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pudge (1)

pudge
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Journal of pudge (1)

Tuesday June 18, 2002
09:22 AM

Definitions

[ #5737 ]

It is amazing to me that people chastise me for requiring definitions for words used in arguments.

This morning someone said the US has "slaughtered" many innocent civilians in Afghanistan, as if the statement were supposed to prove in itself that the US has done something wrong in its actions in Afghanistan, because obviously "slaughtering" is bad. Perhaps the US had done something wrong, but if this statement were to prove it, I needed to know what definition of "slaughter" he was using. He got on my case for "playing with the definitions of standard words".

Well, excuse me. You intended to prove something with a word, and I demanded you define your terms. If "slaughter" means merely "killing", then I want more information about how and why the killing is wrong. If it means "intentionally killing," then I want to see evidence of many innocent civilians being intentionally killed.

I can't understand why anyone would ever have a problem with requiring that critical and unclear words in an argument be defined. To progress in an argument without ensuring everyone is using the same words in the same way is nonsense; it is not useful communication, it is different people saying different things and not understanding each other. To use a word and then not want people to know what you mean by it is nonsense; it is not useful communication, it is obfuscation.

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  • I want to see evidence of many innocent civilians being intentionally killed.

    Surely the state sponsored murder (intentional killing) of even one innocent civilian is too many. And illegal under US law if memory serves.

    Which begs the question of what is 'intentional killing'. If the conversation went "Doing this will probably result in the deaths of "n" innocent/non-combatant people."
    "Okay, those are acceptable losses, do it."
    Would those count as intentional killings? How big does n have to be (as a perc

    • Sure, those are reasonable questions, and I have no problem discussing them. The point of the journal entry isn't to defend the US or discuss the issue at hand -- I pondered picking a different example, but this one was fresh in my mind -- but just to note that we should not fear these kinds of discussions, defining our terms, making sure everyone knows what we mean, if we really want to have honest communication.

      Sometimes it does descend into an endless pit of defining and redefining every word. At that
  • The problem comes from the fact that many people aren't aware that they use emotionally charged words, and then go on to argue their case by begging the question given the charged nature of their words.

    "Slaughtered" is a good example. US soldiers "slaughtered" someone and, therefore, (as the unspoken assumption goes) since "slaughtering" is evil and bad, then the US soldiers are evil and bad.

    Replacing "slaughtered" with "killed" removes some (but not all) of the emotive nature of the word. There was a lovely little book called "Straight and Crooked Thinking" (now sadly out of print) which exposed this and similar fallacies. (confusion of "some", "many" and "all", for instance, and argument in a circle)

    So I agree that precise terminology in debate is fundamental. Even so, I think it's bloody annoying trying to argue with someone who has no problems coming out with "it depends on what your definition of "is" is". :)