Word of the Day: “lapidation”

November 18, 2019 • 10:15 am

by Greg Mayer

Brian Leiter has drawn attention to a “working paper” by Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official. Entitled “Lapidation and apology“, Sunstein’s paper argues for a reinvigoration of the figurative usage of a rather obscure word: “lapidation”. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The punishment of stoning to death”, it has been used figuratively since at least 1864, and Sunstein proposes a figurative usage of it as apropos for the digital age’s twitter mobs, pile-ons, and ‘cancellations’. As Sunstein begins,

Groups of people, outraged by some real or imagined transgression, often respond in a way that is wildly disproportionate to the occasion, thus ruining the transgressor’s day, month, year, or life.

His abstract continues,

To capture that phenomenon, we might repurpose an old word: lapidation. Technically, the word is a synonym for stoning, but it sounds much less violent. It is also obscure, which makes it easier to enlist for contemporary purposes.Lapidation plays a role in affirming, and helping to constitute, tribal identity. It typically occurs when a transgressor is taken to have violated a taboo, which helps account for the different people and events that trigger left-of-center and right-of-center lapidation. One of the problems with lapidation is that it often accomplishes little; it expresses outrage, and allows people to signal their identity, but does no more. Victims of lapidation might be tempted to apologize, but apologies can prove ineffective or even make things worse, depending on the nature of the lapidators.

According to Sunstein, a lapidation is always wrong:

Can lapidation be justified? As defined here, it cannot be.

The reason is that lapidation, even if not based on an outright falsehood or misconception, is characterized by the excess and disproportion of the reaction. Thus, one might disagree over whether a particular case is a lapidation, but it would be incoherent to ague that a lapidation was deserved.

Sunstein also introduces the delightful term “lapidation entrepreneur” for those who promote lapidation; HuffPo is “lapidation entrepreneur” central!

Sunstein lists five paradigmatic cases of what he considers lapidation: Ronald Sullivan‘s non-renewal as house dean at Harvard’s Winthrop House; the dismissal of sociologist Noah Carl from Cambridge University; death threats against Ilhan Omar; Elizabeth Warren being called “Pocahontas” by Donald Trump; and Al Franken‘s forced resignation from the Senate.

As the links to the names on these examples show, all of them have come to our attention here at WEIT. I’m not sure that I would concur with Sunstein’s evaluation of how well each exemplifies his usage, though. Franken’s life has been ruined; Carl’s academic career has taken a serious hit, from which he may or may not recover; and Sullivan has suffered publicly at the hands of Harvard, but he is of sufficient stature and accomplishment to weather these insults. All these fit what I take to be Sunstein’s point, but the cases of Omar and Warren seem different. The death threats against Omar are intolerable, and ‘disproportion’ doesn’t even begin to get at what’s wrong with such threats, but she seems not to have experienced any loss of political influence or support. And the crude insults of, and uninformed attacks on, Warren seem not to have derailed her campaign. Perhaps they do fit Sunstein’s schema if we take note of the lower end (“day, month”) of his temporal scale, and as he rightly notes, “Even if a few stones are thrown, people might hurt.”

A note on where Sunstein posted his working paper, SSRN.com: I gather from Sunstein’s paper that it is an unreviewed draft of something he might eventually publish. It contains what might be charitably described as infelicities of wording (and less charitably as errors), and his account of Franken, one suspects, would be different were it written now in the light of Jane Mayer’s reporting. There’s also some briefly described survey research, which might be more interesting or compelling if more fully set out, as one would expect in an academic paper. I’ve seen similar sorts of not-quite-ready things on this website before. I hope Sunstein will finish up his paper and get it published.

35 thoughts on “Word of the Day: “lapidation”

  1. Great word! I love Sunstein’s ideas and writing. For those that don’t know him, he’s (with Richard Thaler) the author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. Nudging is a very powerful idea that has had a great deal of impact. And Sunstein’s married to Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN.

  2. Oblig link to the Pythons on lapidation.
    Script, scenes 3 and 4, frm “MANDY: Ohh, I hate wearing these beards” to ” [CROWD stones OFFICIAL]
    WOMAN #1: Good shot!

