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I came across a YouTube video (The Problem with Cancel Culture) and this curious sentence right at the beginning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3ZjTg1OpIE

"We should not undermine how quickly people can change their ideas."

(The description is We undermine how easy it is for us to become the people that we dislike.)

I have always understood the word undermine to mean to make something or someone become gradually less effective, confident, or successful or to deliberately say or do things that make someone appear less impressive or less important.

However, in this particular case, undermine doesn't seem to fit of these definitions.

Can you clarify what it means?

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    Probably meant 'underestimate'. Commented Sep 18, 2021 at 20:06

4 Answers 4

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The speaker seems to be confused between 'undermine' (which makes no sense in this context) and 'underestimate' (which makes perfect sense).

It's been noticed by people making comments under the video.

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    The only problem with that is that "undermine" and "underestimate" have completely different meanings. And if this is American politico-babble, why not "misunderstimate" instead of "underestimate"? "Undermine" does make sense - see my answer.
    – alephzero
    Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 18:55
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    @alephzero 'The only problem with that is that "undermine" and "underestimate" have completely different meanings' - er, that's my point. Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 19:01
  • @alephzero - watch the video youtube.com/watch?v=N3ZjTg1OpIE Commented Sep 19, 2021 at 19:03
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    From the part just past that they clearly mean "underestimate". The next thing they say is that what someone wrote a while ago, even last week, probably isn't what they think now (you can read it -- someone bizzarrely thought British accented English needed captions). Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 4:27
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    @OwenReynolds - you'd be surprised who needs captions, and certainly the deaf and hard-of-hearing benefit from them. Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 6:38
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I can’t be sure without context, but it is possible that the person meant “undermine” in the sense of sabotage: we should not impede people who are in the process of changing their ideas, work against them, or make their task more difficult.

If so, “undermine how quickly” sounds odd to me. I might say, “We should not undermine people as they are changing their ideas,” or “We should not undermine the task of changing their ideas.”

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  • Agree the 2nd para. Undermining is done to bring down castle walls -- to destroy something stable and ongoing. It feels weird to undermine something already changing. Better might be "undermine the long-established tradition of changing your mind whenever you feel like it". Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 4:31
  • @OwenReynolds - 'long-established' - really? - I thought it modern, due to the interwebs. Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 8:42
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"Undermine" does make sense here. Let's change the sentence to

"We should not undermine the speed at which people can change their ideas."

which seems a bit clearer IMO.

People collectively change their ideas by communicating with each other. So the sentence is roughly equivalent to "We should not undermine people's channels of communication."

There is a well established word for an effective way to do that which has existed for millennia - namely "censorship".

Of course this chain of deductions might be too hard for to some viewers of the video to construct, but IMO sociologists are well known for speaking in riddles.

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    I think the downvotes are because you've undertaken some dubious gymnastics in an attempt to find meaning in the sentence. You've also edited the sentence; why not just edit out the word that was obviously used by mistake? "Undermine" was a slip-up. Just accept it and move on.
    – quant
    Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 0:20
  • I agree with this answer too. I understand the word "undermine" in this context as "playing down the level of threat posed by the speed at which people can change their ideas", which is where "undermine" fits quite well. So they may know that the threat is high, but they are playing it down by pretending it's not high. It's different from "underestimate" where they really think that the threat is lower than it should be.
    – justhalf
    Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 2:52
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    You seem to be guessing at what they will say next, but the video has captions: you can read what they say next. She seems to be saying that people currently change their minds very quickly and we should realize that. Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 4:41
  • Nope. "Undermine the speed at which people can change their ideas" is word salad.
    – user8356
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 15:20
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Your second definition

to deliberately say or do things that make someone appear less impressive or less important

fits the sentence, I would say. It's making "someone", in this case the personification of "[the speed of] how quickly people can change" appear less important, effectively playing down the level of threat posed by it.

So they may know that the threat is high, but they are playing it down by pretending it's not high. It's different from "underestimate" where they really think that the threat is lower than it should be.

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