hostility is not just directed towards the media, however; it’s also directed towards the general public.

Ostensibly, the UK is a bastion of liberality. However, on closer look, you find a society dominated by PC culture. As writer Brendan O’Neill asks, “which country’s police force just called on its citizens to report offensive speech? Not libelous speech or death-threat speech, just plain old insulting speech. Speech that is merely hurtful or hateful. Which nation’s cops instructed the citizenry to snitch on haters? North Korea? China? Maybe Turkey?”

No, rather shockingly, it was the United Kingdom, where offensive speech has become a police matter. One would expect this in the likes of Russia, where, in 2017, law enforcement opened 411 criminal cases against Internet users. That same year, in the UK, in an effort to combat social media hate speech, police arrested nine people a day (yes, a day). That’s 63 people each week; 252 people a month; 3,024 people in a year.

These people were arrested for posting allegedly offensive messages online. I stress the word allegedly, because some of these “crimes” border on the ridiculous. In 2018, for example, a 19-year-old woman was arrested for sending a “grossly offensive” message. In reality, the teenager simply posted rap lyrics that included the N-word on her Instagram page. Just a few weeks later, a Scottish man was charged for committing a hate crime. In reality, he taught his pug to do a Nazi salute, then posted the footage on YouTube. Controversial? Yes. Criminal? No.

How did we get to a point where tweets are equated with physical assault? Two words: concept creep. In 2016, Nick Haslam published a paper titled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology.” Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, wrote:

By applying concepts of abuse, bullying, and trauma to less severe and clearly defined actions and events, and by increasingly including subjective elements into them, concept creep may release a flood of unjustified accusations and litigation, as well as excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes. The concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice … [have been subjected to historical changes]. In each case, the concept’s boundary has stretched and its meaning has dilate.

By offering a case study of each word, Haslam charts the evolution of concept creep. He demonstrates conclusively that each of the six words have undergone significant semantic shifts. In fact, as Gregg Henriques at Psychology Today writes, the shift has been so profound that “all six (abuse, bullying, trauma, etc.) have been extended both horizontally (so as to include novel phenomena that were historically outside the boundary) and vertically (so as to include increasingly minor cases).”

In other words, the interpretative goalposts have been widened, considerably so. In the UK, this has seen people imprisoned for making racist comments on Twitter or simply making jokes in poor taste. Insulting comments are now considered criminal. If someone calls you a pig on Facebook, just call the police. If you are a Sikh wearing a turban and someone shouts “tea-towel,” why not call the police? Although the term Orwellian has been the victim of semantic satiation, there is something Orwellian-y about the idea of the police — the actual police — dictating what constitutes “acceptable” speech. Today Great Britain, a supposedly progressive mecca, is dogged by regressive, myopic mindsets.

In May of this year, the comedian John Cleese had the temerity to say something on Twitter. Though the actual police didn’t charge him with a crime, the thought police most definitely did. His comments, we are told, were extremely racist. What, exactly, did Cleese say? This:

Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city anymore. Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it…

Cleese had the audacity to factually state that today’s Britain is wildly different from Britain of the past. Demographically speaking, present day London is unrecognizable from London of the 1980s. In 2012, the city became the first major Western capital to become majority non-white. Cleese was not being racist; he was being factual. But who cares? Lock the goose stepping bastard up.

It’s no exaggeration to say the following: Cleese was fortunate to not have the police knocking on his door. After all, as the aforementioned O’Neill notes, the UK is a place where “communications laws and public-order legislation can be, and regularly are, used to punish hateful expression… In some parts of Britain the arrest rate for offensive speech has risen by nearly 900% in recent years.” Yes, 900%.

In January of this year, a man was brought in for questioning by police. What was his alleged crime? He liked a tweet that appeared to mock the transgender community. Let me state that again: he liked a tweet. He did not compose the tweet; he merely liked it. According to Harry Miller, the man brought in for questioning, the Humberside Police wanted to understand his “thinking” and his reasons for liking the limerick on Twitter, which referred to trans women as “stupid’.

Taking to social media to voice his disillusionment, Mr. Miller, who used to work as a policeman, had this to say: “a cop said he was in possession of 30 tweets by me. I asked if any contained criminal material. He said ‘No.’ I asked if any came close to being criminal and he read me a limerick. Honestly. A limerick. A cop read me a limerick over the phone.”

After telling the policeman that he did not actually write the limerick, the officer replied: “Ah. But you liked it and promoted it.” Liking a comment is now controversial, if not borderline criminal.

More recently, in June of this year, a disabled grandfather was sacked by Asda supermarket. His crime? He decided to share on his Facebook page an “anti-religion” sketch by Billy Connolly, one of the greatest British comedians of all time. According to a MailOnline report, Brian Leach, who had worked at the Asda store for five years, was fired by the supermarket after a colleague complained the comments in the shared video were anti-Islamic. (In the video Connolly makes fun of all religions, not just Islam) After the complaint, as the MailOnline reports, Mr. Leach deleted the post from his page and wrote an apology to his bosses and colleagues, Nevertheless, Mr. Leah was left jobless.

In the UK, the expansion of concept creep primarily reflects an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm, or, to be more accurate, the perception of harm. And, as we all know, perception is highly subjective. PC culture, which now permeates every crevice of British society, reflects a highly progressive (or regressive) moral agenda. At its most malevolent, concept creep pathologizes everyday experiences and promotes a sense of tragic victimhood.

I better go. I hear the police knocking on my door. END

About the Author

Dr. John Glynn is a writer and academic originally from Ireland. He is currently working as a professor of psychology at the American University of Bahrain, Manama. His writing has been published by the likes of Quillette, The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectator US and The Federalist.