    Lapidation should not be confused with lapidary, the art of cutting and polishing stone items in general, typically for wear rather than at the scale of sculpture. It’s also a bit more refined (?) than flint-knappping. Mandy’s order (above links) for “Two points, ah, two flats, and a packet of gravel” is at the Acheulean end of the range.
    Is silicon chip lithography an Acheulean spectrum order?

    1. ‘Lapidary’ is often used as an adjective to describe a lovely passage of writing, or sometimes music. It means elegant, precise, something like that.

      It’s one of those words whose meaning you kind of know just by repeatedly seeing it in context.

      But I did try and look it up a few times in our useless family dictionary and the only definition given had something to do with stone-cutting – which is correct, as you say, but it doesn’t help much given how it’s most often used, ie. as a synonym for elegant and precise.

    2. [ shrieks, high-pitched voices, one in… ]
      [ …particular stands out ]
      [ stops suddenly, double-take ]
      [ suspiciously]

      Are there any WOMEN here today??

      [ deep voices ]

      … oh dear GOD that was good to revisit! A clip good enough for JEHOVAH!

    1. I was thinking that “defenestration” might be updated to mean the abrupt expulsion of someone from a former position of prestige, such as Lawrence Krauss from Arizona State’s Orgins Project. Maybe the case of David Silverman, fired by American Atheists but recently hired to lead Atheist Alliance International, could be called refenestration.

    2. That means throwing out the window which is not appropriate.

      Google translate suggests several Latin translations for platform (including, boringly, “platform”), however “catastra” caught my eye thanks to the cat loving nature of this web site, so I vote for “decatastration”

    3. I find ‘defenestration’ quite misleading, in that its actual meaning is quite different from what its roots might suggest. I would take ‘defenestration’ to mean removing windows, whether by hurling bricks through them or bricking them up. Chucking people out of them I would have though was more like ‘exfenestration’ or ‘transfenestration’.

      ‘Lapidation’ is equally obscure, I would have thought it referred to polishing rocks. It’s certainly too mild-sounding to apply to Internet mobs, for which I’ve always thought the term ‘witch-hunt’ or ‘lynch-mob’ or even ‘thought police’ was more appropriate, depending on context.


      1. I find ‘defenestration’ quite misleading, in that its actual meaning is quite different from what its roots might suggest. I would take ‘defenestration’ to mean removing windows, whether by hurling bricks through them or bricking them up. Chucking people out of them I would have though was more like ‘exfenestration’ or ‘transfenestration’.

        Nevertheless, defenestration is a thing and it means “the act of throwing somebody out of a window”, preferably, I assume, one not on the ground floor.


        If you don’t like it, I suggest you bring it up on the latest “words and phrases I hate” thread.


  3. I agree that death threats are sui generis, and don’t fit the schema of statement or action/condemnation/self-criticism.

  4. I suspect that very soon some person will give the figurative middle finger to those that engage in lapidation, and refuse to be taken out to the woodshed and sincerely not apologize for what they have written, said or done. Although I am sure that it happens already, it will take someone known to speak their mind and the right situation to establish a precedent whereby the unwillingness to backtrack will carry the day.

  5. It sounds interesting, but there are problems in the application.

    Sullivan and Carl lost jobs in response to leftist swarming tactics, which were then validated by cowardly university administrations.

    Franken resigned in response to allegations, but he never attempted to seriously fight the allegations or push back (in contrast to the Va. Governor’s black face scandal, which is somewhat proportionate). To say it is lapidation is off, because Franken caved.

    Death threats against Rep. Omar are simply criminal behavior. To be comparable, the House would have to remove Rep. Omar because of the death threats (Steve King’s censure might be closer to target-although again he went along with it).

    As far as Trump calling Warren names, that’s just the rough and tumble of politics as far as I can see. How many times was Trump equated with Hitler during the campaign rhetoric and the aftermath of the election? Does anyone seriously believe the Black Shirts are going to start rounding up people, over three years in? Candidates vilify other candidates, its not like Trump’s attacks have done much to weaken Warren.

