Labels: Definitions and doubledefinitions


When we talk about something… what are we actually talking about? Are we really talking about the same thing? Many debates become pointless or worse, because of this simple issue. Lets say that two persons are going to have a debate about Islam, Christianity, Atheism, Feminism, EvoPsych, Pornography, or some other concept that people are likely to have strong opinions about.

For such a debate to be meaningful, each participant needs to know two things. One: What do I mean with this label? And Two: What does the other person mean with his label?

Without having these two basic premises sorted out, the debate will be nothing more than two persons talking past each other. It is likely to quickly devolve into people chanting accusations and insults at each other. And even if the debate stays polite, it is unlikely to actually get anywhere.

This phenomenon is not limited to two person talking past each other. There are two problems that in my experience are really common. Both of them are a matter of the same person using two definitions of the same label, at the same time. Lets call them doubledefinition, after the term doublethink in George Orwell’s brilliant novel 1984.

Using the same word in two different ways is not doubledefinition, as long as you keep these two different definitions reasonably separate from each other. It becomes doubledefinition when you pretend that the different definitions are the same thing. The difference between definitions and doubledefinitions is often the same kind of difference as the difference between standards and double standards.

The first kind of actual doubledefinition is when you use one definition for what is included in the label, and another definition for what defines the label. This can be used as guilt by association, or as a way of building false credibility to your own demands for power. It is a matter of using a wide definition of who is included, but a much more narrow definition for who counts as “real” or representative.

The second kind of doubledefinition is when you claim that a certain phenomenon must be condemned, or alternatively must not be criticized, on the basis of sharing a label with another more or less separate phenomenon.

Of course, these two kinds of doubledefinitions usually go hand in hand. Which is why I decided to use the same word for them.

Lets say that we have two individuals. Person A and person B. Lets call them Ava and Beatrice, just for the sake of feeling less abstract. They both have very strong opinions about a certain ideology, religion, or similar position. Lets call it X for now. Ava is strongly opposed to X, and want everyone to see it as a big threat. While Beatrice on the other hand is an extremist or fundamentalist adherent of X.

Ava may be one of those antifeminists who believe that feminists think that all men are evil, or one of those antimuslimists who think that all Muslims want to overthrow democracy in favor of a global theocratic dictatorship aka caliphate. In reality, most feminists and Muslims don’t think that way. But some do. And Beatrice is one of them.

Ava and Beatrice are very likely to agree with each other that only Beatrice and people like her are REAL feminists, or real Muslims. At the same time, they are ALSO likely to agree with each other that anyone who identifies as a feminist or Muslim IS a feminist or Muslim.

Hell, they will even draft people into these categories. If you are born into a country or family associated with Islam, they will consider you a Muslim. If you are a woman, or ever defend a woman or the rights of women, they will label you a feminist. Ava will accuse you of being like Beatrice, while Beatrice will accuse you of betraying the cause by not being like her.

Ava and Beatrice will gladly debate each other, help each other to spread the message that Beatrice is the TRUE representative of the label she identifies with.

Cue the tribalists. The people who not only take a position… but has also made up their minds, that whatever is associated with the label for their position must be defended, while anyone who criticizes must be the enemy.

Tribalists who have decided that they like Islam or Feminism respectively will condemn Ava while applauding Beatrice. And vice versa: Tribalists who have decided that they DISlike Islam or Feminism respectively will condemn Beatrice while applauding Ava. It’s all about sticking to the right label, not about what you actually put into it.

Doubledefinition is a problem not limited to identities and ideologies. It also happens about science and social phenomena in general. For example, a few months ago I was hanging out in a bookstore in Jakarta while waiting for a friend. As I stood there, I browsed through a really creepy book about pornography. A book that defined pornography in such a way that the entire music industry and the entire fashion industry are pornography. Pretty much anything could be INCLUDED in the label “pornography”. Okay, fair enough: They can use an extremely wide definition if they want to.

However, when it came to defining WHAT pornography is, the definition suddenly became extremely much more narrow.

At that point, it was pretty much limited to the rape of kidnapped children and trafficked sex-slaves. Using such a narrow definition of pornography… Okay, fair enough: They can use an extremely narrow definition if they want to. The problem here is that they used both definitions at the same time. Leaving readers with the impression that since Shakira shakes her hips on MTV, Shakira is obviously a child who is currently being molested. Eew.

This book is called “Pornland”, by the way. I’ll link the book, and some criticism of it, in the description. Please note that I have only browsed through the book, so it is possible that I have missed something important. Although I highly doubt it. The book seemed very consistent in being inconsistent about the very definition of what it was talking about. In other words. The book seemed very consistent in using doubledefinitions. I had seen this phenomenon so many times before. But with this book, it appeared all the more obvious to me.

Another case that really got me thinking was a recent debate on a web community forum. We were talking about one of my videos. In this video, I discussed a certain concept, using a rather narrowly defined term for this concept. Some guys on that forum preferred a very much wider definition of that word. Fair enough. This could have been an interesting debate.

For example, they could have argued for a wider definition being preferable. And for why they considered the wider definition preferable. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they argued that it is shameful to criticize the phenomenon described by the narrow definition.

In this particular case, I had criticized the kind of “EvoPsych” where you don’t only note that stone age cave people use spears, but you also speculate that these spears were used exclusively by male cavemen – and thus consider yourself to have proven that conservative gender roles are the true way of nature. Based on the ideological assumption that humans exist only to procreate, without having any other aspects to our nature.

This kind of normative speculations are often called Evolutionary Psychology, or EvoPsych for short. By proponents as well as by opponents, and by experts as well as by laymen. However, very different things are sometimes also called EvoPsych.

Including things that are not even connected to biology or genetics, except at a symbolic level. The word “Evolutionary” doesn’t even have to refer to genetic evolution. It can be the evolution of memes rather than genes: How social structures and concepts evolve within a population of people. Reproduction by word of mouth, without the humans themselves having to reproduce.

One opponent used a definition that actually bundled biological psychology and behavioral ecology into being parts of EvoPsych, rather than the other way around. As for the “only male cavemen used spears” kind of bullshit, he never voiced any agreement or disagreement with such theories – but made it clear that it is shameful to criticize them. If you criticize EvoPsych, then you are against biology as such, and against science.

What I found interesting in this debate is not the missed opportunity for an interesting dialogue as such. It is how that opportunity was lost. How familiar the pattern was. Because I have seen it many times before. Except that those times, it was about religion rather than EvoPsych.

Returning to our dear hypothetical Beatrice, we can’t criticize her destructive form of Christianity or Islam or whatever. Because that would be rude to all Christians and Muslims in the world – since they supposedly share her beliefs. However, at the same time, we can’t hold those other Christians and Muslims accountable for the results of the beliefs that we are supposed to respect in their name. Because they don’t share them. And we can’t hold Beatrice accountable for those results either, since she’s just one person. So much easier to not talk about it at all.

Doubledefinitions are destructive to our ability to think clearly, as well as destructive to our ability to hold a meaningful dialogue. However, they are not necessarily dishonest. They are not always used as a calculated rhetorical tactic. They can often be a completely honest lack of clarity. One that we need to help each other overcome.

That’s all I have to say for now.
Take care, everyone.
Live Long and Prosper


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