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.


Link: “On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi”

One significant thing I cover in my thesis (now submitted, and hopefully en route to my viva) is that quite a few scholars get the tone of the Book of Mormon work: there’s a tendency in some quarters to treat it as if it is engaging in some gentle academic discussion, which understates the ultimate authority it claims and the forcefulness with which it states its demands for its readers to change their lives and repent.

One facet of this is touched upon by this interesting article by Noel B. Reynolds, which has just been posted on The Interpreter. Reynolds is responding, amongst other things, to certain claims made by Joseph Spencer in his An Other Testament: On typology (a work, I confess, I’m not a fan of), particularly the division Spencer suggests in Nephi’s writings. One compelling point Reynolds raises in his article is proposed claims result in the characterisation of Nephi as an esoteric writer, something which fits uneasily with Nephi’s own explicit enthusiasm for ‘plainness’.

The article is available via On Doubting Nephi’s Break Between 1 and 2 Nephi: A Critique of Joseph Spencer’s An Other Testament: On typology | The Interpreter Foundation

2 Nephi 32

So my reading of the Book of Mormon has slowed down since I started reading it in the Deseret Alphabet, but I hadn’t realised how much further back these posts had gotten from from my personal reading, so there’s plenty of backlog.

When reading this chapter personally, I guess was in part struck by the “why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?” (v.1). There’s a lot I’ve been wondering about personally; is this “because ye ask not, neither do ye knock” (v.4)? To what extent do the words “for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given unto them in plainness, even as plain as word can be” (v.7) apply to me?

There is one verse that always sticks out when I read this chapter:

And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.

(2 Nephi 32:8)

I remember a conversation I had with a friend who I cared about very much, who had stopped praying because they felt that God didn’t want to hear from them, that they were unworthy of God’s attention, that they didn’t want to waste God’s time, and that if the devil was working upon them than he wouldn’t be working on someone else. I could understand (perhaps better than they realised) some of the emotions that might lie behind such feelings, but on the other hand that sentiment seemed to underestimate both God’s and the devil’s resources. And they did know better than that, something I tried (and believe I succeeded) to remind them of. I know those sorts of feelings hang around, and the devil lies to prey upon such feelings, but I hope they are still praying and rejecting such lies that teach them not to pray.

But I have often wondered how this verse applies to me. I have never quite felt as my friend did, since – while I have often felt unworthy before God – I’ve never really felt I can escape him, nor really felt that I am occupying too much time of an infinite and eternal being who isn’t bound by mortal time scales. But there have been times in my life when prayer became more perfunctory and less efficacious; when it became more of a habit and less me actually trying to speak to my God.

And I think this may be covered by this verse too. If the adversary can’t actually stop us praying, I’m sure he’ll do all he can to make our prayers less effective and real. In my experience so many things can happen to do that: putting prayer off to the last minute, not making the space (mentally, spiritually or physically) to pray, treating prayer as a repetitive shopping list (we’re commanded to pray for things we need, but that’s not all prayer should be), probably a whole bunch of small things I barely notice.

I guess the good thing is that in my experience many of these things are easy to fix too. Just like – for all the emotional turmoil they were suffering – all my friend needed to do about prayer was to actually pray, I’ve found that small things can help rectify it: making time to pray, being open and honest about my feelings in my prayers, sometimes simply seeking an appropriate physical space to pray (Joseph needed the sacred grove, after all). Sometimes it can simply be following that impulse to get on my knees right now, rather than listen to the little voice saying it can wait a few minutes. With at least one message at general conference being about the importance of “worshipful prayer”, I guess the importance of this verse – and which voice we choose to listen to – remains as important today as it did thousands of years ago.