Slippery Words

A phenomenon that I have been increasingly struck by is the role that different and shifting definitions can play in debates and arguments. I’m not talking here about mere loose or imprecise language (such as the use of cowardly described by Theodore Dalrymple here; I came across his similarly titled article after the title for this post leapt into my mind). Nor am I talking simply about how the same word can carry different meanings (that’s simply linguistic fact). Rather what I am describing is the situations in which both parties may be arguing over something, but be using different definitions for the same term, even without realising it. More recently, I have become increasingly aware of how participants involved in certain debates appear to be seeking to win an argument by default by redefining the very term from a more common definition.

I’ve written before about several theological examples amongst arguments in LDS circles, namely the terms inspiration and spiritual. But similar examples appear to about in many of the political and cultural arguments at large in society today. Terms such as fairness, justice, equality, consent, racism, privilege and a host of others have been increasingly subject to different and shifting definitions. This is not entirely new (the definition of justice, for example, has been argued over for millennia), but it seems increasingly the case that some of the loudest voices in particular controversies are insisting upon their own private definitions of key terms.

While some cases may simply be the result of different definitions, others appears to be cases where people are seeking to change or even manipulate definitions to win arguments by default. The connection between the thoughts we can have and the language we possess is a strong one, and Orwell and others have warned how changes in language may be used to control political thought. Furthermore, as I observed about the public endorsement of untruths, such manipulation of language can serve to erode the sense of right and promote acts of wrong. Witness, for example, the increasing trend to define the expression of particular ideas as violence. Word are powerful (or this subject would be hardly worth worrying about), but they are not physical force. The claim that they are, however, encourages the idea that actual violence may be used to suppress or retaliate against objectionable statements, and rationalises increasing political violence on the left and on the right.

At the very least, there is often the need to clarify definitions in any such discussion. If we are conversing on the basis of different definitions, then in practice we really have a different language. Like the inhabitants of Babel, our language will be confounded and so will we, and any discussion will profit little.

Furthermore, on some occasions, we must also notice and if necessary refuse to concede to attempts to manipulate or win an argument in advance by adopting a new or alternate definition. Such definitions are often, consciously or unconsciously, loaded dice, designed to win the argument in advance. Accepting them often concedes the argument, not because we are convinced it is right on its merits, but because we’d already accepted their presuppositions and frame of reference without realising it. Such alternate definitions can also limit thought and obscure actual concepts at stake by eliminating the very vocabulary used to describe competing ideas (for example, if the “spiritual” is defined down as simply an emotional event, what term is left to describe the literally spiritual). Accepting such redefinition can thus suppress communication, rather than promote it. Confusion over such terms can also be deceptive, seeking to claim approval for new concepts by cloaking them under more generally accepted ideas. And as described above, it can be used to justify violence and other such acts.

If we are to avoid being manipulated, or to be the manipulator, or simply to avoid confusion with others, then we need to be clear in our own language. This includes, where necessary, explaining how we understand any particular terms at stake and why we understand them that way. We need to allow others to explain their thoughts too. Perhaps we are also best served by avoiding jargon where possible. Language should clarify, not be used as a battering ram against our opponents.

I am reminded of Nephi’s words in 2 Nephi 31:3:

For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

While there are occasions where less plainness may be required, clarity of communication is not just useful to man but is a divine ideal. If we are seeking to become more like him, then seeking to be likewise clear in our own communications seems to be something to strive for. Furthermore, I can’t help but feel that if we are to avoid being misled, or confounded, or caught up in some spiral of political violence or oppression, then we have a responsibility to keep language as something that illuminates rather than let it be used to blind and bind.


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