In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Dictionaries and Equivocation

Fierce debates, such as those on sexism and racism, have participants reaching for their dictionaries. (Edited: greeblie)

Fierce debates, such as those on sexism and racism, have participants reaching for their dictionaries. (Edited: greeblie)

For a debate to be worthwhile, both sides require a clear understanding of what is being discussed. When there is confusion, prospective discussions can descend into deliberating meanings of words, rather than the subject those words sought to describe.

In formal debating, a definitional challenge occurs when the opposition believes the proposition have defined terms in an unusual or unexpected way. These challenges are justified when the proposition has avoided the motion’s pertinent concern, often dubbed ‘squirreling’; engaged in tautologies or absolutist language; or otherwise ensured no reasonable debate can occur.

Language is social. It is one means through which we communicate with one another. Dictionaries are aids: these books make no normative claims, and do not enforce how we should feel about the words within.

If two people concordantly agree to use a word in a particular fashion – even if it diverges with a dictionary definition – then debates can satisfactorily proceed. However, when two sides diverge in their understanding of the same word, they may only argue at cross-purposes. Occasionally, the same person will elide between two distinct meanings in the same argument. This is the informal fallacy of equivocation.

Conflicting Definitions

As an example, political discussions of race and gender can emanate scorching heat but dim light. There are three common definitions of racism and sexism. The older definition of racism is the belief that races possess inherent characteristics, abilities or qualities, which render races inferior or superior to others. One contemporary definition of racism (or sexism) is on the personal level: a person is racist or sexist if they hold prejudicial views or act discriminatorily solely on the basis of race (or gender).

A third definition focuses on systemic and structural concerns: a system – like a workplace or institution – is racist (or sexist) due to the practice or perpetuation of discriminatory and oppressive treatment against people based upon their race (or gender). This latter definition is formulated as ‘prejudice plus power’.

The cognitive dissonance arises when it is discussed who can or cannot be racist. The ‘prejudice plus power’ definition falls foul of the personal definition, by ascribing a positive quality – the inability to racist or sexist – to a non-dominant social group, based solely on their race or gender. The definitional clash upsets both sides – both seeing a defence of racism.

Finally, it is nonsensical to dismiss the dictionary as the sole creation of “white guys”, or an inhibitive beacon. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary is regularly updated, and now includes words such as ‘tech-savvy’ and ‘click-bait’. The online OED uses digital means to track common terms and their contemporary usage:

According to the online dictionary’s language monitoring programme, use of the word ‘binge-watch’ increased fourfold in February and tripled in June, based on its average use over the last two years.

In such contested arguments, it would be unwise to denigrate people for reaching for their dictionary. Definitional challenges are rare in formal debating, but are often the opening gambit in too many online discussions.

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This entry was posted on August 16, 2014 by in Other Interests and tagged .
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