Merriam-Webster Dictionary changes language about sexuality during Amy Coney Barrett hearings

It’s not enough these days for dictionaries to record words and phrases and document as their meaning changes over time. Now, in line with Woke practice, dictionaries are actually running ahead of the pack, changing meanings and connotations to guide usage.

Or so it seems, at least to me, with the latest term: “sexual preference”, meaning either the sexes or genders with which one “prefers” to have sex, or to whom one is “oriented” sexually. And it’s the difference between “prefer” and “orient” that is the heart of this new debate.  The debate, it appears, is over free will of a sort: whether one chooses to have sex with a certain gender, and you could have chosen otherwise, or whether one is constrained  to have sex with members of a certain gender. To me, of course, there’s no difference here: “choose” is simply shorthand for what one does when facing a number of possibilities, and for sexual partners, as with everything else, that is determined. You don’t have free choice to either like someone of your sex or like someone of the opposite sex, or to have a sex act with one person or another. Both terms—”preference” and “orientation”—reflect an observed sexual tendency, and in both cases those tendencies are determined by various factors.

This form of determinism, like most, comes with the caveat that one’s behavior can be affected by environmental factors, so that “conversion” therapy, odious as it is, might change your “preference”. Or hectoring by the Woke might do the same thing. But more on this in a minute.

What happened this week is that during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, which are still going on, the prospective Justice, during a question about same-sex marriage, was criticized for “using the term sexual preference to describe those used in the LGBTQ+ community.” Here’s the j’accuse by Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.  Barrett apologizes for using the term, saying that she didn’t mean to use a term that caused offense in the LGBTQ+ community.

I didn’t realize that the term “sexual preference” was offensive, but I can see how some people might be offended by it, for, as Senator Hirono argues, the Supreme Court itself declared that sexual orientation is not a “choice”, but is “a key part of a person’s identity” and “immutable”. And of course if my using the term offends somebody, I’ll defer to their wishes about language.  But until the day that Barrett was taken to task, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary didn’t consider the term “offensive.” Here’s the dictionary definition just a few days ago:


And here’s the definition yesterday (click on screenshot to go to entry). There’s one alteration at the bottom:

The “usage paragraph under item #5 says this:

And here’s “orientation” sense 2b, also cited in #5:

Note the term “choice” here clearly refers to the libertarian “free will” definition of choice. That’s because “choice” is opposed to “no choice” based on genes or personality, so that with “orientation” one pursues only a single kind of partner, the kind that is a “key part of your identity” and is “immutable”. (Of course, determinism DOES NOT imply “immutable”!) According to Merriam-Webster, free will apparently applies to everything, including behaviors, except for sexual “orientation”, which is absolutely determined and immutable.

Newsweek consulted the dictionary’s editor, who said the change came about because of the claims at the Barrett hearing:

Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large told Newsweek in a statement that the dictionary revisions are a “routine part of the job.”

. . . In regards to the update to the word “preference,” Sokolowski said the company “noticed that the entries for preference and sexual preference were being consulted in connection with the SCOTUS hearings. A revision made in response to an entry’s increased attention differs only in celerity—as always, all revisions reflect evidence of use.”

The term was on the tip of people’s tongues after Barrett used the word when speaking about the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that brought the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in 2015. While appearing before the panel on Tuesday, California Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Barrett if she would “vote to roll back hard-fought freedoms and protections for the LGBTQ community,” to which Barrett replied that she had “no agenda” when it came to the laws allowing same-sex marriage.

“I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference,” Barrett said.

The remark drew outrage from liberals and LGBTQ advocacy groups, who found her use of the phrase “sexual preference” offensive and implicative of sexuality being a choice. At least one Democrat present for the hearings pointed this perspective out to Barrett, and mentioned that the more generally accepted phrase is “sexual orientation.”

“[‘Sexual preference’] is used by anti-LGBTQ activists to suggest that sexual orientation is a choice,” Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii stated during the hearing, following Barrett’s comment. “It is not. Sexual orientation is a key part of a person’s identity.”

Barrett responded with an apology, claiming that she “certainly didn’t mean and would never mean to use a term that would cause any offense in the LGBTQ community.”

So if I’m willing to use the term “sexual orientation” to someone who prefers it to “sexual preference”, what’s the problem? The problem is, ironically, one of language and philosophy. “Orientation” is apparently something that is immutable, instilled as part of your sexuality by your genes, your development, or so on. And “orientation” is immutable, while “preference” is not immutable. That is, “preference can be changed by your environment” but “orientation can’t.”

But this is not the case, for sexual orientation can certainly change. People who are “genderfluid” change their “preferred” choice of gender on a daily or even hourly basis depending on the circumstances. Further, there are lots of cases of Woke people chastising cis people for refusing to be attracted to trans people; for example, chastising straight men for not being attracted to trans women, since many straight men don’t  want to have sex with someone bearing a penis (see here, for instance). Yet this “preference” is surely something that’s pretty hard-wired. And yet, by producing these videos and chastising those who don’t want to have sex with trans people, the chastisers are assuming that sexual orientation can be changed—by being hectored.

