Political views Definitions

LanguageIt was cases such as Yates, and many other comparable ones, that convinced us that definitions are far from trivial in argumentation. The courts impose limits on how far persuasive language can be stretched in framing a dispute and defining terms used in arguments, but the situation is wilder in natural language conversational arguments outside such constraints. Consider the abortion dispute, once it has been reframed as a debate between a ‘pro-life’ side and a ‘pro-choice’ side. The pro-life side defines ‘abortion’ as the deliberate killing of a human being, equivalent to the crime of murder. How can anybody be against life in a humane society? The pro-choice definition of an abortion describes the embryo or fetus as a clump of tissues that is a product of conception but is not a human being. It should be the woman’s choice whether to remove it or not from her body. How can anybody be against choice in a free democratic country? The terms used to define each side’s central claim stack the deck. Once the issue of the debate has been reframed in this manner it has become polarized. Any attempt to resolve or even deal with the issue in an intelligent, rational manner by taking both facts and values into account, weighing the pro and con arguments fairly in an unbiased manner, has been blocked. Extrapolating beyond this single example, we can get some idea of why polarization by definition reframing is such a dominant feature of current American politics.

Word magic is rife in American politics as redefinition has become such an often used device for manipulating public opinion, seriously affecting basic freedoms. How can we freely and knowingly judge a state of affairs and decide upon it, when we cannot understand it? When machine gunners are called peacemakers, or bombings (such as the ones in Libya) are no longer considered as acts of war, when war magically becomes a state of “ground troop intervention, sustained fighting and exchanges of fire, ” we are left without other words to describe Emergency activists or airstrikes (of any kind) (Macagno & Walton 2014). We are left confused about what war and peace are, and baffled about the way to judge them. In such cases, “the question of who should have the authority to make definitional decisions amounts literally to who has the power to delineate what counts as Real” (Schiappa 2003: 178). Being aware of what a definition is, what its uses are, and of how it can be modified and implicitly changed to alter our perception of the “Real” becomes a fundamental step for protecting our freedom of thinking.

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