Poison-Depilling Problems

Occasionally, we all find ourselves attracted to what we might think of as poison-pilled terms (by analogy to poison-pill clauses in contracts or pieces of legislation). Terms that point to interesting and useful ideas but fatally compromised by a) political baggage, b) unsound analytical provenance, or c) plain distastefulness of associations.

Subjectively, a poison-pilled term feels like the right term for a thing, coined in the wrong place, by the wrong person, for the wrong reasons. Where wrongness is of course relative to a presumption of our own rightness.

Assuming we are not sufficiently persuaded by the power of the term to change sides on the underlying issue, or operating definitions of rightness/wrongness (that would be a powerful term indeed), we are then faced with a poison-depilling problem.

Two currently popular poison-pilled terms for me are enshittification (visibly increasing crappiness and blight of Web2 platforms; a kind of urban blight) coined by Cory Doctorow, and luxury belief (“an idea that confers social status on people who hold it but injures others in its practical consequences”), coined by Rob Henderson. Both are poisoned for me for all three reasons.

I’ve picked an example each from the Left and Right not to suggest my own enlightened centrism (I’m not enlightened and not a centrist), but to underscore the fact that poison-depilling is a rhetorical challenge we all face, regardless of politics, from all directions. At least if we’re trying to form and express political thoughts with care, rather than toeing party lines out of laziness, apathy, or fear.

There is no guarantee, in collective thinking about a charged partisan issue, that your side will come up with all the useful ideas and terms, and that your adversaries will come up with none. Occasionally there will be a need to safely appropriate and use ideas invented by your adversaries on a given issue.

While I enjoy many of Cory’s writings, and am very allied with his views on some things (such as right to encryption technology), I simply do not agree with a lot of his sharply polemical old-Left framings of corporate capitalism. Enshittification is a useful description of the state of affairs around tech platforms, but I do not agree with his account of the phenomenology, his analysis of root causes, or his attributions of blame. I’d like to use the word but without endorsing the associated default politics, analysis, or emergent memetic valences. And though I like Cory personally, there are plenty of people who share his politics whom I definitely find distasteful, and do not want to be associated with. Interestingly opinionated political thinkers like Cory naturally tend to attract many uninterestingly opinionated ones.

On luxury belief, I’ve only sampled a couple of pieces by Henderson, but his notion seems to come from a place of hard-earned lived experience. He grew up in troubled circumstances in foster care (the kind of social phenomenon liberal elites are likely to hold self-serving bad beliefs about from a safe distance) and overcame them to earn himself a successful career in the Air Force and then as a writer. Again, while the concept is a useful one, it comes with a lot of political baggage — it is usually used in alt-light circles to talk specifically and narrowly about the self-serving hypocrisies of liberal elites. To me, it seems like an obviously generalizable concept. All groups hold self-serving beliefs that harm groups they are about, including groups they pretend to be concerned about, to signal status as well as other less-than-admirable covert/unacknowledged purposes. And while a casual scan of Rob’s substack suggests I’d likely agree with some of what he says (just as in the case of Cory), I definitely don’t want to associate myself with the bulk of the crowd he appears to hang with, and with which the term seems to have become associated.

These are not trivial, small-minded concerns. Nor is poison-depilling some sort of impulse to deny “credit.” Ideas are bigger and matter more than terms that come into currency. To reluctantly use a term that doesn’t quite point to what you want to point at, in the way you want to, out of a misguided concern for according “due credit” for neologisms, is to fall prey to a kind of tactical cluelessness about how memetic wars are waged. There are no neutral terms. If a term isn’t working for you, and there’s a war on, it’s likely working for your adversaries every time you use it.

