Tag Archives: language

Other Opinions #53 – Disputing Definitions



Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Both links are excellent exploration of a common problem, but I think they miss a case. Sometimes, when people argue over the definition of a word, it is because there is an argument over value coming along for the ride.

Consider, specifically, a debate I witnessed recently over the definition of “racism”. Is racism only “prejudice based on race” (which I grant is pretty intuitive), or is it more completely defined as “prejudice based on race, when combined with structural power” (which is more what this article argues)?

Now, as in the case of “if tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” there isn’t any underlying disagreement about how the world really is. Both parties agreed that prejudice based on race exists, and that sometimes it is combined with structural power. Both parties were also fairly rational people, unlikely to get sucked into a pointless argument over definitions.

The disagreement, I think, was over the ethical implications. “Racism” is a heavily loaded word, and in this context I think it ended up being shorthand for “something wrong”. One party was arguing that any “prejudice based on race” is ethically wrong, whereas the other party was arguing that prejudice based on race is only ethically wrong when combined with structural power. That’s a really interesting argument to have, but it can’t happen if people think it’s just about the definition of “racism” instead.