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Concept Creep

Is everything completely terrible – or is the world actually getting better? I just read an interesting take on this in The Guardian.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking the same thing: How can this even be a question? Of course everything is completely terrible. Here in the US of A things have gone to shit in a big way. Every day brings new horrors, new rips in the social fabric, new threats to the values so many of us hold dear. Every day there is new evidence of the brutishness and stupidity of the man in the White House, and the cowardice and hypocrisy of the people who surround him. Every day there are new harms being done (or planned, or threatened, or tweeted). So what in the world is The Guardian, a thoughtful and intelligent newspaper, talking about?

Here’s how New York-based Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman poses the question: Are things getting worse or does it just feel that way? The article is not about the shit show that is contemporary America but rather about our broader perceptions about the world in which we live. Are we safer or less safe? Healthier or sicker? On one hand, the statistics show that, globally, poverty, hunger, violence and disease are actually decreasing. On the other hand, it sure the hell doesn’t seem like that.

Maybe, posits the article, we are suffering from what’s known as “concept creep.”  An Australian professor of psychology argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” Thus, the argument goes, we think more is wrong not necessarily because more is wrong but because we’ve expanded the definition of “wrong.”

Now it’s common to call a behavior like excessive shopping an “addiction,” or consider transient, situational unhappiness “depression.”  This is not to say that new problems or concerns are fake or are overreactions. That’s not the point of the article or the research on “concept creep.” It is to say that our universe of what to worry about seems to be constantly expanding because our definitions expand. Which does not mean that the world is getting scarier and more brutish. It just means, as one researcher put it: “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems.”

Or, maybe it means we are getting increasingly sensitive in a good way to what we used to ignore or sweep under the rug? I’m not sure. Is this indecisivenessness of mine a problem? IDS (Indecisive Disorder Syndrome)?

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