To use a term that has become coded with a particular politics (tankie and alt-light in these two cases) and become associated with a group that claims it and underwrites the least-common denominator understanding of it, is to implicitly endorse those politics. It does not even matter if the original usage occurred in a thoughtful, nuanced text with political positions you could live with. A term weaponized for culture war means whatever it comes to mean on the culture-war streets. Enshittified sits next to a popular guillotine the billionaires sentiment in the discourse that I do not share. Luxury belief goes with cry more, lib like peanut butter with jelly. Poison-pill terms are opinionated weapons. To use them is to go to war on behalf of whichever tribe weaponized them. Originators of terms disavowing particular associations is irrelevant. Once a term had escaped to a subculture that dominates usage, it no longer belongs to the originator. In fact, it is more likely that the originator of the term will follow the term, out of an authorial attachment to it, and get politically captured by the audience, than reclaim it. Remember how the (progressive) inventor of the (alt-right coded) Pepe frog cartoon tried to kill off the character? It didn’t work.

Without getting into the weeds of either concept, or my alternative accounts of the things they point to, I want to address the rhetorical problem of being able to talk about the useful content of a poison-pilled term. There are four basic strategies you can use:

  1. Qualify the term with every use (“enshittification, but in a broader sense than Cory Doctorow”)
  2. Challenge the provenance (“Actually the concept is not original to Rob Henderson; Robert Abelson came up with the more basic idea of belief possession in 1986”)
  3. Appropriate the term with an inverted valence (“Enshittification is good, actually”, “luxury beliefs are good, actually”)
  4. Make up new terms

Strategies 1 and 2 just end up sounding small-minded and pedantic, and kill rhetorical vigor. Strategy 3 simply substitutes mirror-image varieties of baggage and analytical unsoundness, and attracts an opposed tribe of undesirables you probably don’t want to associate with either (or maybe you do).

That leaves strategy 4. New terms. But not any new terms. You need new terms that suggest an attractive alternative intuition to guide analysis. You need to rebase the target idea within a new frame without losing the non-poisonous coherence that appealed to you in the first place. When you throw out the bathwater but keep the baby, you need a new place to put the baby.

These new terms don’t need as much memetic vigor as the ones they avoid since they don’t compete directly with the incumbent term, and typically don’t need to serve as large a group. They find an alternative oblique tack on the idea that has enough substance to grow into an entire refactored narrative, a different account of the case. They have enough of an independent identity that they forestall criticisms along the lines of isn’t that just another term for enshittification?

The new terms must say something new that the original term doesn’t. But it can’t be a cosmetic difference added purely to avoid the original, like pointless tweaks to a chemical formulas to avoid patent infringement. The difference has to do different kinds of work in the discourse.

The term must, to analogize to product markets, meaningfully disrupt the incumbent from the margins.

It’s best to do this sort of memetic guerrilla warfare without explicitly telegraphing it of course, but since I’m more interested in explaining the rhetorical meta-issue here than diving into these specific issues, I’ll work it out explicitly for our two cases, to make benefit glorious battlefield of internet of beefs.

If I were to write an obliquely competing account to disrupt Doctorow’s, I might use the term favela gothic, derived from Bruce Sterling’s pair of terms favela chic and gothic high-tech from his famous 2009 talk at Reboot 11. The term suggests a yin-yang dynamic narrative between a pair of forces rather than a monocausal Billionaires Bad narrative of pure extractive evil at work.

If I were to write an obliquely competing account to disrupt Henderson’s, I might use the term referred chauvinism, by analogy to the phenomenon of referred pain in the body (your shoulder might hurt because there is trauma elsewhere in the body that you can’t feel), and the idea of chauvinism — holding self-serving beliefs about outgroups that are damaging to them. Here, one part of a body politic that is more able to speak expresses chauvinistic beliefs about another part that is less able to speak, in specific circumstances. Chauvinism is a nice frame because it often presents in the form of apparently positive, friendly beliefs that the chauvinist might genuinely think constitute helpful support to the outgroup. Garden variety male chauvinism, for example, often presents as an exaggerated solicitous protective concern for women that strips away their agency. People aren’t particularly bright when it comes to being aware of their self-serving beliefs.

I’m not saying these are great alternative terms or even very good ones. But they solve the poison depilling problem for me personally. That’s all I ask. They probably have legs to do a bit more, but that would be a bonus.

