Cat Couplings

Some time back a colleague and I had a mild disagreement play out over an internal mailing list. I defended the idea of societal progress while he had a more cynical view, which included expressing some anti-modern sentiments (this is the sort of thing we do where I work).

He brought up a quote from Fenno-Swedish philosopher Georg Henry von Wright, author of the book Myten om framsteget (The Myth of Progress):

Pessimism has its downsides, but is still preferable to naive optimism.

We kept talking about the actual issue (which I won’t do here) and I didn’t until later explore my impression that there was something off about that sentence. It’s an interesting rhetorical maneuver, and ever since I first noticed this particular instance I’ve been seeing it elsewhere too.

What role is “naive” playing in this statement? If it’s just a qualifier — if this is just saying “pessimism is better than the subset of optimism that is naive” — then it’s pretty weak. What’s naive is, essentially, mistaken. It’s just saying that optimism is wrong when it’s wrong.

Maybe “pessimism is better because optimism is naive (mistaken)” is the real message. In this case “naive” is a descriptor, not a qualifier. Is that true though? Is optimism really naive, or mistaken, overall? More importantly, isn’t it begging the question to claim it?

None of these two interpretations make much sense, and yet it feels like a real, rhetorically effective argument.

It’s because this very particular phrasing is compatible with both interpretations at once. The second one isn’t uncontroversial enough to be asserted without support, and if it was unambiguously stated it could easily be countered. This way it can hide behind the first[1].

Thus, “naive” is both a qualifier and a descriptor, existing in a kind of interpretive “superposition”[2] like the famous Schrödinger’s Cat. “Cat couplings” are possible because language is ambiguous [3][4] and we often exploit this feature rhetorically (this is partly but not completely subconscious).

It has a particular side effect which makes it rhetorically advantageous. It strengthens the connection between optimism and naivety, which puts the defender of optimism on the defensive. That’s the important part here — that indirect effect — not the truth value of what’s literally being said. Sure, it seems like you could make your point by saying “naivety” instead of “naive optimism”, but no, both words have to be there.

It’s this sense of the phrasing having been “engineered” to have the connection-strengthening effect that’s makes a cat coupling feel suspicious.

It’s a pattern

I’ve been seeing this a lot more often since I started thinking about it. A cat coupling is a kind of phrasing where it’s unclear whether an attribute is meant as justifiably picking out a subset, or unjustifiably describing the whole, and as a result strengthening the connection between the concept and the attribute.

I found this one just the other day in a discussion about a possible six-hour workday reform:

the only ones that will lose out are rich bosses

What does “rich bosses” refer to? Those bosses who are rich, or just “bosses”, who are all rich? Both versions have weaknesses as arguments, but the opposite ones: too restrictive to be interesting vs. too broad to be true. This makes them stronger when smushed together, and we end up with the association between “bosses” and “rich” strengthened, which I’m very sure is in line with this person’s worldview. This is how ideologies reproduce.

And what about this rhetorical question I saw in a forum:

why do you idiots always take so much of your societal criticism from awful science fiction?

Try reading it with the emphasis on different words to get different meanings. Start with on “awful”, then on “science fiction”. Both feel a bit wrong, don’t they? A little artificial? Yeah it’s supposed to be the whole phrase “awful science fiction”, like this is fixed concept. This person doesn’t like science fiction at all and uses this question about societal criticism to get a dig in.

The description doesn’t have to be a single word. Look at this quote from a blog post about status games in social media:

most investors are middle-aged white men who are already so high status they haven’t the first idea why people would seek virtual status

I trust that by now I don’t need to spell out the two interpretations in question. Nor do I need to point out that if you just wanted to say what you’re supposedly saying — that most investors don’t understand being desperate for status because they’re so high-status already — you could’ve just said that. But instead there’s an extra little concept-building thing going on there on the side. Slick.

On a similar note, I can’t help but look at the phrase “toxic masculinity” through this lens too. It’s just a particular and bad kind of masculinity! Yeah, ok that makes sense… but one gets suspicious, because if you wanted to avoid tarnishing masculinity as a whole you could phrase it differently. If you cared at all to not do that…

It feels a little paranoid to point it out, but this sort of ambiguity sure as hell often feels like a feature and not a bug. It’s as if we know how this works and — mostly unconsciously — just let it happen when we speak.

