Winning the Language Game – Misconceptions

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It is unquestionable that precision of language is vitally important in the exchange of ideas. To exchange ideas, and to discuss positives and negatives of certain ideologies, ideas, and ideological groups, requires us to use terms that are agreed upon by everyone in the discussion. Otherwise, we begin talking past each other and misunderstanding what the other is saying, leading to an unproductive conversation.

For example, what do we call the economic system we live under today? Is it capitalism, socialism, a mixed economy, a planned economy, or a free market? Using the definitions provided by socialists, Western countries would be capitalist economies and not socialist economies. Many social democrats and democratic socialists argue that Scandinavian countries are socialist. Mainstream American conservatives refer to their economy as “free-market capitalist” but most libertarians would hardly refer to it as such.

The same goes for the terms “liberty” and “freedom.” Speak with enough libertarians, and one will find that not everyone uses the same definition, whether they know it or not. The classical liberal Bruno Leoni has written a bit on the issues of defining freedom and other abstract concepts. People, even if they speak different languages, do not have trouble defining something like a “table.” If the definition is unclear, one person can clear things up easily by simply pointing to a table and identifying it as such. But we cannot easily point to “liberty” or “capitalism.” These terms are much harder.

Define Your Terms

In any political conversation with someone whose thinking you are not too familiar with, it is vital to define your terms in advance, or whenever a vague term is introduced. If someone begins talking about “paying one’s fair share” or “a living wage,” or more general terms like “progress” and “inclusion” and “diversity,” demand a definition that has boundaries. It may briefly slow down the conservation, but the goal is to make it more productive by guaranteeing that one understands the other.

It doesn’t necessarily matter if the definition is all that accurate either. One’s definition of “conservative,” “liberal,” and “libertarian” will depend on their experiences with people within that group. The first two of these terms (and to a lesser extent the third) have become so vague and undefined that they could mean any number of things depending on who you ask. A discussion need not tangent into the true meaning of conservatism just because the term was mentioned. The purpose of a definition is to ground the conversation in concrete terms that can either clarify one’s thinking or reveal the lack of any understanding present by one carelessly tossing out vague terms.

There are, of course, times when asserting one definition over another is important. If I were to have a conversation with someone who takes Robin DiAngelo’s definition of racism, then I am, by that definition, an unapologetic white supremacist. This definition is also rather uncommon among average people, and is typically limited to parts of academia. In this situation, it may be better to assert the more common definition and refuse the twisted definition that DiAngelo uses. To accept her definition would be to conclude that I am a white supremacist, something I am not willing to accept (and would be perfect for an opponent to take out of context) with the twisted definition.

Either way, there are two goals of defining one’s terms. First, it is to make the conversation more productive and reduce chances of misunderstanding and talking past one another. There is a happy medium when defining terms. Asking for precise definitions too often of someone acting in good faith can waste time and ruin the conversation.

Second, it is to prevent one from shifting the goalposts, modifying definitions with murky language, and from redefining the terms. Language is the tool by which we communicate and form narratives. If your ideological opponent is the one controlling the narrative, with you simply following along, they have the advantage. If they are allowed full charge of using terms however they wish, they control the narrative, and direct the conversation.

Understand Your Terms

This means understanding what one is talking about means not only knowing facts and history, but understanding the terms being used. What is the definition of a libertarian? There are a few different ones used. Which one accurately describes the average, self-described libertarian? Which one best describes you? How does the average non-libertarian describe a libertarian, and to what extent are they correct?

What about defining the left vs right political spectrum? Does a proper definition even really exist? What do people mean when they refer to themselves as such and their opponents as such? It is very easy to get stuck in the lingo of your own niche ideological group, forgetting that so many others will use the same terms but apply different meanings.

Rule #10: Be precise in your speech.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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