Finally, the view that gender is a social construct, malleable to social pressure, upbringing, and so on, implies that sexual preference can be conditioned by society. This conflict in the Left is expressed by the following tweet:

I happen to believe that sexual orientation is largely innate; that is, it’s hard to change and rests largely (but not completely) on biological factors that aren’t altered much by the environment. (I am agnostic about the genetic basis of sexual orientation, as I don’t know much about it.) But sexual orientation is not “immutable”.  By saying that “orientation” is the opposite of “preference”, Merriam-Webster muddies the origins of human behavior, implying that “preference” involves a form of libertarian free will. To me, as a determinist, the two terms mean pretty much the same thing.  Those who think that there is still a real meaning of “choice” under determinism might wish to address this issue. If you’re a compatibilist, is there a real difference between “orientation” and “preference”?

Finally, Merriam-Webster should be careful about this knee-jerk legislation of language in response to an event that happened just a day or two before. Dictionaries are not (or should not be) in the business of legislating what’s offensive; they are in the business of recording what is generally offensive. But in this era, many on the Left are in the business of policing language to make it adhere to their ideology, and so you can declare language off limits on ideological grounds even if it’s not offensive.

h/t: Luana


  1. eric
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Agree in particular with your last paragraph; dictionaries should (IMO) lead not follow. I.e. record words as they are used (including vernacular and connotative usages), not attempt to set rules for how they ought to be used.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      The American Heritage dictionary has a usage panel that gets surveyed on questions such as this. Some of these survey results have been published in the dictionary itself – with the caveat that these opinions are not part of the definition. I fond that refreshing. AH also published a compendium of just the survey comments. I was particularly entertained bu the respondent who objected to the word “defenestration” with the comment, “Why not depontification for jumping off bridges?”

      • TJR
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        Because its ambiguous, and could also refer to stopping somebody from being pope?

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

          I’d say it’d refer to removing a sitting pope rather than preventing someone from elevation to the office.

        • Beaneater
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:44 am | Permalink

          No, stopping someone from being Pope is clearly depontiffication with two f’s.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Ack! Severe typo. That first sentence should read “follow not lead.”

      • darrelle
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        I was confused for a moment, but later sentences pointed to a typo as the most likely case.

      • Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        I thought for a moment that “follow” and “lead” had be redefined. It’s hard keeping up with language changes.

  2. Jay Baldwin
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    This all seems so silly to me. In a free country whether one “chooses” to have same sex relations or is “compelled” by nature, nurture, or some combination is irrelevant to questions of public policy. People have sex with other people for reasons. Those reasons are beyond the scope of government so long as it’s between (or among) consenting adults.

    And these language policing wokesters solve nothing by dictating language use. Language will ignore their attempts to fix its fundamentally underdetermined character.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Totally silly. Really nit-picking. Personally, I prefer having sex with one sex and not the other. Isn’t that a preference? Just like I prefer lentils to lima beans. This is going too far.

      • eric
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        To pile on your analogy, whether broccoli (& related) tastes good or bad to someone is often genetic. Is it wrong to describe a genetically-based broccoli aversion as a preference?

        I’d say no, not wrong. The word is broad and flexible enough (IMO) to connote both voluntary and involuntary/genetic dispositions. We don’t have to pick just one of those definitions and only use the word that way. So I’d say fine, you can call my perfectly rational hatred of that disgusting weed 🙂 a preference, even though it is likely a genetically determined trait. But that’s just me.

      • Mike
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        I’m intrigued by the idea of having a “vegetable orientation” that is a fixed and immutable part of my identity.

        • eric
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

          It’s basically about how your taste buds respond to bitterness. Get the wrong combo of genes to build taste buds, or for some other reason your taste buds are built to strongly signal bitterness, it tastes really bad to you, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do about it.

          But in terms of language use, I’d still call that a preference. Talk about it’s genetic or developmental basis I’d classify as the why of preference, not the that of preference.

  3. Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    “But this is not the case, for sexual orientation can certainly change. People who are “genderfluid” change their “preferred” choice of gender on a daily or even hourly basis depending on the circumstances.”

    I think it’s worth mentioning that there is a difference between gender and sexual orientation. There are trans people who are attracted to the same and opposite identified gender, which is especially true if gender is fluid. But sexual orientation is not so fluid. Gender and sex are also different, though this is controversial.

    “Further, there are lots of cases of Woke people chastising cis people for refusing to be attracted to trans people; for example, chastising straight men for not being attracted to trans women, since many straight men don’t want to have sex with someone bearing a penis…”

    Mostly they are chastising lesbians I think. The whole thing is incredibly stupid. People are attracted to whomever they are attracted to and nobody has a right to have someone find them attractive. If a woman only likes to date black guys, or Asian guys, or women of some type, that’s a matter of taste. Taking offense to that is so much like the incel attitude that I really wonder what some people would think if they could actually hear themselves.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:58 am | Permalink

      Also, if you are someone who is looking to settle down and have a family then it’s perfectly reasonable to want to have romantic partners who might be capable of producing children. It is not currently possible for transsexual people who have fully transitioned to do this and it probably never will be. As for those who have not transitioned biologically, yeah. I don’t really want one of those involved in my sexual encounters. Sue me.

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        A throw-away line above raises further questions of a semantic/romantic nature: what language applies to the sexual preferences of trans individuals. Are trans-women attracted only to trans-men? Is a trans-woman who prefers trans-women a plain Lesbian or a trans-Lesbian (maybe tresbian for short)? One looks to the sages of Merriam-Webster for guidance on these knotty issues.