Recommended by Amazon


  1. Tzindaro says:

    I was once accused of being a racist because of a comment about werewolves. I was informed, rather aggressively, that “that term is pejorative and the bispecies individuals referred to prefer to be known as Wolven-Americans.”

  2. John Glynn says:

    Shame on you! :)

  3. Dan says:

    This is interesting, and it’s sad to see the police being involved in such mundane matters.

    However, I find the author’s inclusion of the Cleese brouhaha a bit disingenuous. As he says, the police were never involved, and the assertion that the “thought police” charged him with a crime is nonsensical.

    Was Mr. Glynn hoping no one would actually click the provided link? That article’s headline and main argument is that Cleese’s statement is not “factual” but rather is based on incorrect assumptions. It also gives the argument some much-needed context.

    But why not introduce some creep into your argument and throw in a seemingly relevant anecdote, even though it seems to fit in exactly where the author says such complaints should remain… online and out of the purview of the legal system?

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    One of my favorite experiences with PC-run amok was at a major American University. I won’t name it but you’d all recognize its name because it has a good football team.

    A handful of post-docs were chatting and one used the term ‘Black’ to refer to an ethnic group. Another person ahemmed and said, “They prefer African-American.”

    The kicker? Ahem-boy was White, white, white (he looked like Cary Elwes) and the offender-for-a-word was mixed-raced, including … wait for it… African-American.


    I was once asked in a dept meeting what I meant by ‘political correctness’ and I replied that it was a corruption of a good and basic principle we all should have learned in kindergarten that has been twisted into a status-seeking game of ‘gotcha’ to put down others in a most hypocritical manner.

    What is the good and basic principle?
    Try not to make others feel bad.

  5. ACW says:

    Thank you for this article. I have a relative who ‘has a developmental disability’ (a term which has been coined to deter bullying and promote sensitivity and tolerance, but which not only does not accomplish that end but muddies the waters in terms of diagnosis). I’ve seen what people have done to her all her life, so I know what *real* bullying looks like. It cheapens the entire concept to designate as ‘bullying’ any word or action that someone, somewhere, has decided he-she-it-they is offensive, or at least can be used as a stick to beat someone else over the head. Worse, it makes honest discourse impossible.

  6. Terri Bey says:

    Doesn’t law enforcement over in England have anything better to do?

  7. Val Zampedro says:

    The article says, referring to London, “In 2012, the city became the first major Western capital to become majority non-white.” According to Wikipedia, Washington, D.C. was majority Black starting in the late 1950’s.

  8. John Glynn says:

    Sadly not.

  9. Mrs Grimble says:

    I wonder if Dr Glynn has ever been to the UK? If he had spent any time in the country, he would almost certainly know that “English” (rather than “British”) is commonly used as a dogwhistle for “non-white”. That is why Cleese was so roundly condemmed; a British person would hardly make that error.
    Also did Dr Glynn actually read the 2012 census article that he linked to? It states that the Census had two categories for white – “White British” for people born here, and “White Other” for people born elsewhere. The 45% figure is for White British; White Other makes up a further 13%. So white people are still in the majority.
    Finally, although he mentions a couple of people reported for transphobia, he fails to mention the mumerous women who have been suspended or even banned fron Twitter for posting straightforward statements such as “Transwomen are men” “Women are adult human females” and “Women don’t have penises”. Apparently statements of scientific fact are now non-PC!

  10. 123elle says:

    I understand that people, both well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned can step in it when addressing or referring to various minorities. Horrors! They deckare. We’re in the era of The Corrrectness Gestapo, which now stalks pure-hearted souls who let slip even an incorrect syllable.

    Well, my hanky is dry for those who have enjoyed, until recently, free rein to mock minorities, the handicapped, and all manner of sexual and gender nonconformers.

    You folks don’t like getting your heels locked a single bit. So your discomfiture must be the fault of the very people you mock for being overweeningly thin-skinned.

    Being Jewish, I had to grow a thick skin very early in life, especially when I visited the UK, where our friendly “English” hosts couldn’t trek through a single evening without dredging up a Jewish joke or stereotype. It got old. They meant no harm, of course (I hope). Only the Irish caught as much flak. Oh, and the Australians too, of course.

    So today’s PC overcorrection, even if some of it is risible, just doesn’t cause me to clutch my own worn out pearls. I know exactly what Cleese meant, and so do you all. He meant, as my host said, “you don’t see a white face in this town anymore.”

    For the PC-traumatized try a little harder to learn how others wish to be referred to and don’t get so indignant at being corrected or having to change. You might still have something new to learn after all these years.

  11. Jim Shearer says:

    I found myself firmly in the age of over-reaction several years ago while driving a taxi. I was loudly denounced as a racist because I changed the radio station when a disco song came on. Well, I admit to not liking disco, but that certainly doesn’t make me a racist. But the part that makes this somewhat funny is the disco artists in question. It was the BeeGee’s.

    Have a Cleesy day, everyone! Stay alive!

  12. Bob Erens says:

    Some good news: Common sense prevails, as the man sacked by Asda has been reinstated

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how Akismet processes your comment data. Comments are closed 45 days after an article is published.

Patreon: a new way to support the things skeptic creates

Get eSkeptic

Be in the know.

eSkeptic delivers great articles, videos, podcasts, reviews, event announcements, and more to your inbox.

Sign me up!

Donate to Skeptic

Please support the work of the Skeptics Society. Make the world a more rational place and help us defend the role of science in society.

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

Copyright © 1992–2019. All rights reserved. The Skeptics Society | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. Privacy Policy.