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Undeserved Connotations----The Ugly C-Word In The Population Debate

"What's in a name?", as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet. Actually, quite a lot. Words carry connotations, and choosing the right one, or wrong one, can frame an issue in such a way as to discredit a given policy option or favourably mischaracterize another. Has the word "coercion" be subjected to a one-sided interpretation? Can it be rehabilitated---or replaced?

A language in flux

The English language is constantly in flux. The most recent edition of Webster’s dictionary in fact conferred 100,000 new meanings to existing words and revised the definitions of another 225,000. In other words, perhaps a third of English vocabulary is in transition. One need only refer to Old English to understand that over time, the meaning of words can shift so far from their original sense as to become the reverse. When, for example, King James II described St. Paul’s Cathedral as “amusing, awful and artificial”, he was understood by his contemporaries to mean that it was pleasing, awe-inspiring and artful.

Words can either degenerate or improve to represent something more or less favourably, or radiate outward to extend to other objects, or, as the language grows, specialize or narrow their field of reference. Obviously then, establishing accurate meaning in English is akin to shooting at a moving target. The stakes are high. Word meanings not only classify the world as we see it but affect the way we see it. And often the words we don’t choose say as much about the world we want others to see as the words we use.

Political battles are won and lost by connotations

In any political struggle, words become weapons, and victory often consists in selecting synonyms with the desired connotations. Webster’s dictionary defines a connotation as a word that suggests a meaning apart from the thing it explicitly names or describes. Connotations are not denotations. Thus words like “drunk” or “pervert” call up terrible images not strictly warranted by dictionary definitions, and calling a stubborn individual “pig-headed” rather than “strong-willed” obviously evokes a different judgment. Issues can be framed by the choice of negative or positive connotations, and public perceptions are shaped accordingly.

The fight for population stability is a war over words

Arguably the most crucial issue facing humanity today is runaway human population growth, which has doubled our numbers in the past half century. It is the common denominator of biodiversity loss, resource depletion and climate change. Many of those who are committed to finding the least inhumane of effective solutions to this crisis have come to believe that “voluntary” family planning is inadequate to the task at hand, and instead propose the wide institution of legal incentives to encourage responsible procreative decisions and disincentives for those who would reject them. Critics call such legal suasion “coercion”, and in so doing, have launched a pre-emptive strike against an option which deserves serious consideration in the desperate battle to achieve population sustainability. In this effort they can recruit the words of Garrett Hardin, who famously called for “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon”, meaning that society should determine that some actions be outlawed and that violators be subject to fines or imprisonment.

What does coercion actually mean?

So what does “coercion” actually mean? The verb “coerce”, according to, has one sense---“to cause to do through pressure or necessity, by physical , moral or intellectual means, to force, compel , obligate, oblige somebody to do something”. To “coerce”, then, does not necessarily involve physical force. Case in point, I was given a warning ticket by a police officer for exceeding the speed limit in the first 100 metres of a school zone last year, and persuaded, without threat of violence, that if I did it again I would suffer a fine. I am being coerced to change my behaviour.

However, section 22 (7102) of the United States Constitution states that coercion consists of “threats of serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or abuse or threatened abuse of law or the legal process.” This understanding seems indicative of general usage, as coercion is typically viewed as unlawful conduct, or forcing someone to do something “outside the accepted norms of society”, and most synonyms reflect this sense. lists five synonyms with negative connotations, and only two with neutral connotations---“constraint” and “restraint”. is even less kind, as only three of fourteen synonyms ---constraint, restraint and “persuasion”---may be deemed neutral. The rest conform to popular imagery---“browbeating”, “duress”, “force”, “intimidation”, “strong-arm tactic”, “threat”, “threatening” and “violence”. Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, meanwhile lists 17 of 49 related adjectives (35%) which may be regarded as positive or neutral in connotation. In turn, “coercion” is registered as a synonym of “dictatorship” and “extortion”, but alternatively of mere “constraint” and “enforcement”.

Is not all law enforcement coercive?

Thus, while the deck is stacked against neutral interpretations of “coercion”, there is clearly scope to legitimately apply that word in just that way. “The World English Dictionary” for example, describes coercion as “government by force”. Is force not the essence of all governments? And are not all laws, or enforcement of laws, by their nature coercive? The Oxford Canadian Thesaurus, like others, states that coercion can mean “force, compulsion, duress, oppression, harassment, intimidation, threats, arm-twisting or pressure”---the usual laundry list of negative imagery. But it also states that coercion can mean “constraint”. Are we not constrained, or coerced, by many things in life that lie outside the dictates of government? Are we not constrained or coerced by resource shortages, traffic congestion, poor air quality, expensive housing and all the environmental baggage of overpopulation? Has not the sum total of private procreative decisions presently deemed to be the province of sacred and inalienable ‘human’ rights proven to be more coercive than the most draconian of any government’s birth control laws? Has not China’s one-child-per-family law (OCPF), in this sense, been “counter-coercive”? Would not the existence of the 400 million extra people that the OCPF law prevented have been more abusive of human rights than the law’s enforcement? How abusive of human rights would an extra 1.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year that the OCPF law prevented have been for the rest of humanity? Would the extinction of our race offer a better venue for human rights? As Isaac Asimov explained in his “bathroom metaphor”, overpopulation will destroy all rights. Even if “freedom of the bathroom” is enshrined in the Constitution, twenty people in an apartment with only two bathrooms cannot enjoy an unrestricted right to access them. Coercive rules must govern their use.