    • Jan Looman
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

      I was going to make the same point about the difference between sexual orientation and gender. Two entirely different things

  4. Roo
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I think that, as a rule of thumb, the Left becomes incoherent and totally illogical because it tries to cater to the feelings of many different groups that are mutually opposed (as in just blatant double standards such as “race can never be chosen but gender always is”, or “sexual desires are innate and in no way ‘preferences’, but it is hateful and transphobic if you cannot make yourself be attracted to someone of the biological opposite sex”). The Right does the same thing when they cling to conservatism to a degree that means that they just ignore evidence that opposes what they believe in favor of a traditional belief, as in the case of global warming (the ‘traditional’ beliefs there, I think, being that the free market couldn’t possibly have such detrimental effects that it has to be regulated, and probably something vaguely religious about God controlling the earth.)

    I’ve said this before so repeating myself here, but my take is that the best analogy for guiding philosophy in the US right now is that of a really ugly divorce. Both sides have lost a tempering influence that kept them from illogical extremes, and in addition both sides are in super hostile “Screw my ex!! I’m going to burn all his / her clothes on the front lawn!!” mode, meaning that this drift towards extremism goes in a rather hostile direction.

    While this is all incredibly discouraging, I do believe the long arc of justice is with those who comport themselves admirably during trying times. I was contemplating this the other day while thinking about the plight of the Tibetans. It occurred to me that in some ways, their story is very similar to the story of Christianity. An imperialist force that certainly seemed much stronger at first appeared to have won the battle (in the case of Christianity, Christ as a person was literally dead – either in reality or in the story, depending on how you view Christianity – in the case of Tibet, more the culture in general appeared to have been wiped out, with tremendous bloodshed along the way.) But then there is a plot twist and, as the saying goes “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” I think this is a really good analogy for how the spread of virtue over ‘might makes right’ thinking ends up taking place in this world. Even thought there can be tremendous suffering involved for those who choose to do the right thing at times when it is the hardest, in the end, this example is the most powerful tool they could have used. Christianity and now, likely, Tibetan Buddhism, far from being wiped out, eventually came to ‘conquer’ more of time and space than any army could ever dream of. The long arc of justice really is there, in the end. US culture is increasingly sucky at the moment, but I think we will get past this moment soon enough. People are stuck in power struggles, but they will see beyond those power struggles to better examples at some point.

  5. E.A. Blair
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought of “sexual preference” as a matter of personal taste i.e., a preference for blond hair, green eyes, long legs or other mostly physical paramaters. In other words, not what makes someone a potential partner but a desirable partner.

  6. Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why the word orientation connotes any less mutability than the word preference. One can reorient and one can have a fixed preference.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      I think in plain English it’s the fact that preference implies something that was picked from a list, whereas orientation is a direction in which one is pointing, having been preordained that way.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      It’s mostly about the usage of the terms. “Sexual preference” is an inextricable part of the ideology portraying queerness as a choice, lifestyle, and/or agenda. And the term has been intentionally used by anti-LGBTQ advocates for many years.

      I’m a gay man, and I honestly don’t care for the term “sexual orientation,” but that is the agreed upon term used in the sciences and by those who don’t think the world will go up in flames if my marriage is recognized by a court of law.

      • Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        Hi Daniel. I understand why gay people feel the way they do about this issue given the outrage of gay conversion therapy. IMO, gay conversion therapy is an outrage whether or not a person’s sexual disposition is inherent or simply a choice. Why shouldn’t a person’s preference be respected either way? To me, the question of the mutability of sexual preference may be of some scientific interest, but it is otherwise irrelevant.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

          Yes agree about the gay conversion therapy. That was the whole reasoning behind it.

    • eric
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I personally see no connotative or denotative issue with the word preference being broadly construed as including both fixed and unfixed…uh…proclivities.

      • Doug
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

        “Orientation” comes from the Greek word for “East.” Before it became standard to put North at the top of maps, Europeans put East
        [the “Orient”] at the top. When you indicated which way was East, you were “orienting” the map.

        I declare that the word “orientation” is a micro-aggression against Asians and demand that people use another one.

        • dallos
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 7:17 am | Permalink

          Latin, not Greek.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

            It can also mean “rise” which is amusing given the sexual context.

            • Doug
              Posted October 16, 2020 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

              dallos: It’s all Greek to me.

  7. pablo
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    If I didn’t already know her to be a Catholic fanatic her use of sexual preference wouldn’t have bothered me.

  8. Timothy Reichert
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I’d like to hear from compatibilists on this one. Coel? No one is pointing a gun at the head of gay people forcing them to choose same sex partners so would the compatibilist then say that they are being gay of their own free will? That doesn’t sound right.

    Coel and other compatibilists, can you tell me the difference between choosing to wear the red shirt over the green shirt, or choosing to order the steak over the chicken, and choosing to have sex with same sex partners vs opposite sex partners from a “free will” perspective? In each of these cases it seems the compatibilist claim is that unless someone is pointing a gun at your head or forcing you in some other way, then these are all examples of free will in action. So is choosing to engage in gay sex something one does of their own free will unless coerced by someone with a gun?

