Activism

But It’s Just Semantics!

I have a confession to make. Not only was I not a STEM major, I was one of those dreaded students of philosophy. In fact, though I double-majored in English, I identified solely as a philosophy major whenever I could get away with it. While philosophy has many problems, from its lack of growth in female representation to its whiteness, it does distinguish itself as a field that demands its students to examine communication at the meta level.

The old joke among philosophy professors is that parents should dread that first Christmas when their philosophy undergrad children return home to ask, of even the simplest inquiries, “Well, what do you mean by that?”

Low-hanging humor about annoying fresh-people aside, “What do you mean by that?” is quite a powerful tool in working towards better understanding and communication. Context matters. People within and/or from different contexts will use the same words and mean entirely different things by them. There is a level of miscommunication that can occur which goes beyond misinterpretation or lack of interpretation of tone or body language. Factors such as background, socialization, class, education, field of employment, country of origin, level of multi-lingual proficiency, neuro-typicality or -atypicality, and even simple mood can affect what a word means when a person uses it.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that communication never happens or that adequate communication is impossible or even all that difficult, at least most of the time. That is because there do exist, descriptively speaking, normative standards for language and meaning. These standards can be changed and certainly do, especially over time and through different contexts within the same time period. For example, “privilege,” that oft-maligned term, means something quite simple and readily discernible to people accustomed to normative standards of language when paired with the term “administrative” and used in reference to digital matters. On the other hand, “privilege” as used in a social justice context is a concept somewhat less easy to comprehend for the uninitiated.

Quibbling overmuch over the slight details of the words being used is often pointless, to be sure. For example, the word “literally” has been so misused that, however much of a dictionary-thumper a person might be, they’d have to be willfully and stubbornly ignorant to not understand that most people do not use it literally. Such irony. Isn’t it also ironic that I have been torturing all of you prescriptivists and language purists since I used to be both? (Okay, I’ll stop.) At the same time, that doesn’t mean that words can or should be used with the understanding that others should be able to magically guess what you mean.

Your response to this should be "wat."
Your response to this should be “lolwat.” Mine isn’t.

Privilege, and not in the administrative sense, plays a role here. People who expect others to somehow understand what they mean no matter how non-normatively they are using a particular word are often unconsciously appealing to some kind of privilege. A person like that is essentially expecting that all people with whom they speak take into account a particular context, frame of reference, and point of view. For a person to insist that their definition of the word is the only one that matters is privilege in a nutshell.

So what to do when, say, someone says something with which you disagree, you engage them on it, and they declare it a matter of “mere” semantics?

Being able to admit that you’re unsure of what someone else means, to recognize that your point of view isn’t universal, and even to admit that you might have simply misspoken is incredibly admirable. It also means admitting that you made some kind of mistake, which is hard for the vast majority of people. If the person in question is unable to do so, their declaration that “it’s just semantics” often is intended to trivialize the point and end the argument. Their playing of the “semantics” card shouldn’t end the conversation, it should start one about meaning and word choice.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. Heina, I have a constructive criticism to make about writing style. Sometimes your writing style is a little hard to follow. What’s definitely good is your content. Your posts often approaching issues from angles that people haven’t considered before and make people think more critically about things than they otherwise would.

    However, from a readability standpoint, I find myself having to re-read your posts a few time before I get the full meaning of what you’re trying to say. In my opinion this is mainly because a lot of the sentences can often be very long & contain many different points/implications at once, which is hard for slow people like me to comprehend quickly.

    An example:

    A person like that is essentially expecting that all people with whom they speak take into account a particular context, frame of reference, and point of view — those of the person insisting that their definition of the word is the only one that matters — privilege in a nutshell.

    I’d say that if you made your points with slightly more compact statements, your post readability would be slightly better. To be clear, I’m not criticising the content of this post. I simply think that your points do the necessary job of making people think, and I think they’d be more effective with more concise sentences.

  2. I think a lot of people argue the natural way humans do, emotionally. I’d postulate that the vast majority of people when they argue are out to WIN an argument at all costs, without really hearing the other side. The semantics tactic seems to be a means to an end in winning the argument.

    Regardless of this though, I think that it’s good to practice arguing a point because word meaning in English can be pretty polymorphic depending on context, and it’s easy to imply things you don’t mean. In an argument where points are being fairly listened to and debated, mistakes should be forgiven. In most debates though, mistakes are often preyed upon and exploited for emotional effect, so being prepared before a debate is helpful, even if it’s a blogwar.

  3. At the most fundamental level, the only things that can be communicated are mental concepts. That is for communication to happen, a mental concept in one person’s brain has to be transmitted and instantiated in another person’s brain. If that does not happen, then the mental concept has not been communicated.

    When there is a failure of communication, the communication failure cannot be isolated to one individual or the other because it always takes two to communicate.

    What must happen for communication to occur is that the mental concept in one person gets translated into language, the data stream of language gets transmitted via some language modality, the data stream is received and up-converted back into mental concepts. For a mental concept to be understood (or even thought about), the brain has to have the neuroanatomy to instantiate that mental concept. When someone does not understand, what that means is that the person does not have neuroanatomy that the mental concept can be “mapped” onto. What happens during learning is that neuroanatomy self-modifies such that it can instantiate the new mental concepts that are being learned. If you don’t allow your brain to self-modify to instantiate those new concepts, you cannot learn them.

    Very often, if someone is not able to think about something (because they don’t have the neuroanatomy to instantiate that thought), they default to thinking that the idea must be wrong. This is a problem that many theists have, they are incapable of conceiving of a universe that does not contain their particular version of God, so they default to feeling it must be wrong.

    This is the problem that many misogynists have. They are simply incapable of conceiving that women are human beings with equal rights. This is true of most bigots, they are simply incapable of conceiving that the object of their bigotry is a human being with equal rights.

    You can see this happen with some people. I have seen it with YECs. You start with an argument, they accept each premise as it is given, then when the conclusion that the Earth is not 10k years old, they reject that and retroactively reject the premises that lead up to that conclusion.

    This is the problem with misogynists. They will never accept any argument that women should have equal rights because that is not an idea that their brains allow them to think. It happens to be self-serving, but that is true of most of these types of blind-leading-the-blind groups.

    To understand someone, you have to understand them from their perspective, not from your own perspective. You have to understand them as they understand themselves. People who want to maintain an illusory or delusional world view (like YECs or MRAs), are often not able to explain their own perspective because at some level they know it is delusional and to explain it in detail is to render it vulnerable to being destroyed. When they realize that, is usually when they start to attack you.

    This is what is going on with the anti-feminist branch of skeptics. They can’t explain their position in any way that makes sense, so they resort to invective.

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