The slow-burning controversy over the use of the word ‘simp’ in popular culture reached a new level of absurdity recently when the New York Times (NYT) published an article declaring once and for all that, yes, simp is, in fact, a misogynistic term. The problem here is not necessarily that the NYT is off the mark on this one, though they are. The real issue is that this is yet another example of a larger problem at the NYT and liberal media in general, where editors, writers, journalists, reporters, and others try to police words and ideas in ways that do not fit the scope of their responsibility to society.
In recent weeks, this larger issue has resulted in the (justified) resignation of an editor over the publication of an op-ed that employees and readers of the NYT did not agree with. Granted, the op-ed was poorly executed for reasons the NYT laid out in an addendum that now appears at the beginning of the piece, but that did not stop the paper from taking heat from readers and critics alike for its meek kowtowing to the sort of toxic cancel culture censoring that drives so much of the political debate these days. Last week, the signs of change continued to manifest in the resignation of another editor and writer, the infamous Bari Weiss, who is known for her controversial center-right opinions regarding Israel, cancel culture, and other topics usually associated with thinkers who publish on platforms like Quillette and podcasters in the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ (Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, etc.). The simp article went largely unnoticed in the wake of Weiss’ resignation and the controversy surrounding the Tom Cotton op-ed, but it is a perfect example of the sort of heavy-handedness that has driven conservatives away from the paper.
The simp article starts off by asking a question: Is the word ‘simp’ misogynistic? Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time hanging out with mainstream American Gen Z kids recently knows that this term has gained popularity over the past two years or so, propelled in part by social media stars on platforms like Twitch, Tick Tock, and Youtube. Zoomers use the word simp to refer to anyone who tries to manipulate another person into a romantic relationship using kindness and affection when the target of the affection is not interested. This is closely related to other terms like ‘the friend zone,’ ‘nice guy,’ and ‘white knight,’ but it is different in one crucial way. Usually, men are accused of being simps to women who they want to sleep with, but not always: people who are women, non-binary, trans, and every other gender and orientation out there also simp and can be accused of simping. To simp someone, one need not be a man — anyone can simp.
As Blair McPake wrote recently for the University of Stirling’s student newspaper the Brig, while the label is most often applied to men, “that is a basic and very hetronormative explanation of the infamous simp. The internet has of course taken the word and used it to describe almost anything or anyone. It does not necessarily have to be a man hopelessly chasing after a woman.”
In fact, by some interpretations, the word has now transcended its original meaning completely and moved into the realm of post-modern self-aware irony. As Logan Mahan wrote recently, the word “‘simp’ has evolved into an even larger meme, one that in a way makes fun of the word and its misogynistic usage. You can be a simp for a celebrity, a character on a TV show or even a good ol’ cup of coffee. But in every one of these declarations of simping, there’s a welcome hint of irony, a knowing wink that says, I understand that men who use this word as a way to tear down other men for respecting women are fucking morons.”
Does the NYT article make that clear? No. Unfortunately, the NYT focussed on the most obvious usage of the term online while missing the fact that this usage is also the most narrow interpretation. Like all slang, the word simp is evolving quickly and its usage and meaning are constantly changing. Indeed, as the NYT and many other sources note, the word simp has been in use for decades. In the 20th century, it was an abbreviation of the word simpleton, In the early 2000s, some rappers like Three 6 Mafia used the term as an antonym to ‘pimp’ in that pimping was characterized by treating women poorly while simping is characterized by treating women affectionately. But the Gen Z usage of the term is an evolution of that history and not bound to it necessarily. ‘Simp’ is still generally applied to men, but it could be applied to anyone under the new zoomer usage conventions.
To the NYT’s credit, they did track down many of the famous Tick Tock videos and zoomers who have spread the simp meme far and wide for validation of their conclusions. They also traced the history of the term back through the decades to uncover its misogynistic past. But what they failed to recognize is that these words change constantly and that some words are not very well defined. Trying to label simp as misogynistic is as fraught as trying to call a crepe a pancake. Some people will agree, while others will disagree, and the whole thing ends up becoming a bit of Rorschach test. By coming out so strongly with the decision that “Yes,” the word simp is misogynistic, the NYT is trying to peg the meaning of a changing word even as that word is in transition.
Part of the confusion surrounding the term simp is that it is often used to shame and bully men who are being kind to women for altruistic reasons. By calling a man a simp when he does something nice for a woman, the accuser inadvertently reveals their own discomfort around interacting with people they are attracted to. But this usage of the term does not make the term itself misogynistic in all cases. Instead, it reveals the misogyny of the user when it is used with this intent.
To put it another way, the word simp is not like the n-word. Though similar arguments have undoubtedly been used to defend its use, that is not what is happening with the word simp. The key is that slurs like the n-word are inherently bound up in the identity of the person(s) who are using and hearing the word. But the word simp is not. It does not matter to zoomers what a simp’s gender is or the identity of the person on the receiving end of the simping. The NYT completely missed this aspect of the term.
The basic mistake that the NYT made here was to attempt to pass moral judgment on a word without understanding the usage of the term in its full context. As the famous philosopher of language Lugwig Wittgenstein asserted roughly a century ago, words get their meaning from their usage. If a word is used misogynistically, then in that instance it is misogynistic. But if it is used in a non-misogynistic way, to describe a female stalker who is trying to manipulate a man, for instance, it is not misogynistic. The New York Times overstepped its mandate when it tried to define the term — and the users of the term — in a way that was not in line with its usage.
In all likelihood, the controversy surrounding the term simp will die off soon enough. Slang changes quickly and in a year, no one will care what the NYT thinks the word simp means because the next crop of zoomers will use it in their own way, or not use it at all. But the larger question about the role of the NYT as a moderator of public discourse will continue to be relevant. The NYT has the ability to lead national discussions around ideas and words that are controversial, but they also have the responsibility to understand the culture which they are trying to critique.