If we mean “just the subset of x that’s y” but don’t make any effort at to avoid this connotation bleed by just saying something like “stuff that’s Y” instead, it comes off as just a little suspicious.

For two political examples: on Twitter I recently saw “he’s a conservative who doesn’t believe climate change is a threat” as an explanation for somebody else’s policy preferences. In context, saying “he doesn’t believe climate change is a threat” would’ve sufficed, but no — too juicy opportunity to get a dig in by pinning climate denial/skepticism on conservatives in general.

And then there’s this:


All together: He could have said “must just be implicitly committed to preserving the political status quo” and made exactly the same supposed point but without associating this description with the “centrist” label.

Burkeman is no hardline ideologue, and I find it refreshingly hard to figure out his politics from a quick eyeing-over of his twitter, blog, and Guardian columns. I’m confident though, given this, that he does not self-identify as a centrist. If he did, his internal attack alarm would go off at this sentence (as mine does, and I do somewhat identify that way). That it apparently doesn’t is strong evidence of “just letting it happen” in a way you just wouldn’t if it somehow implicated yourself or your own side.

For some more “everyday social life” examples, how about a description of a house party as full of “introverted weirdos”, a gaming club of “rude nerds” or a workplace of “hysterical women”? Or a forum “infested with argumentative libertarians”? Nothing incorrect about using those phrases per se, but it gives off that scent of intent. It could have been just “weirdos”, “assholes” or “hysterical (or argumentative) people” if you’d had the slightest desire to avoid tarring certain groups of people in the process.

Here are some more spotted items as exercises for the reader: “socialist hellhole”, “creepy middle-aged men”, “out-of-touch elites”, “contrarian bullshit”, “90 percent male cesspool”, “dumb jocks” and “the shrieking harpy Left”.

There’s a reasonable objection to be made at this point. Do these last cases really qualify as making digs at some group or concept through an unnecessarily qualifier-descriptor-ambiguous statement?

Well, sometimes both parts of the expression are necessary for accurately describing what you mean. “Introverted weirdos” is not the same thing as just “weirdos”. It’s a particular kind of weirdo. Similarly:

What kind of nerds? The rude kind. And what kind of rude people? The nerd kind.

What kind of elites? The out-of-touch kind. What kind of out-of-touch people? The elite kind.

What kind of cesspool? The 90 percent male kind. What kind of 90 percent male space? The cesspool kind.

Et cetera. Maybe. I don’t have a hard and fast rule for what counts and doesn’t count as a cat coupling[5]. I’ve been rewriting this post several times because I’ve found new complications, subcategories, ambiguities and gradual change into different patterns entirely as I’ve been writing. There doesn’t seem to be a sharp line.

Part of what makes it difficult to pin down is that my treatment here cuts across two different ways of thinking about language: as it works in the head, as thought, and how it relates to the real world. Inside our minds singular, archetypal concepts are built on greedy generalization of a few example cases and not sober assessments of frequencies, distributions and averages of full sets of items. Outside the mind we can interpret things as statements about the real world, but that is not quite what they are, and such interpretation is more akin to (highly awkward) translation into an alien tongue. That makes it confusing.

I guess the take-home message here is “how about those cat couplings, eh?”. I for one can’t stop noticing them now that I’ve started, and I’m hereby passing that virus on to you.

• • •

Thanks to Suspended Reason for giving me feedback on a draft of this post.


Like I discussed here, there’s a phenomenon where a “trite but true” and an “interesting but false” interpretation put together can look like “interesting and true” if not rendered in enough detail. This is, in turn, a special case of the ever-popular motte-and-bailey mechanic.

Further discussion can force it to “collapse” and take a defintite value. However, most of the time that doesn’t happen — especially not on the internet in the 21st century, where claims are removed from their context as a matter of course.

Natural languages aren’t like Lojban.

I’ve written extensively on this topic, most recently in my last post.

I don’t know if there is an established rhetorical term, if “cat coupling” is just a new phrase for a well-explored phenomenon. Maybe all the complexity has been satisfactorily worked out decades ago and I’m very late to the “gesturing at this exact thing”-themed party (I’m not sure how I would effectively look for it, though).