    Free will skeptics and incompatibilists like myself have always taken the position that the combination of your genes and environment are as equally coercive as someone pointing a gun at your head But compatibilists separate out these two types of coercion as being critically different. One of these types of coercion takes away your free will and the other leaves it in tact. This is where compatibilism fails us IMO. Both are equally coercive and both take away any notions of “free will.”

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      I used to be quite arachnophobic. But I’ve gradually gotten more accustomed to spiders, to the point where I sometimes hold them in my hands, even if they’re not cute little jumping spiders.

      I’m still anxious about it, though. Is that anxiety a choice? Kinda: I could have made a much bigger effort to desensitize myself, and I’d be cool with them by now. It’s definitely a choice now whether I handle any given spider or not, but less of a choice that I will feel some anxiety about it. And there are some preferences that can’t be changed by any behavioral approach. Some people will never like cilantro, no matter what (good: more for me!)

      Lots of real and important features have grey areas. Day gradually fades into night and vice versa. But the difference between night and day is like the difference between night and day.

      • Timothy Reichert
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        “I could have made a much bigger effort to desensitize myself, and I’d be cool with them by now.”

        Could you have? Why didn’t you then? Wouldn’t your life have been better if you had? Why would you purposely by choice make your life worse when it could have been better?

        I think you are kidding yourself if you think you could have done otherwise. Other’s might have done what you claim you could have done, but your genes and environment caused you to do what you did, in spite of your being able to spot other options after the fact. The alternative options you are noticing are what others might have been able to do. But not you. You were determined by your genes and environment to take exactly the path you did.

        Engaging in CBT or not is also a choice that is determinied by your genes and environment.

        • Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          The crucial concept is that we only have partial knowledge. Yes, what happens might be uniquely determined by the prior state, but we don’t know enough about that prior state to predict what happens next.

          So, we use a word like choose where — given what we do know — there is a range of possible things that happen next.

          The fact that things we *don’t* know might make one and only one of those things inevitable is irrelevant to us, because we don’t have that information.

          Our brain and the language it uses are tools for navigating the world using only partial information.

          And concepts like “choosing” make perfect sense from the point of view of having only partial information (even if they would be inappropriate from the point of view of an omniscient observer who could always see what will happen).

          Incompatibilism seems to me to be a stance of “let’s take the p-o-v of an omniscient observer”. It may be an entirely valid way of looking at things, but it’s irrelevant to the day-to-day life of a human.

          • Timothy Reichert
            Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

            “The fact that things we *don’t* know might make one and only one of those things inevitable is irrelevant to us, because we don’t have that information.”

            Yes we do! That’s the whole point. We have that information from science as well as from manifest image observation. Anyone can notice in the manifest image that their preferences are not conjured up by them, or by some homunculus inside them, but rather these preferences just appear as impulses and we act on them automatically. That is both how it *actually* feels and that is what science tells us about the way evolution made us. We have the information that preference is a survival instinct whereby our actions are caused by evolved desires. We have that information from both science and from the manifest image and we should use it!

            Do you wash your hands before you eat? I assume yes. But why? You can not see the germs in the moment with your naked eye and even if you could you could not connect them to future disease without the information gleaned from science. And yet you wash your hands because science has given you information. Information that you claim we do not have in the moment, in the manifest image, but you wash your hands precisely because of that information you gleaned from science. It has given you reason to change your behaviour by allowing you to see the world in a way that improves your life, makes you safer from disease.

            For this very same reason, we can and should use the information about human nature that we gleaned from both science and the manifest image to alter our attitudes and behaviours towards the idea of free will. With this information we should stop saying things like “He chose the chicken over the beef with his free will” or “she chose a same-sex partner over an opposite sex partner of her own free will.”

            We should stop talking like that and moralizing based on that false image of reality because we do indeed have the information that you claim we do not.

            It’s also prudent to point out that “free will” is a Western culture idea. Most Eastern cultures either ignore or reject the concept outright. Our lack of free will is one of the earliest philosophical observations we find in human literature and religion predating science and Christianity by millennia. Our lack of free will is a concept that is easily noticed in the manifest image. The concept of “free will” is invented, and ingrained in the western mind to the point where they actually think it feels like we have free will when it actually feels nothing like that. Fortunately, Western minds created science, so there’s no excuse to not escape the cultural indoctrination of the concept of “free will.” The science is there to help you. The concept of free will is not only unnecessary but actually anti-helpful, towards maintaining social order.

            • Posted October 16, 2020 at 3:21 am | Permalink

              You’re misunderstanding my comment. Yes, we know from science that there is information that we do not have that determines events. But we do not have that information, so cannot use it to predict the event. We use terms such as “choice” when we have imperfect information such that, given what we know, a range of outcomes is possible.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 16, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

                By this logic computers make choices.

              • Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

                Yes, sure. A chess-playing computer chooses the moves it makes. That’s the only sort of “choices” that occur in this world, so why not use the word “choose” for what the chess-playing computer is doing? We humans are doing exactly what the chess-playing computer is doing: evaluating inputs and computing a response. (If incompatibilists don’t like such usages, it is *they*, not the compatibilists, who have not fully accepted determinism.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

                Do computers have free will? Why not if their “choices” are the same process as ours?