Cultural change and public consensus is not enough

Critics of such coercive policies seem to suggest that “rights” are the product of limited government, when in fact government can create the basis for meaningful rights by limiting the freedom to exercise irresponsible private actions. Many feminists, for example, argue that any proposal that government should impose family limits is yet another attempt to “control women’s bodies”. Wrong. “Coercive” population control measures are not a gender issue. They are about the right of the collective to safeguard collective rights at the expense of those who, in the name of individual rights, would harm the collective---half of whom are female. All of us are subject to laws, and to reiterate, law enforcement is, by definition, coercive. Traffic laws are an obvious example. We may have the right to right to drive a car but not the right to drive it wherever or however we may want to. And just as laws against speeding or smoking in a public place would be ineffective if they did not enjoy the support of a broad public consensus, such a consensus alone would not ensure their success. After all, even with complete control of the media, the educational system and the levers of government, Chinese leaders still found it necessary to back up voluntary family planning initiatives with legal sanctions. Legal suasion must complement moral suasion.

It's time to rehabilitate coercion or rename it

“Coercion” has become the ugly C-word in the population debate, and its worst connotations have been employed in an effort to discredit policy options that in effect would prove less coercive than the explosive population growth which threatens to extinguish all rights. Coercion, in other words, has been given a bum rap.

George Orwell was rightfully scathing in his contempt for euphemisms that attempted to defend the indefensible, but it could be argued that “dysphemisms”, that is, the use of a harsh word or expression in place of a polite or neutral one is equally reprehensible. If “coercion” cannot be rehabilitated and restored to its alternative understanding, then another phrase must be found. “Counter-coercion” or “legal suasion” might get the job done.

Tim Murray
February 22, 2011

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Excellent article, Tim. Your point about China plus 400 million more people was very well made. I had to look up the word, “dysphemisms” to see if you had invented it or if it already existed. I was a bit disappointed to see that you were not the actual inventor.

After Kevin Rudd's "big Australia" gaffe that saw his popularity plummet, surely Gillard's multicultural revival is about appealing to the ethnic vote?
The British Prime Minister David Cameron has identified segregation and separatism as key issues behind the threat of Islamic extremism and called for a "shared national identity".
Huge increases in immigration in Britain over the past decade were a deliberate attempt to engineer more multiculturalism, and "rub the Right's nose in diversity", a former Government adviser said.

It's time for multiculturalism in Australia to be replaced by "integration" and "unity". We meed a strong surge of patriotism for our wonderful country, and forge a strong Australian identity.
We don't need a revival of multiculturalism. We have already proved that we are diverse and tolerant. This is just another drive to support ongoing mass immigration.

The labeling of Australia as a deeply racist nation, and the need for more support for it, is social coercion and silencing. "Racism" has become the pariah, the ultimate attack on humanitarian ideals, against the holiness of globalisation and world-government citizenship. This is despite the threat of climate change, natural disasters, food shortages, increasing social disruption in the world, increasing crime and the energy crisis over the horizon.

Offending the "god of growth" is the ultimate blasphemy, a "crime" against the new world order.

A new push to enhance multiculturalism in Australia, to avoid Europe's failure, is to replace "skills shortages' and "ageing population" as the next population myth?
Social coercion is a very powerful, manipulating and silencing tool to allow our leaders to proceed with their own agendas, and silence debate.

I would suggest that we might use 'constraint in the service of restraint' ; in other words, that we become mature enough- (what a hope!)-to accept constraints on our reproductive instincts in order to restrain our growing impact upon the earth and its dwindling resources.(My Collins Thesaurus has some good synonyms .)

As to the feminists : I would say that we should advance beyond the notion of reproductive rights and consider the notion of environmental duties and responsibilities and consider the 'rights' of our fellow creatures-who are losing the race.

Finally, as Asimov foresaw, overcrowding will do for any comfortable and complacent notions of individual liberty : (this is why I find SpikedOnline so irresponsible ; Brendan O'Neill constantly calls for unchecked population growth in the name of libertarianism and freedom of choice).


Editorial comment: Thanks, Wendy. It's troubling that any supposedly intelligent person would argue against population control, the only rational choice on offer to humankind at the start of the 21st century. It's good to know who, out there, espouses such insanity. Anyone wishing to see why SpikedOnline causes Wendy so much concern, should look at this blog entry, Down with these Malthusian MPs of 6 Jan 2009 by Tim Black and not Brendan O'Neill. It's teaser is:

A proposal to cap the UK population at 70million shows how mainstream miserabilist population control has become

An article by Brendan O'Neill of 9 Jul 2009 is: Who’s afraid of billions of people? It's teaser is:

In the run-up to the UN’s World Population Day, spiked argues against all attempts to cajole, coerce or convince people into having fewer kids.

A more up-to-date article by Brendan O'Neill of 14 Jun 2010 is: The rise and rise of the Champagne Malthusians It's teaser, apparently intended to be tongue-in-cheek, is:

spiked’s editor joined the population-control lobby in a posh church in London as they quaffed ‘luxury’ drinks and fretted about overbreeding.