    1. The playbook for the social justice swarm is clearly the Stalinist purge, which was a political move undertaken to centralize power in Stalin. The purpose of the apology is to further humiliate the victim and signal that resistance if futile.

      If you treat outrage culture as some kind of exercise in etiquette, you will go horribly wrong. Its not about offense, apology, forgiveness. [Why do you think they keep changing the rules, if not to keep the system of repression perpetually in motion?] Its about mass intimidation and the will to power. At the end of the day, social justice doesn’t care about your feelings either, its just a pretext to threaten and intimidate others into silence.

    2. In Trump vs Warren, we need to remember that Trump is expected to act like a leader. Most of us have no real political power. When we note the similarities between Hitler and Trump, we are not on the public stage. We know, and our listeners know, that we are expressing a personal opinion which we are free to do. Trump attempts to be both a President and, when he feels like it (most of the time), he acts like a local bully and then says it is because he has freedom of speech. In short, he thinks he has the freedom to act unpresidential.

      1. The real problem with Trump is that he would make a great Vice President.

        Nixon always acted presidential, and then he sent Agnew out to foam at the mouth and bite reporters.

        The President needs to act presidential, the Vice President gets to play the attack dog.

        Unfortunately, Trump has either i.) no capacity to restrain himself and/or allow someone else to take the spotlight, or ii.) has no one he trusts that is capable of playing the attack dog.

        I think people wouldn’t notice the way that they do if there was a Statesman in the WH and then a pit-bull of a VP attacking people on the Statesman’s behalf.

        On the other hand, it clearly impacts Trumps ability to be effective politically, because with all the tweets everyone just nods and says “there he goes again”. So its probably good from the standpoint of those who want to block Trump’s political agenda.

        Trump has put himself into such a pickle that any time he does something sensible (like the health care transparency rules), half the people are going to oppose it because Orange Man endorses it. The bottom line is you have to decide to play either the role of the King or the Jester (or is it Joker)?

        1. It’s very interesting, from a sociological point of view, that Trump is able to get away with so many lies and horrifying actions by doing them often so as to make them appear normal or simply wear out the observer. Of course, upon reflection we all realize that this can happen. When Joey picks his nose, and the new kid in class comments on it, you might say, “Oh yeah. Joey always does it. You just get used to it.” We just never expect it to happen at the presidential level and what Trump does is orders of magnitude worse than picking his nose.

          I take issue with your suggestion Trump would make a good Vice-President but, yes, he would perhaps make a good attack dog as long as his bone spurs didn’t interfere with carrying out his duty.

          1. That is an apt analogy. Trump is a little like a special needs kid that the grade school is unsuccessfully trying to mainstream.

  6. I don’t particularly enjoy defending Ilhan Omar, because I don’t like her very much, but I disagree with this:

    “she(Omar) seems not to have experienced any loss of political influence or support”

    When you are barraged with death threats, including repeated, credible ones where the people who make the threats turn out to have caches of ammo, and when the President of the US tells you to go back where you came from, where the entire right-wing media space calls you a ‘terrorist’ and prominent right wingers and politicians put your photo next to pictures of the Twin Towers collapsing…I think it’s a stretch to say that you haven’t suffered a loss of support.

    “Franken’s life has been ruined; Carl’s academic career has taken a serious hit…but the cases of Omar and Warren seem different.”

    Warren’s case seems different, I agree…but Omar has been forced to hire bodyguards in response to repeated, credible threats to kill her. Men have been arrested for calling her office and vowing to put a bullet in her head. She has been abominably smeared and thousands of Americans have chanted ‘send her back’. Donald Trump has painted a bullseye on her forehead.

    If Omar’s case is different I’d say it’s because it’s much worse than the others.

    Eg. if I ask myself in whose position I’d rather be: a stand up comedian/politician who’s widely liked by both sides and considered by most people to have been mistreated, and who is already partway rehabilitated…or a woman, despised by half the country, who gets constant death threats and has to hire bodyguards just in case someone from the far-right makes good on a promise…I know which one I’d pick.

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