                BTW I have no problem using the word “choice” and neither does any other incompatibilist. We just don’t think that word represents an ability called “free will.”

                You are welcome to visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There you will see that “compatibilism” is the view that “free will” is compatible with determinism. Incompatibilism is the view that “free will” is not compatible with determinism.

                Both compatibilists and incompatibilists use the term choice. Compatibilists alone see choice as an expression of “free will.”

              • Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                That definition of compatibilism is better stated that compatibilists construct concepts of freedom and will that are in line with determinism.

                It is not the assertion that “free will as incompatibilists understand it” is compatible with determinism.

            • Timothy Reichert
              Posted October 16, 2020 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I’m going with the Stanford definition. Your’s is begging the question.

              And you didn’t answer if computers have free will? If no, why not? You described both human and computer choices as being identical.

        • Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          I have bigger issues to deal with than my remaining bit of arachnophobia. That kind of self-training takes time, and time is life.

          Sure, everything I do is “determined” by my history, in the sense of “determinism” that physicists (and philosophers for that matter) usually define. That is, it fits into consistent patterns, called laws of nature. If you had a *complete* description of the state of things at one time, you could derive the state at any other time.

          But in the exact same sense of “determined”, my actions are determined by the future – that is, from a complete description of the future state of the universe, plus the laws of nature, you could derive a description of the present, including my actions. And I don’t think *that* threatens my range of options in any way. So why should a freedom-loving guy worry about this “determinism” thing?

          In the last WEIT thread on free will, there’s a bet waiting for you (or whoever takes it first), one that you can easily guarantee a win on. You could buy yourself a beer with your winnings, and advance the discussion.

          • Timothy Reichert
            Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

            “So why should a freedom-loving guy worry about this “determinism” thing?”

            “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free”

            Johann Wolfgang Goeth

            I might take whatever bet you are talking about but I’m not going to go hunting for it. Link? Or re-propose.

            • Posted October 16, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

              Located below is a proposition P. You can take either of two bets (or neither). Bet 1 is a bet on P at 10:1 for a stake of 5 dollars (you win $50 if P is true, and lose $5 if P is false). Bet 2 is a bet on P at 1:10 for a stake of 50 dollars (win $5 if P is true, lose $50 if P is false). You get to see what P says before betting. You can also assume that determinism as defined by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is true.

              Proposition P: The past state of the universe, one year ago, was such as to correspond, by the laws of nature, to your taking Bet 2 today.

              In case it is needed (but it won’t be) you can select any other commentator who posted to this thread before this comment, as judge.

              All I ask in return for your easy money is that you answer a simple question about your reasoning for taking the bet you did. Only one bettor allowed, but if Tim passes on it, anyone else who agrees with Tim/Jerry can bet.

              • Timothy Reichert
                Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                I take bet 2.

                Reasoning: Because, like you said, it’s easy money, and humans are programmed to act in their self interest. But this is just my post hoc reasoning. The actual reason in the moment of decision is that it was determined like all of our choices. They are not reasoned in the moment. Only post hoc.

              • Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

                Woo hoo, we have a winner! I can pay by Venmo or Paypal. Email my last name and first initial, no spaces, at g mail dot com (hope that’s enough obfuscation to fool spam-bots),

                You rightly saw that taking bet 2 guaranteed you win. Here’s the question, which assumes that your reasoning is relevant to *how* your choice is determined: Did you use the thought that if you had taken bet 1, you would have lost your bet, as part of your thought process that led you to take bet 2?

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      We generally use the word “choose” when we could do a range of different things given the range of different day-to-day environments.

      Thus one could choose to walk down to the pond and feed the ducks, but one could not choose to run faster than Usain Bolt.

      If someone only ever finds themselves attracted to one sex, then generally we would not use the word “choose”. Their preference is fixed. (And, personally, I don’t think that the word “preference” requires a “choice”.)

      Having said that, if someone else did not know a person’s orientation, they might use the word “choose”. So, they could offer someone a “choice” of male or female prostitutes.

      The word “choose” there is used because the person making the offer would expect different choices from different people. It does not imply that a given person would choose differently on different days.

      The way to understand compatibilism is to realise that we use words like “choice” where we lack information.

      If we knew everything, we’d know whether someone will walk to a pond tomorrow to feed the ducks. But we don’t know enough to know that, so we use the word “choice” about what they end up doing. Similarly, the person offering the choice of prostitutes is using the word because they don’t know the person’s orientation.

      • Posted October 16, 2020 at 5:11 am | Permalink

        Thanks for this explanation, Coel. I’m actually saving it.

      • Posted October 18, 2020 at 6:18 am | Permalink

        These are reasonable points, but it goes farther than “that we use words like “choice” where we lack information.” Sometimes your choice blocks any passive information-gathering by you. There’s a self-reference logic issue involved. Compare the xkcd cartoon Self-Description. Suppose the first panel were the only one, and that the words and outer circle of the pie chart were written in another color. What would happen? Randall Monroe could put any size pie wedges in there and be correct. So then, he cannot find out what fraction of the image is black, he can only decide it.

  9. Sastra
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Ironically, in trying to refute a perceived anti-gay viewpoint held by the Catholic Barrett (“It’s not a preference , it’s an orientation !”), the senator is making an argument implicitly based on Natural Law, beloved by Catholics. The assumption is that, because it’s not a choice, homosexuality is natural. Gay people are “born that way.” Therefore, there’s nothing wrong with it.

