11 May 2009

The Obstacle of Definitions

Quite recently, I’ve engaged in a conversation concerning torture. The discussion group in which this has occurred bills itself as a place where people “who appreciate thinking, discussing and debating using reason, logic and wit” should converse. Apparently, reason and logic get chucked out the window when it comes to opening discussions on subjects like torture.

I put forward what I think is a great first step for any contentious debate: define important terms. I invited others (though not explicitly) to define the very term that was up for debate. I was immediately met with the response, “Word-chopping is the first step towards casuistry.” Who would guess that defining a term would result in an accusation of deceptive practice?

I responded that definitions are essential to argumentation; without at least a roughly agreed upon definition of terms, the parties in a discussion may waste all of their time arguing about very different things. Definitions of important terms set the boundaries of debate, in a manner of speaking. Definitions allow all participants in a debate to debate the same thing.

I also put forward my own definition, which is based on actual denotation (dictionary definition) with a slight but important modification – permanence of effect. This, too, was to no avail.

I was informed that my attempt at defining the term was actually “playing with words and invent[ing] euphemisms”. Never mind that agreeing on a denotative meaning for a word already in common use is something very different from inventing a term specifically to avoid denotative and (more importantly) connotative meanings. I’m happy to use a word like “torture” in a debate, but the meaning must be set, not squishy or endlessly mutable.

And that, I believe, is the very thing that dissuades those battlers against definition. If we actually define, in hard terms, what an idea like “torture” actually is, then that term can no longer fit any and all situations in which one might find it useful. Additionally, things that one might consider “torture” may not, upon further investigation, really be “torture”. In these ways, definition becomes an obstacle to echo-chamber thinking.

While over time the discussion has become more diverse, I think that it is instructive to pay attention more so to how it opened, which is why I have described that here. When words lose their meanings, people find it more and more difficult to communicate effectively. Another effect is that groups become more and more polarized; they fracture into groups using different definitions for important ideas. Currently in the US, we are somewhat embroiled in a difference about “torture,” though I doubt there is any attention paid to definition of the term. It may not be long until we find ourselves talking past each other, fracturing into groups with different definitions of “liberty” and “freedom”. Should that happen, we will be truly in crisis.

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