Opprobrium Entrepreneurs

September 9, 2021

People who like to write about or think about or argue about American politics (overlapping, but not identical categories) owe a debt of thanks to Cass R. Sunstein for the term, “opprobrium entrepreneur.” Opprobrium is the imputation of shameful conduct. [1]

It’s a little harder to say exactly what an entrepreneur is, but it is about the front end of a development. The people who determine the demand for a product—the “product” in this instance is the unacceptability of certain words—or who organize its popularity or who popularize it among audiences who were not initially engaged.

Sunstein, in his 2018 paper , “The Power of Normal” proposes a way new norms are popularized. It is the mastery of this process that qualifies someone as an OE. Sunstein says:

Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category — abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment — real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category.

This is a logic-driven process. It isn’t very good logic, but the general argument—if X is bad, Y, which shares some of X’s traits, is also bad—is the kind of argument one finds in logic. So if, for instance, racial hatred is bad, then racial stereotyping is also bad and inattention to the widespread use of racial stereotypes is also bad and the refusal to become reliably enraged when one hears about an instance of racial stereotyping is also bad, That series should illustrate why I called “a kind of logic” and also why I said it wasn’t very good logic.

Sunstein follows the mechanism this way. An action or an attitude is declared to be objectionable. Then it is located in a category. Then anything else that falls in that category is also objectionable. So if raping a woman you met at a party in college is bad, then asking the woman if she would like to have sex with you is also bad, then asking her out on a date the next weekend is also bad, and so is saying that she is attractive. If you take the trouble to devise a category like “taking an initiative toward a woman at a party,” then anything that falls under the category “initiative” bears the same opprobrium.

Sunstein offers a list of common categories: “abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment.” But the whole notion of “category” is notoriously hard to pin down. There could be a category of irrational behavior, or of excessive appetite, or of deficient appetite, or even “inappropriate behavior”—which requires a whole new set of standards.

Consider, for instance, “lack of patriotism” in Sunstein’s list above. If we think of patriotism as a love of one’s country, then obviously, it is the display of this love, at appropriate times and in approved modes, that is being considered. So hating your county would fit, if you kept talking about your hatred. Not caring much one way or the other [2] could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Not displaying your feelings when such a display is called for could be seen as a lack of patriotism. Failing to praise others whose displays of their own patriotism are to be taken as the new norm—that too could be seen as a lack of patriotism.

You see how it works. Once the category is developed, weaker and weaker and weaker stimuli cue the same response that strong stimuli once cued. I love the story I heard in the 1970s of the college girl who was organizing recycling for her dorm and put signs on the paper bins: “white paper” on one and “colored paper” on the other. A friend, just to tease her, scratched out “colored paper” and wrote “paper of color.” As a joke from a friend, I thought it was funny. It wouldn’t be funny of the girl was accused of racism and kicked out of school, but she really should have been more sensitive to the possibility that someone would respond to the signs as if they were racist.


There is a solution to this problem. It’s simple in principle. It is to divide responses like this into too little, too much, and just right. I said it was simple. Rather than establishing “patriotism” as an undifferentiated good, for instance, we could say that there are expressions of patriotism that are too little, others that are too much, and still others that are somewhere in the middle. We could also allow large categories of everyday life where “patriotic acts” are really not required at all.

This would allow us to distinguish acts with racist intentions and expressions from others which bear only tangentially on race at all. The Opprobrium Entrepreneurs establish the category (bearing on race = racist) then label everything in the category as equally objectionable. Intentions are not required. Attitudes are the same as behavior. Insensitivity (to the categories I am selling) is the same as racism. And so on. And on.

Thomas B. Edsall, in his New York Times column of September 8, cites a number of scholars who think that the pushback against this kind of entrepreneurialism has begun. I hope so.

[1] It hasn’t had to develop much from the Latin root probrum, “reproach, infamy.Apparently it is one of those ideas tucked in near the foundation of society.
[2] Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris did some really interesting studies of young people at the time the European Union was being developed and the new thing, the better thing, was not to be “French” or “German,” but to be “European.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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