However I doubt that the intersection of “does research in rhetoric” and “habitually thinks in terms of subsets, intersections and category definitions” is very large, so maybe this particular way of looking at it is rare? If that suspicion is accurate it supports the idea that maybe there’s value to erisology.

Did you enjoy this article? Consider supporting Everything Studies on Patreon.

15 thoughts on “Cat Couplings

  1. I see elements of of psychological priming, guilt by association and dissociation from the source in your description of “cat coupling”. The connections with the first and second techniques are fairly clear so I’ll only elaborate on the third.

    Dissociation from the source refers to the fact that when you are initially presented with a pierce of information your assessment of it includes the knowledge of the source. However, over time while your memory may retain the information it often does not retain who or what the source was. This means that even if in the present you observe a cat coupling from a source whose biases you are aware of that source has still successfully planted a seed which in the future will indirectly strengthen your mind’s association between the particular concept and attribute.

    I learned about dissociation from the source years ago in a psychology class in college. However a quick internet search yielded nothing under this name though I did find something very similar called source confusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I forgot to mention that while priming and guild by association take advantage of already existing connections a cat coupling can indirectly create a new connection (to you) in the future through dissociation from the source.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. TV commercials of my youth came to mind.
    “Count Chocula Cereal. Part of a Balanced Breakfast.”

    “Balanced” is ambiguous — but I’ll grant diets can be (for the most part) good or bad, and just say here balanced means “Good”. Fair enough.

    Then the ad’s tagline can be reasonably interpreted to mean (the less actionable)
    “A diet can be Good even if it is composed in part of Count Chocola.”

    What the execs would prefer you hear, though, is

    “You eat Count Chocula and your diet is Good.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Burkeman is actually guilty of the rhetorical trick you’re describing here. “Centrist” is a politicised insult on British lefty twitter, and I think his point is that you are labelled as a centrist if you object to the “politicisation of everything”.


    1. You might be right. Although if it’s essentially an insult (rather than a normal label used as a pejorative by a radical minority) why would he identify as such? Or do you just mean that he doesn’t identify against it? That’s another thing, I think. I wouldn’t assert that.


      1. I think there are two possible interpretations: he could be using the coupling unironically, distancing himself from the “centrist” label while also endorsing the idea that it’s an insult (by coupling it with that relative clause); or he could be using the coupling ironically, as an example of bad rhetoric that’s presumably being used by some of the people who do subscribe to the “politicization of everything”. I don’t know anything about this guy, so I don’t know which is more likely (though the first interpretation is the one that came more easily to my mind when I read it).


  4. The “why do you idiots always take so much of your societal criticism from awful science fiction?” example struck me as different because of your “This person doesn’t like science fiction at all and uses this question about societal criticism to get a dig in.” I would have assumed this was spoken by someone who *does* like science fiction, probably because I’ve been reading SF for ~50 years, and I can guess exactly the kind of science fiction the speaker would be referring to.

    Not sure what that adds to your argument, except perhaps that knowing the person’s relationship to the in the – phrase is sometimes necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right that the phrase could be interpreted differently (that sort of thing is the point in like half my posts 🙂) but 1: I have to keep my natural disclaimers, footnotes and on-the-other-hand:s down some way and I force myself to take stronger stances, and 2) I think I remember that the context supporting my impression at the time.


  5. I don’t read it as him identifying himself as a centrist. Centrist is both a normal label and a pejorative (it started as the former and began to be used as the latter). Here I think he’s saying that if you criticise the politicisation of everything, you will be criticised by those people who think it is a pejorative. And it’s ironic because that criticism is a consequence of the politicisation of everything – you can’t neutrally think that not everything should be politicised, you must secretly have a political agenda.


      1. I might do – but also that comment was supposed to be a reply to your reply to my original comment above, but seems to have appeared somewhere else…


  6. A couple thoughts about the examples:
    • The first example, about naive optimism, didn’t seem weak to me, since I don’t interpret “naive” as necessarily being mistaken, but that might just be because of how that word is used in computer science. (Something like “the naive algorithm works” seems like a fairly normal, non-contradictory statement to me.)
    • Depending on context and whatever else he’s said, the tweet about centrism doesn’t necessarily imply that he supports whatever connection putting “centrist” and “implicitly committed…” together like that implies; it might instead mean that he thinks people who support the Politicization of Everything™ would support that connection. (This doesn’t mean that it’s not an example of this phenomenon, though.)