    But the stronger argument is that there’s nothing wrong with being gay because there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

    • Historian
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      It is interesting that you raise the concept of Natural Law. I have been thinking about it in terms of history. Many times actions are based on the justification that they are the carrying out of Natural Law. For example, the Declaration of Independence is based on this concept.

      The first paragraph states:

      “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

      It then goes on:

      “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

      This raises the big question: is there such a thing as Natural Law? If so, where does it come from? The Founders seem to have thought that it comes from a Creator. But, if there is no Creator, is Natural Law just something built to humans through evolution? On the other hand is there really no Natural Law, just a social construct? How humans justify their actions rest on how they answers these questions.

      I know that philosophers and political theorists have debated these questions for centuries. I do not fall into either group. Yet, I am coming to realize that justifications for certain actions, such as declaring American independence, may have been based on false assumptions or rationales.

      • Sastra
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        I have read arguments that the “creator” need not be supernatural; nature or evolution would do. Our rights are grounded in reason, discernible through observation and sympathy.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I’ve always thought that taking up the “choice” argument is a bad tactic. That’s the anti-LGBTQ+ crowd’s preferred argument. Why fight on their terms? Worse, you’re conceding that whether or not it’s a choice is relevant.

      I think it’s much better to argue that it isn’t relevant. It does not matter if it’s a choice or not. Nobody, especially the state, should have anything to say about it.

      Another thing that bothers me is that the choice argument is not typically something that is used in the context of rights. It’s typically used in the context of criminal justice. By engaging with the “antis” in the choice argument gives some degree of validation to their view that non-heterosexual behavior is something that warrants deterrence or even punishment.

      I think the best tactic is to treat the choice argument as the diversion that it is. It’s a slightly prettified cover for the antis’ belief that LGBTQ+ people should be denied some of the rights everybody else gets simply because they find them ickey. That’s where the real argument lies.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Adding to this, presumably everyone accepts that there is a spectrum of orientations, all the way from purely gay to bisexual to purely straight.

      Thus, for everyone except those at the two ends, there *will* be an element of choice in which sex they partner with.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        But you don’t make a choice about who you are attracted to. You choose to act on that attraction but the attraction is not something you decide in.

    • savage
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      The claim that homosexuality is “natural” also suggests that it is beneficial.

      Biologically though, it is nothing more than a disease (although probably not as bad as transgenderism). Fashionable nonsense like the claim that gay uncles care more for their relatives than straight ones does not stand up to scrutiny.

      Homosexuality being no choice also does not imply that it must be respected or even promoted. E.g. crime probably has a substantial genetic component, but that does not mean that policing is immoral.

      • Tokyo Steven
        Posted October 15, 2020 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

        May I ask what you would have gay people do?

        • Tokyo Steven
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          No answer? You have had more than a day, and replied to other people, but not to me.

      • Roo
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:47 am | Permalink

        I disagree. For one, the term ‘disease’ implies negative consequences. That might be the case if we were living in the wilderness and needed every able bodied person reproducing to the fullest extent possible, but that is not the case (and if it were, birth control would be just as much of as ‘disease’, by that metric – also, now that I think of it, people can bypass heterosexual sex entirely in order to reproduce these days, if they so choose.) Second, it is my understanding that most traits that persevere to a significant degree in humankind likely confer some sort of survival advantage. Even things that actually are considered disorders by the majority of people, such as schizophrenia, are thought to confer some manner of advantage in order to occur at the frequency they do.

        I don’t want to get into wildly speculative ‘just so’ territory here, but it certainly seems to me that if one looks beyond “how well could you produce kids in the Paleolithic era” criteria, homosexuality might have produced mental survival advantages, in terms of a more even balanced cognitive style (assuming, of course, that there are cognitive gender differences and that homosexuals might demonstrate a unique profile there – both highly contentious claims in the current zeitgeist.)

        • Roo
          Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:51 am | Permalink

          Btw, after I posted this, out of curiosity, I Google “homosexuality iq”. Apparently there is indeed a possible connection here with some preliminary evidence pointing in this direction.

          • savage
            Posted October 16, 2020 at 3:48 am | Permalink

            I called homosexuality a disease not merely because it impairs fertility (while increasing STD loads). Gay men have been viewed as effeminate and thus mistreated by other males throughout history. Homophobia seems to be an innate trait. The survival advantage is not obvious to me. Consider that about 10% of Westerners are infertile (rates differ across the world), some of them happily married but involuntarily childless. Calling their condition a disease seems reasonable enough and is not the same as moral condemnation.

            I can obviously not exclude that homosexuality may be an accidental byproduct of something useful, but you can say the same thing about sickle cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease. I will also not deny that homosexuals are especially good at some things, as are neurodiverse people. But that does not mean that being schizophrenic or autistic is great. The correlation between higher IQ and homosexuality makes me a bit sceptical: Perhaps lower-IQ individuals have a harder time coming out amidst their more homophobic peer groups?

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 16, 2020 at 10:37 am | Permalink

              I disagree with the definition of disease you gave. Because homosexual men are bullied by others, could perhaps suggest that it is the bullies who have a disease and was it always so? I think Ancient Greeks would disagree.

