Redefining Words

Jim O’Connor over at Patriot’s Lament makes the observation, as I have, of the terrible tendency people have to misuse redefine the words they use at the beginning of, during, and after an argument as part of the destruction of language.

Addressing the current debate over whether a business owner should be forced to serve a potential customer, O’Conner correctly states that the only word that matters is “forced.” When Social Justice Warriors talk on the issue, however, what they mean doesn’t correlate with what they say.

He writes:

There are plenty of unpleasant alternatives which aren’t “force” in the sense of modes of social cooperation/interaction. It is a logical fallacy to use definition one of a word to state a premise, but then shift to definition two when you want to reach a conclusion (bold emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly prevalent problem I have encountered. Having put away my Facebook debating ways forever, I post nothing on my wall, but others have, and the ensuing debates in the past week has been fascinating to watch as people toss around words like “civil rights” and “who are they to judge?” and other nonsensical, irrelevant statements intended to reframe the argument. That I did not eventually participate to squash these absurd claims either means I have become too cynical to believe I can change their minds or I’ve somehow gained the patience of Job (probably the former).

I’ve also seen how someone will use a word in a debate, then change it via a fire and maneuver strategy; having failed to win the argument by attacking directly, the disputant seeks to flank from the side by using a word differently than before. The tactic is common among those using sociopathic logic.

This is why the question What do you mean by that?” is so effective in debate. You are forcing them to clarify, to define the words they use, which you can bring up later in the discussion when they try to change them.

Anyone looking to improve their debating skills, particularly in defense of libertarianism, would do well to spot these tactics, call them out when they are used, and refuse to accept them as valid.

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5 Responses to Redefining Words

  1. Pingback: Redefining Words - Freedom's Floodgates

  2. I think John M Keynes was famous for this tactic, using it to confuse his debate opponents. Even in his writing, he purportedly used several different meanings of the words “savings” and “investment” without clarifying which version of the words he was using at any given moment.

    I haven’t read his General Theory, so don’t take my word for it, but I have read Hazlitt’s exhaustive critique of it entitled “The Failure of the New Economics.” I admit is was a book that required much more attention than I was able to give it (audio book while driving to and from work), so I really need to reread it carefully. The gist of what I got out of it, was that Keynes’ unannounced redefinitions of words throughout the course of the book is the very thing that allowed him to weave his particular economic narrative, without which he would have seen the fallacy of his own theory. Might be a good follow up post to this one to bring up Hazlitt’s refutation of Keynes vis a vis the concept of redefining words midstream to win an argument.

    From Hazlitt:

    “Keynes’s implied definitions of “saving” and “investment”
    constantly shift. He tacitly assumes that what is not
    spent on consumption goods is not spent on anything at all.
    By “investment” he most frequently means government
    deficit spending financed by inflation.”


    “Keynes uses one of his key phrases, “the marginal
    efficiency of capital,” in so many different senses that it is
    difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of them. He fails
    to recognize that interest rates are as much governed by
    expectations as is “the marginal efficiency of capital.” Instead
    of using this latter term to cover at least six different
    possible meanings, he should have been careful at all times
    to distinguish between these meanings. But if he had, he
    might not have written the General Theory at all.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Question says:

      It brings to mind a Mises newsletter article a while back critiquing Keyes for similar reasons. Why anyone finds anything the man said or did inspiring is simply bewildering.


      • Equivocation! That’s the technical term for this type of logical transgression. Lol

        Keynes’ rise to prominence is confusing to those like you and me (and hopefully many others) who may have either a predisposition towards liberty, or have actually taken the time to consider the implications of the Keynesian doctrine, but I know you are not surprised that an economic theory which gives the banks, the politicians, and the special interests everything they desire has risen to prominence in our statist dominated society.

        An economic doctrine convoluted enough to be uninteresting to the common man which induces spending above one’s means, fostering one’s dependence on and subservience to the banking system, while enabling the covert expropriation of wealth from the citizenry via inflation in service to politicians eager to satisfy their special interests at home and to spread their influence abroad… the list of benefits goes on and on for the select few, meanwhile the rest get fleeced of buying power even though their wages increase.

        I am shocked that normal people fall for its contradictory logic (saving is bad/borrowing good), and this is probably what you meant, but I needed to rant apparently.


      • The Question says:

        I actually had a conversation with a coworker at a summer job in 2009, right after the economic recession hit, which he tried to explain why saving is a bad idea because it stunts economic growth and people should spend, spend, spend. He was decades my senior, so I didn’t argue, but I was dumbfounded that he could say this with a straight face.

        Liked by 1 person

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