    About the main topic:
    Another possibility (not sure if it’s true) is that these phrases are more like the word “blueberry”: “Blueberry” refers to something even more specific than the subset of berries that are blue (they also have a particular taste and a particular shape), but it also assumes as background knowledge that these traits all go together, and that it’s possible to recognize that something is a blueberry knowing only some of its traits (I can infer that something that looks like a blueberry will also taste like one). So if someone calls someone e.g. an “introverted weirdo”, they might be saying more than that they happen to be introverted and weird (they might think they’re weird in a particular way, for instance), but also they’re assuming that there is some pattern/cluster involving introversion and weirdness that these people fit (which isn’t necessarily that all introverts are weird, though it could be), and perhaps they’ll make inferences based on the assumption that the pattern exists.

    If you say something about blueberries, you’re not claiming, in that sentence, that some particular type of berry exists; you’re assuming they already agree with you on that. It may also be that people who talk about “introverted weirdos” etc. are assuming their intended audience already agrees on whatever pattern they’re referring to. If they actually do agree, it’s a convenient shorthand; if they sort of agree, it reinforces the idea that the pattern exists (both in that it shows an example, and that it shows that someone else believes that the pattern exists). If you don’t agree that the pattern exists, then it suggests that this person has certain assumptions that you disagree with; and if you don’t know what pattern they’re referring to, then you might be suspicious that they have assumptions you disagree with, but it’s hard to argue against them because they haven’t stated them explicitly. (And, of course, different people might have different interpretations of the phrase, making things even more complicated.)

    (Other possibility: there are a lot of people who actually do believe the things that you say are “too broad to be true”.)


  7. Yeah, this is really interesting. Some of these uses remind me of so-called “non-restrictive adjectives”, as in “the famous Golden Gate Bridge” (we’re not contrasting it with a Golden Gate Bridge that’s not famous, but rather taking it for granted that the Golden Gate Bridge is famous and alluding to that fact). The effect is easiest to see with definite descriptions like “the Golden Gate Bridge”, but it can arise with plural/mass nouns as well (which, in some cases, can be thought of as names of kinds), like “dumb jocks”.

    This contrasts with something like “introverted weirdos” — the way I interpret that when I hear it is that there’s sort of a main effect of being introverted vs. extroverted, and being a weirdo vs. a non-weirdo, but there’s also an interaction between the two variables. Qualitatively speaking. [/humanities person using statistics as metaphor]

    For a lot of these, I don’t actually have strong intuitions about their truth-conditions, which is a little bit alarming. “Naive optimism” and “awful science fiction” feel very different from “dumb jocks” in this regard — I don’t interpret them as meaning “optimism (which, as we know, is naive)” or “science fiction (which, as we know, is awful)” in the same way that I can easily interpret “dumb jocks” to mean “jocks (who, as we know, are dumb)”.

    It’s hard to describe what my interpretations of those sentences actually are; I do seem to draw some weaker universal inferences, like “when optimists criticize me for being pessimistic, their optimism is naive” and “when people (on this forum) base social criticism on science fiction, the science fiction they’re using isn’t even any good”. Like, the universal holds in this context, but only because the universe of discourse is limited by the circumstances? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    (At the same time, I don’t get the sense that the poster in question would be totally satisfied if everyone started posting about social criticism that they derived from *excellent* science fiction, either.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “Rich bosses” is the type of cat coupling that infuriates me in economic policy discussion. An assumption is made that a certain group of people can take a hit because they’re rich, or need help because they’re poor, without anyone bothering to check how wealthy any individual actually is. We don’t need to worry about extremely high prescription drug prices, because “rich Americans” can take it. Any economic policy that targets any group disptoprtionately impacts the poorest members of that group, because that’s how money works, so the obvious losers will always be the poorest bosses, the poorest Americans, etc.


Leave a Reply to ramsey66 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s