Names as head-space claims

If you want someone to defend something, simply teach him a lot of terms about various small details about the thing. If it is worth defending for anyone at all, you will have no trouble making up fine divisions for it.

This is a phenomenon that I have noticed in various cases, principally myself. I don't know why it works, but I do know that it works pretty well, and I want to use this short article to propose some reasons to why this works, and additionally some situations where it made it out.

Before we continue, I want to note that none of this is substantiated truth. I will not claim any of this to be backed by anything other than anecdote and conjecture. Please be aware of this as you read this through.


To understand something, generally, one starts by breaking it up into many small parts and seeing how they interact with each other. There's a lot of small parts for most non-trivial things, so we assign names to the small parts so we can keep track of them. It's kind of like my observation that learning things and understanding the world can be helped by inventing notation, but instead of inventing new ways to arrange blobs of ink, you just use the sounds that people have assigned to the small components already.

This has two major effects:

These are compounded with every single word you learn.

From this, we can conclude several things.

First, if someone says, "all that you learnt was wrong, and it needs to be destroyed", it represents an uncomfortable truth that all that effort you put in was wasted. That gives someone extra incentive to defend the thing. What's more, all that space you dedicated to having those names put in is also wasted, and the fact that you could have used that space to put something else in, which is also frustrating.

Second, if you put in a bunch of names into someone, it makes them an expert. Not really, but if you can name a bunch of things, people will usually take you as an expert, being "in the know" about things, especially if you know which names are to be spoken near which other names. It's one of the simpler ways one can fake knowledge, and is particularly effective if your conversant doesn't have a way to check on you properly, like in a live conversation. Actually most conversations, because of habits that are carried through from going through live conversations.

Third, you can make anything look complicated just by artificially breaking down things a lot and then giving them all separate names. Typically, the reverse is not true. This has a number of cool (storytelling) and not-so-cool (deceptive) implications, which I'll leave you to figure out.


I was reminded of this in particular when I thought about how does one persuade someone like a car guy to quit liking cars altogether. It's not actually difficult, even when discounting more violent options (for which see future articles), but one of the hurdles is that you need to convince that everything he knows about cars is irrelevant and pointless.

Then I thought about how this is roughly how, say, Facebook attempts to keep you in their sights: simply by threatening the loss of access to things that you have already. Though not "names" per se, names of people do get involved, as half-remembered beg screens show the names and faces of people in the network trying to convince you to stay.

Some guy once said, "it is hard to get someone to comprehend something if his livelihood depends on it". I think it is meaningful to amend this to something like "it is hard to get someone to comprehend something if his ego is built on it, or he has invested much into it". It's not a lot of trouble to convince yourself that this is the case, at least intuitively.


So what does that mean to you?

This is a fact that has no moral valence. It's instead a moral multiplier: good things become better with this fact, and bad things become worse. It's not a particularly strong multiplier, given that it can be overcome by a large number of things and it isn't really based on anything in reality, but it is some effect.

I thought about how one can, say, dissuade the dismissal of an ethnic or other group by appealing to its rich structure, which if you learn about you will gain an attachment to it and it would look all the more precious. Or how somewhat more sinisterly you can stop someone from caring about something so much by insisting, gently, that most distinctions made with the terminology is about the same thing. Again, you can use this for good, or you can use this for evil. The method is the same either way.


There's not that much to say about this interesting little quirk of human cognition, so I think we'll leave the topic here, though we will explore a few things a bit further in this regard. Just know that, as I said at the beginning, if you want someone to defend something, teach him all the words. Everything else is up to you.

🗼 gemini://