Basic Foundation

Why Definitions Matter

Motivating Mindset

As I stated in my perspective, I’m a mathematician and a programmer. In my work, I live and die by definitions. In math, there are only four types of statements/words: Undefined terms, Defined terms, Axioms, and Theorems. Undefined terms and Axioms are kept to an absolute minimum, but are necessary starting places. If you open up your old high school geometry book, you won’t find a definition for “point” or “line”, but you will for “circle”, “segment”, and “ray”. Similarly, the axioms can fit on an index card, while the theorems take up the entire book.

In programming, I deal with definitions all the time, too. The definition of a programming language specifies what is valid syntax, and what will happen with each line of code I can possibly write. Definitions of functions tell me how to organize the parameters and what result I will get. To me, definitions are everything.

The Problem

In the real world, unfortunately, we don’t have authoritative definitions for all words. Dictionaries help, but the meaning of words changes over time. Sometimes this is a natural progression as new words are invented (e-mail), others go out of favor (gamin: a young boy who hangs out on the streets), and yet more change meaning with time (Yankee: used to be a salesman from the North, now it’s anyone from the North in the US, and it’s a thug in Japan). During these types of natural changes, there’s no problem. But some people are deliberately changing the meaning of words, and it makes simply having a conversation very, very difficult.

A relatively simple example that cost me a friend is “homophobia”. Merriam-Webster has a simple definition that conforms to the etymology of the term. “homo” = same, “phobia” = fear.

  1. :  irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals

However, wikipedia has a very, very different definition:

Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). It has been defined as contempt, prejudice, aversion, hatred or antipathy, may be based on irrational fear, and is often related to religious beliefs.

Homophobia is observable in critical and hostile behavior such as discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientations that are non-heterosexual. Recognized types of homophobia include institutionalized homophobia, e.g. religious homophobia and state-sponsored homophobia, and internalized homophobia, experienced by people who have same-sex attractions, regardless of how they identify.

The first thing to note is the removal of the word “irrational”. It changes from required to optional. Also, with the wikipedia article, we have a broadening such that any negative attitude or feeling directed towards homosexuals is included. Further, transgenders are now added as a potential object of homophobia (the article later notes transphobia as a transgender-specific version).

What this does is significantly impact how the phrase, “I don’t think gay marriage should be legal in the United States,” is interpreted. Under the first definition, the only way it can be considered a homophobic statement is if the statement can be shown to be 1) irrational, and 2) discrimination. There are a variety of sound arguments that have been presented by Christians from a Biblical basis, as well as by homosexuals from an atheistic basis in support of the statement. It may be debatable, but it does not appear to be, on the face of it, irrational. There are arguments for or against it being discrimination, but even if it does amount to discrimination, we have not met the Merriam-Webster standard for homophobia.

By contrast, the wikipedia definition is almost certainly satisfied. This is pretty clearly a negative attitude towards homosexuality, at least in regards to marriage. All that really needs to be shown is that this statement supports what can be considered a form of discrimination, and there you go!

This is one example of how definitions impact the interpretation of a statement. It gets worse when you start looking at words like “racism”, “bigotry” etc. Looking at racism, Merriam-Webster gives us:

  1. :  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

  2. a:  a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principlesb:  a political or social system founded on racism

  3. :  racial prejudice or discrimination

Scanning through wikipedia, however, we find the observation that:

Those who campaign for the interests of ethnic minorities commonly reject the term “reverse racism”. From their perspective, “racism” is defined not only in terms of individual prejudice, but also in terms of a power structure which protects the interests of the dominant culture and actively discriminates against ethnic minorities. From this perspective, they claim that while members of ethnic minorities may be prejudiced against members of the dominant culture, they lack the political and economic power to actively oppress them, and are therefore incapable of “racism”.

The result is some people will profess that “blacks can’t be racist” because they don’t have institutional power, while others will profess that organizations such as Black Lives Matter or the Black Panthers are racist, based on their hostility towards whites. Given how emotionally charged words such as “racist” and “bigot” are in the United States, having people using incompatible standards for applying them makes it extremely difficult to critique ideas, or sometimes even to express disagreement with an idea.

Our Solution

If you’ve read some of our other posts, you’ll have noticed we like to define our terms. Given the topics we plan to discuss, i.e. social and political ones, and given that many of the topics are experiencing the very definitional problems illustrated here, we have no choice but to define our terms clearly as we will be using them.

Additionally, it is possible that our analysis will focus on one or another pair of competing definitions. In that case, our first step will, again, be to put forward both definitions and then analyze them. In all cases, clear discussion requires clear meaning, so we’ll endeavor to be as clear as possible, even if it may get a bit tedious at times.

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