Favela gothic and referred chauvinism would work as near-perfect drop-in replacements for enshittification and luxury beliefs in anything I might want to say on the underlying topics, without all the baggage, presumptions, and associations I want to avoid. In these particular cases, while there is a lot I could say, there’s nothing I actually care enough to say publicly. These are not battles I particularly care to pick. But it’s useful to have such terms available even if only for private analysis. Poison pills don’t just affect publicly expressed thoughts. They compromise private thoughts too. I have an entire private lexicon of poison-depilled terms just for my own use.

I do sometimes use this sort of poison-depilling strategy in my public writing too though, with varying degrees of transparency of intent. Sometimes I go on-the-nose with it (I’m never going to use the term “AGI” in talking about AI, except pejoratively), sometimes I don’t telegraph it at all. And on the flip side, I’m sure many people find a lot of my own writing poison-pilled by my own visible ideological commitments.

Occasionally, I even deliberately poison pill my ideas. Sometimes to dissuade specific groups from using them. And sometimes for no reason at all, just bloody-mindedness, as is the case with my writing on mediocrity.

Not all poison-pilling is deliberately done (in fact very few are outside of professional political campaigning), but it certainly can be done, and sometimes should be. Ideally a good fraction of terms you coin should be poison-pilled against random groups, so you avoid capture by any one group. One person who does this well is Nassim Taleb.

As rules of engagement in memetic warfare go, making up new terms to avoid poison-pilled ones, and selectively poison-pilling your own neologisms against random groups, makes for better epistemic hygiene all around I think.

Or at least, it makes the writing life more interesting.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Enshittification might have started as a left-wing polemic, but it seems to have escaped that boundary and become a general-purpose term. I’ve heard people who don’t remotely share Doctorow’s politics use it. It succinctly describes a very obvious phenomena that everyone notices regardless of their world view. I was previously calling this trend “tech decay”, but I’m just using Doctorow’s term now.

    Luxury belief OTOH seems to be a more ideologically-coded term that is only used by conservatives.

  2. “Once a term had escaped to a subculture that dominates usage, it no longer belongs to the originator. In fact, it is more likely that the originator of the term will follow the term, out of an authorial attachment to it, and get politically captured by the audience, than reclaim it.”

    Sort of a tangential point, but in extreme situations, when a subculture owns the term thoroughly enough, you sometimes have hangers on who refuse to acknowledge that reality and will choose to die on a hill. So much so, that they start to make the *opposite* point of what they really mean to say. A great example is someone I know who, out of sheer cluelessness, thought 25 years ago that “Hindutva” was merely an Indianized version of the term Hinduism and isn’t loaded with any specific kind of signaling. Over the years, he continues to die on that hill and uses the term naively/idiotically, and constantly wonders why people mistake him for an asshole when in his mind the term implies things like large heartedness, tolerance, accommodation, empathy, etc. You know, virtues that absolutely no one but him associates with the term in the real world.

    Not to mention, in this case it isn’t even about a term escaping into a subculture. In fact, if anything, the poison depilling in this case happened a hundred+ years ago, when one individual poison depilled a 5 thousand year old idea for a very specific political purpose!

  3. I think replacing “luxury beliefs” with “referred chauvinism” destroys some of the content of Henderson’s argument. It’s important to him that ideas operate like luxury goods, which come in and fall out of fashion independently of their practical utility and therefore the rich are free to blow their money on them when the poor have less margin for error and require goods with reliable utility. True beliefs have a utilitarian value, because they accurately reflect the world and the probable consequences of your choices. Whereas if you’re wealthy, there is some nonsense you can get away with believing in without impoverishing yourself. It’s no so much that the belief is self-serving or that its a form of ideology that obscures a class conflict. Instead, it’s that the rich can be indifferent to the truth value of a belief, because their lives are materially unchanged either way, and adopt fashionable beliefs and drop them later on when they become unfashionable.

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