            • Roo
              Posted October 16, 2020 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

              I think basing a modern day disease model on the reproductive needs of cavemen makes little sense in 2020. By that standard, men who are sexually pushy to the point of crossing boundaries are the picture of mental health while women who take birth control are diseased. That might apply if we were living 40,000 years ago and the alternative was for your clan, who was your extended family, to slowly starve to death due to lack of productive members. In 2020 the world is overpopulated though, this is hardly an issue. We have other ways of defining ‘disease’ now – granted, there is certainly an arbitrary element to that, and there are many long ponderous pondering one could have about the philosophy behind what qualifies as a ‘disorder’. But among all the various schools of thought one could conjure up, I don’t see using standards that are so clearly outdated, by literally tens of thousands of years, as among the more compelling candidates.

              As for whether or not homosexuals have an intelligence advantage – polling does seem to show they have higher levels of education and income and disproportionate recognition in things like prestigious awards, all things which tend to correlate with intelligence so… I don’t know what to make of that exactly, but it seems unlikely that there would be such huge, sweeping selection bias at a societal level, due to less intelligent homosexuals feeling reluctant to come out, that it would cause such prominent demographic trends, especially in a group of people who have generally been the victims of prejudice and should theoretically have had a harder time advancing in society. One could just as easily say that intelligence and impulse control are often correlated and so homosexuals with high IQs have an easier time staying in the closet if they so choose. It seems like a stretch to me.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted October 16, 2020 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        You should perhaps familiarize yourself with the naturalistic fallacy.

    • dallos
      Posted October 16, 2020 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Atheists were “born that way” as well.

  10. Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    If only nuance were a thing. And also compassion. Then we could focus on the awful things ACB has actually done, instead of trying to police the words she uses.

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    This seems like an ex post facto crime. Barrett says something and Merriam-Webster changes the meaning of words to put her in the wrong? Talk about the Ministry of Truth! And I am not sure orientation is any better than preference, either, because a person can change their orientation in relation to an object.

    • Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I posted this in the comments already. Thought you hit the Orwellian nail on the “1984” head.

      The danger not lies in regards to either orientation or preferred, rather in the speed in which, when “print” is gone. How quickly a dystopian digital newspeak dictionary is malleable to the whims of those it serves.

  12. C.
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I have a sexual preference, but it seems the whole of womenkind prefers me not to be sexual. Most men as well. 🥺
    As for sexual orientation, that always sounded like I was supposed to go to some sort of meeting to learn how to be sexual but I never got the invite. Would someone share the PowerPoint notes with me at the very least?
    Or maybe I misunderstood and it’s the other kind of orientation, that when doing the deed you are supposed to orient oneself in a north-south direction for maximum virility?

  13. Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The woke are against biological determinism, except when they’re not.

  14. Patrick
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Biden used the term “sexual preference” as recently as last May:

    The ACLU of New York uses the same term in its current Legislative Memo:

    This is nothing more or less than disingenuous woke pearl clutching.

  15. Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    If the discussion between “preference” and “orientation” were new, I would agree with the above opinion. However, the term “preference” has been used intentionally by the religious right and anti-LGBTQ advocates for decades.

    I’m a survivor of conversion therapy, and have closely followed the societal opinions on LGBTQ people for several years now (mostly in my personal time, though I have had the opportunity to follow this interest professionally to a small degree). If I had been asked 10 years ago if the dictionary listed “sexual preference” as an offensive term, I would have responded “I haven’t looked it up, but it MUST.” Learning that the offensive usage of this term wasn’t part of the dictionary until 2020 genuinely surprises me.

    “Sexual preference” is a loaded term that is inextricably related to ideologies attempting to portray orientation as merely a choice, lifestyle, or agenda and the term has been recognized as such for decades. I find it inconceivable that Barrett did not intentionally use the term “sexual preference.”

    (Quick side note: If a heterosexual man has a preference against trans women, but later finds that he actually doesn’t much care if a woman is trans or not, he has not changed his orientation; he is still a man attracted to women)

    • Adam M.
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      “Sexual preference” is a loaded term that is inextricably related to ideologies attempting to portray orientation as merely a choice, lifestyle, or agenda and the term has been recognized as such for decades.

      As Patrick notes in the previous comment, you’d better let Biden and the ACLU know. 😛

      • Posted October 15, 2020 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure what I can do with a literal five second video of Biden making, what seems to be, an in the moment remark that doesn’t seem to be specifically about sexual orientation; even with such little context, Biden’s remark doesn’t seem comparable to Barrett’s remark, made during a question and answer session she’s likely had months, or longer, to prepare for, about a topic that’s been at the forefront of the legal system for 50+ years (she knew questions about LGBTQ rights, and her views on them, would be addressed).

        As for the ACLU memo (the actual memo is not linked, but rather, a tweet about it), it uses both terms back to back. Either their covering their bases by using both terms (a bit cowardly if this is the case), or they literally mean preference as in light v. dark hair, short v. tall, etc. If they mean the latter, it is certainly an odd choice of phrasing, but would still make sense within the context of what the memo seems to be about.

