Words Mean Things . . . Or Do They?

Andrew Olmsted has an interesting discussion about blogospheric debates wherein both sides talk past one another because they use key terms differently. He is not at all optimistic about this problem:

Even if we were to agree to settle definitions prior to moving on to the question at hand, I doubt we could agree on our definitions any more than we agree on how to deal with the problems we face (or even which problems we need to address). Sure, there are a very small number of people out there who are looking to be challenged, but most of us are just looking to hear other people confirm what we already believe. Attempts to hold discussions between opposing philosophies on the internet are doomed to failure because, ultimately, they’re dependent on people who are looking for answers, not people who think they already have the answers.

There’s a lot to that, of course, and not just online. Presumably, people don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken or watch Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann for an unbiased view of the world, either. People enjoy having their own worldview confirmed in as articulate and entertaining a way as possible.

Still, useful cross-ideological debate does take place in the blogosphere, especially among the more civil blogs on both sides. Most of us begin with default positions, to be sure, and cognitive dissonance and simple inertia make it more likely than not that we’ll be hard to persuade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As former Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt observed, “An open mind is an empty mind.”

A goodly number of us, though, at least weigh the arguments advanced by the other side and the evidence used to buttress them. Over time, that has an impact. Minds have been changed on things ranging from the Bush AWOL story to RatherGate to Iraq WMD to Harriet Miers and Terri Schiavo.

Some issues are more resistant than others, as they are more laden with value judgments and less amenable to falsification. But even there, persistent, civil discourse can change minds over time. My own views on issues ranging from women in the military, gay rights, and the display of the Confederate battle flag have evolved. Occasionally, a single, well-presented argument can cause an epiphany. Other times, it takes years of contrary evidence.

Individual minds are changed. People without a strong opinion get one. Ultimately, the whole culture changes.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Logt says:

    Women in combat as equals!

  2. This is a common problem with debates in general. Take the question of abortion. Are we talking about killing a child or removing some unwanted cells? If you define it as the killing of a child, then the grounds for debate are somewhat limited (e.g. self defense). If it is cells of no more significance than the fat sucked out with liposuction, then the grounds for debate are likewise limited (e.g. informed consent). Even if you say it is a child, you still have the definition of when it is a child. When the sperm is in the woman’s body but before it penetrates the egg, upon penetration, when it attaches to the womb, after a certain number of days, when the umbilical cord is cut? The essence of the debate is the establishment of the terms.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    From my vantage point the blogosphere is decreasingly a place where arguments are made in civil discourse and increasingly where choirs are preached to and insults hurled (in code that the recipient frequently doesn’t appreciate).

    Center-left bloggers have been drifting farther to the left, partly in pursuit of the attention of the alpha Left Blogosphere bloggers, partly in frustration with the Bush Administration. Center-right bloggers have been drifting farther to the right, partly in pursuit of the attention of the A-list Right Blogosphere bloggers, partly in frustration with the way events have been going.

  4. steve says:

    “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation,specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any…Meanwhile, the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”

    Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book III, The Revolt at Corcyra.