Let's Play A Word Game Instead
The fight over the definition of the word "recession" is another example of the hollowing out of public debate
I have a friend who has an admirably jovial disdain for “object” level complaints. Whenever a topic comes up in the news, most people will react to the problem as it is presented to them by media entities or pundits. Are we arguing about abortion or public school curriculum or gay marriage or drug legalization? Engaging with the object level would be arguing about our personal opinions on these topics and fighting over the facts or details of the story as it is presented.
My friend prefers to discuss the problem on a “meta” level, which asks questions like, “Why is this a problem?” or “Who decided this should be a story?” or “What is the core philosophy being debated in this problem?”
An excellent example is the recent argument about whether or not we are in a recession. A recession has long been defined as “a fall in GDP in two successive quarters.” This is a blunt but reasonable definition. And yet Secretary of Treasury Janice Yellen has made a point to push against this definition and demanded that, despite this simple and long-accepted metric, we are not in a recession because there are other extenuating metrics that we have not adequately considered.
This strategy of simply denying that we are in a recession was repeated by the National Economic Council Director Brian Deese at a White House press briefing.
The object-level argument here is to have a fight over whether or not we are in a recession. A more meta discussion would be whether this definition of recession is a good one. But the most interesting question to me is the desire to avoid discussing what we plan to do to get the economy back on track and to instead choose to fight over the definitions of words.
Pundits Love a Good Word Game
This strategy of changing the subject from problems to definitions was very well spotted by @TheAgeOfShoddy, who dubbed this tactic “What if we play a word game instead?”
The idea here is that when there is some issue being debated, people are filled with anxiety and frustration, and we want to see solutions to the problem currently in front of us. At that moment, political actors and pundits make the very conscious choice to start redefining words or shifting the debate to politically advantageous terminology. Seemingly out of nowhere, they insist that their opponent’s word choice is not an accurate representation of the issue at hand. Instead of talking about the problem and how to solve it, we’re talking about definitions and arguing over terminology.
Smart people who make their trade through the use of words are particularly susceptible to this tactic. We love to define our terms, ensure we’re all on the same page, and lay the foundation of the verbal battlefield upon which we will stage our rhetorical duel. Even people who are not very impressed with this word game tactic will often simply grant the re-definer their choice of verbiage just to move the argument along.
I’ve been watching with fascination as this strategy crops up all throughout our public discourse. It seems like this is becoming the main strategy for public debate and rhetoric.
Former US Attorney General Jerome Adams recently argued that we can’t possibly have a return of lockdowns because we never had a lockdown in the first place. This is a particularly weaselly way of addressing the topic, as his colleague Dr. Debra Birx referred to the policy of closing businesses, schools, and churches as a strategy of “shutdown.”
The distinction between “lockdown” and “shutdown” was not made clear and I do not expect anyone to make it clear. Part of the point of playing these word games is to hold the definitions loosely so that they can be easily changed at a later time.
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Postmodern Messaging Fatigue
In the novel 1984, George Orwell explored the idea that a government could control the minds of a population by controlling the use of language. While this drive to redefine every controversial concept or topic doesn’t reach that far (and is certainly not that organized), it does speak to how pundits, academics, and politicians try to win a debate strictly through the use of verbal gymnastics.
But as this becomes the argumentation style of choice for a large swath of those who trade in words and ideas for a living, it becomes increasingly alienating for people who are not particularly inclined to fight over definitions while actual problems need to be solved. Most people don’t want to fight over how words are defined. They know what the words mean to them and they wish to be understood, not lectured about how they aren’t using a word correctly.
This strategy of laying down definitional quicksand where only the most nimble will be able to converse is starting to wear thin. A few months ago, Freddie deBoer energetically expressed his frustration with this tactic in the context of the debate over “woke” ideology. He was unimpressed by people who derail every conversation by complaining about the terms being used.
People are growing tired of trying to engage in an honest discussion with someone who would rather distract from the issue by launching into a game of verbal whack-a-mole. There is a very present danger here: If the battleground of ideas becomes consumed with fights over definitions, more and more people will disengage from the word nerds and our interminable squabbling.
This is a recipe for developing a populist political branch that is entirely divorced from academics and intellectual pursuits in general. Pundits and media personalities who blithely prefer word games over addressing the very real concerns of the day are removing themselves from a sphere of influence simply because no one has any more patience for this kind of bullshit.
As someone who still believes in the power and value of words, this is concerning. But as someone who recognizes that words are cheap to those who use them cynically, I think this division may be too far down the path to reverse.
As the practice of playing word games instead of debating policy becomes a go-to rhetorical strategy, it’s best we quickly recognize and dismiss it as just so much sound and fury. The only appropriate response to “Let’s play a word game instead” is to laugh the participants off the stage so that only serious minds remain.
Disney Shorts: Three Little Wolves
This is the third short (of four) in the Three Little Pigs series. In this episode, the Big Bad Wolf engages his three little wolf sons in his scheme to catch and eat the three pigs. The two younger pigs have, it seems, learned no lessons through their previous wolf encounters; they are as gullible and feckless as ever. They follow the wolf family (disguised as Little Bo Peep and her flock) straight into their den and are captured.
There is a “boy who cried wolf” component to this short that gives us a slightly updated morality tale from what we have seen before. Even so, the fact that the eldest pig needs to rescue his brothers a third time makes us feel like maybe they are a lost cause in the grand scheme of things, forever fated to fall victim to the wolf’s endless tricks until the day when the responsible pig is finally unable or unwilling to save them.