        • eric
          Posted October 15, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          I think the issue is broader than Biden or the ACLU. I think it’s more the case that the mainstream is mostly if not completely unaware that the evangelical right has weaponized the term, and they’re certainly not using it in the same way. We’re still thinking of it in a neutral, “preferences includes both genetically fixed and psychologically chosen tendencies” way.

          It’s a bit like the celtic cross; you see it all over the place, innocuously, and very often assocated with religion. But it’s also a coded symbol used by white supremacists, and if you are someone who has been targetd by them, you’d likley know that and not necessarily be happy about regular mainstream folks flashing it around, even though it’s not some Irish bishop’s fault that Illinois nazis decided to use it for their own racist purposes.

          • Posted October 16, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

            You’re absolutely right. This whole conversation over Barrett’s use of the term “preference” has forced me to reevaluate my own understanding of how others understand this term. Because it’s been such a prominent aspect of my own life, I (incorrectly) assumed most everyone else was at least familiar with the term’s negative connotations.

            I still believe Judge Barrett knew about the connotations of, and intentionally used the term “preference.” Considering her career, I just don’t see how this could have been a simple mistake on her part.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

              I agree. Considering her career and her age. She’s around my age and would have seen this term used in a dishonest way when non straight people were coming out and no longer hiding like they had been forced to in the past.

            • Posted October 16, 2020 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think it was deliberate. Anyway, it was normal usage according to the dictionary up until a few days ago. And she hasn’t had months to prepare for this hearing. It was less than one month ago that RBG died. Prior to that I doubt ACB would have put money on her being nominated to the Supreme Court before she turned 60, let alone 50.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      The significant factor in conversion therapy doesn’t seem to be that being gay is a choice, but that it is considered a bad choice. This rests on the idea that it interferes with the natural order of things, which is a strictly religious concept.

      In Iran, homosexuality is “fixed” by State-sanctioned transgenderism. A gay man becomes a straight ‘woman,’ and the order is preserved.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes and I remember this so clearly back in the 90s. It’s been going on for decades ever since people started accepting anyone who wasn’t straight as equally normal and human. I still remember this language being used alongside sentences like, “I don’t mind gay people but I liked it better when they were in the closet” as if that was a completely acceptable thing to say.

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Now, in line with Woke practice, dictionaries are actually running ahead of the pack, changing meanings and connotations to guide usage.

    Actually, dictionaries have been “running ahead of the pack” for 60 years now, going back at least to publication of the controversial Webster’s Third in 1961.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted October 15, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      In 1961, I was able to read a dictionary but not appreciate the controversy over the M-W Third. Years later, however, I read Rex Stout’s novel Gambit (mentioned in the article you linked to) and was treated to the spectacle of Nero Wolfe burning his Webster’s Third page by page for the unforgivable word crime of accepting “contact” as a verb. I never did, however, get around to looking up a copy of the book to see what all the fuss was about.

  17. jezgrove
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I would hope that any respectable dictionary would monitor the usage of a new word/meaning over a sensible period of time (years, not months) and want to see it being used in respected publications before adding it to its own list. For everything else, there’s always the Urban Dictionary…

  18. George Atkinson
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Of course I “prefer” those I crush on. I’m rather glad a crush is spontaneous and not voluntary.

  19. Posted October 15, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    The danger not lies in regards to either orientation or preferred, rather in the speed in which, when “print” is gone. How quickly a dystopian digital newspeak dictionary is malleable to the whims of those it serves.

    Great post. Thank you.

  20. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I know that in the 90s when being gay was just being accepted, the idea of “preference” as offensive because the main thinking was that people chose to be gay. Like to rebel or something. It’s totally ludicrous, I know, but that was the 90s. People actually thought you could change who you were sexually attracted to and that was why you saw the whole rise of the reconditioning approaches to being gay.

    So, I see this as a legacy of the early times with gay people being accepted and the demeaning of them through slurs being seen as rightfully bad. I don’t say “preference” for things like this because I remember the foolishness of the past.

  21. Hempenstein
    Posted October 15, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for expanding on this. I gathered that there was a flap over her use of sexual preference but hadn’t dug into it.

    But related to all of this, I guess, and somewhat humorously as well, when you recently hoped that Svante Pääbo might become a Nobel Laureate, I pulled up his Wikipedia page to check on a detail.

    I knew a fair amount about his background – that his father was Sune Bergström – but didn’t know any of the Personal Life para, that he had assumed that he was gay until attracteed by the boyish charms of his current wife, with whom they have two kids.

  22. Posted October 16, 2020 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    I agree. You know, a lot of this is a moral panic that has gotten out of control, the fetishization of transexuals/-ity (most of whom just want to be left alone and allowed to take a pee where they don’t cause a ruckus – that’s my read anyway and I live in the intergalactic capital of LGBTQ, Chelsea, NYC).
    Part of it is covid driving people bonkers but this has been the trend for awhile, covid is speeding things up.

    I never thought “preference” was offensive in the same way a preference for vanilla over chocolate ice-cream isn’t offensive but I feel I’m falling behind on (S. Pinker’s) “euphemism treadmill”. And I REALLY dislike the term “cisgendered”. What? Like “sissy” but opposite?

    D.A., J.D., NYC

    Thank you for keeping us apprised of the whole wokequake (so I don’t have to do it myself… hehehhee). It is as interesting as it is scary.


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