Thrice now, I’ve argued against something by saying that the definition used by the other person is simply, trivially, wrong.
- A policeman in Australia misdefines Multiculturalism
- Anthony Browne misdefines Political Correctness
- Icons of England misdefines Englishness
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.