All in the definition

Thrice now, I’ve argued against something by saying that the definition used by the other person is simply, trivially, wrong. Too many people forget that defining your terms, and understanding what core premises and fundamental beliefs are held by your opponents, are essential tools of political debate.

Thrice now, I’ve argued against something by saying that the definition used by the other person is simply, trivially, wrong.

I have also spent quite a lot of time, online and offline arguing that if a person who calls himself a Muslim does something non-Islamic, like comitting public suicide, then it is unfair to label his Muslim brothers and sisters with the same, bloody brush.

Arguments over definitions make up a great deal of political debate. Understanding that other people define things differently and have a different set of presumptions, is essential for empathising with someone’s point of view. This is also why learning alternative languages is so important.

Please do not mistake this for yet another post about reconcilliation and co-operation. Comprehending how other people define their terms is also crucial when engaging in debate with them. Many people, on both the left and right, begin their argument from such a disparate starting point to their opponent, that they barely convince anyone but themselves. The result that only people who already agree with the author are persuaded by the argument. I think this is why columnists such as Polly Toynbee and Melanie Phillips are so divisive – they are both of the “you either love them or you hate them” school of journalism.

So much of the fisking I read online also falls into this trap too. No-one else is persuaded, least of all the supporters of the alternative point of view. The debate becomes a shouting match, and nothing of interest is achieved.

7 thoughts on “All in the definition”

  1. If only this were so simple – take for instance how we all see Colour ( and I mean yellows, greens, purples etc- not race!) – we really have no way of checking that what I see and call yellow is not called and seen by you as what I call red, therefore when we are discussing a shade we may have a completely different starting point and, contary to the usual debate say about politics – neither of us can tell the other “where we are coming from” – we just have to agree or disagree.
    I understand what I am trying to say here, but does anyone else?

  2. I do, but I’m not sure it applies to politcial debate in the same way it does with raw perception. We have to negotiate the overlaps in our shared experiences and language, so we know we’re on the same page when we begin to talk about more complicated concepts.

  3. Robert,

    In your post about Tim Priest, you say:

    “The social problems faced by immigrant communties world-wide are real, but multiculturalism is the word I would use to describe the solution, not the cause of the problem.”

    I completely agree. I think Tim Priest agrees as well.

    Tim’s point is in fact, almost exactly the same as yours: that what is happening in/to/about the separate Lebanese-origin inhabitants of the Sydney suburbs is being called “multiculturalism” but it is not and no-one seems to be brave enough to say so.

    Tim’s point is that no-one is prepared to point out that the situation is dangerous. I might add that this is a politically incorrect truth and is being smothered, but that might cause another set of definitional arguments….

    Or did I read his article completely wrong?

  4. No, you’re right there. I certainly don’t think that Priest would be an opponent of integration, the ‘melting pot’ idea, as he specifically goes on to praise the Vietnamese population. However, he does brush of ‘multiculturalism’ as a failure, so he and I would probably define those words differently.

    What I actually wish to argue against in this whole ‘multiculturalism’ debate, is the sneering attitude that it is an ideological failure. The fact that particular people within particular immigrant cultures (say, muslims in Europe, Lebanese in Sydney) fail to integrate, and in fact cause crime, somehow slips into an argument for no immigrants and no immigrant cultures, as if they are all out to undermine decent western civilisation. The old adage “multiculturalism doesn’t work” is a blunderbuss response to a very specific problem, yet people trot it out as a truism nonetheless – often, I might add, under the pretense that they are fighting Political Correctness Gone Mad.

  5. Robert,

    The top two thirds of your analysis is absolutely spot on. I have, perhaps, some comment on the bottom third.

    I think the definition issue is indeed very neatly wrapped up with “political correctness gone mad”.

    My reading of it is that very multiculturalism fails, where immigrant populations do not integrate, it is the cultural relativism of “political correctness” that exacerbates the problem as it attempts to hide or deny that it exists.

    On the loony Neo-Nazi end of the scale, to extrapolate from a failure of integration of one section of the population to “immigration is bad” (or should be stopped or everyone repatriated) is clearly bollocks, but the diametrically opposed view – the “political correctness gone mad” – does also exist.

    Whilst not overtly racist, the cultural relativity is certainly patronising and probably actually does MORE damage as it stiffles the debate required to frame policy correctly and perpetuates the ghettoisation.

    i.e. in the absence of the cultural relativism, the integration problem would (might?) be less severe.

    this is where I differ from your view: “multiculturalism doesn’t work” is a perfectly fair criticism when used against the cultural relativist’s view of non-integrationist “multiculturalism”.

    non-integrationist “multiculturalism” is indeed “political correctness” gone mad.

  6. I just love these discussions. It is so refreshing to read an “argument” where each side really listens to the other. I wonder how much this in due to the fact that in an online debate each person is allowed to have their say uninterrupted.

    And I totally agree that so many problems are caused by not agreeing to define the problem and the concepts involved clearly in the first place. Do we all have the same understanding of the words debate and argument which I used in the above paragraph ? So often, particularly in marital problems, the proponents are arguing/debating from what they think is the same premise (same rule book) but in fact they each have a different rule book. So we try to align the rule books, sometimes successfully but this is where Kathys point regarding colour comes in, sometimes we can’t be sure we have described the same thing.

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