That's Racist!

We need to talk. 

This has been a hard post to write. Indeed, it's my fourth attempt to do it, yet each time I've begun again, unhappy that it hasn't been sufficiently generalised to make it as powerful as it needs to be. 

Regulars will be aware that I've spent much of two decades trawling the internet and meatspace for interesting conversations that deal with how we think about things. What interests me most is the set of cognitive filters and other factors that influence how we perceive things, especially in discourse, and how that translates to 'knowledge'*. Here I want to talk a bit about a particular cognitive filter, one that operates in the space between you and I and the concepts we carry around with us in our little internal universes, and it has a huge impact on how effective we are at communicating. 

I'd imagine most of us have, at some point, experienced an encounter between people we know pretty well over some trivial disagreement. What may not be clear is that, when this happens in meatspace, we're considerably better at communicating our intentions, yet it's still incredibly easy to come to blows over some trivial matter that gets blown out of all proportion.

Our ability to communicate effectively relies on several factors. Words certainly but, in addition, body language, tone, inflection, etc, all contribute to our effectiveness in communication.

Contrary to what common sense might tell you, the largest percentage of our efficacy comes from body language. Research suggests that body language accounts for a colossal sixty percent of our ability to communicate. Tone and inflection account for somewhere in the region of another thirty percent, which means that, when we communicate by text alone, we're only a poxy ten percent effective. That's tiny.

This is one of the reasons that escalations are so quick, and tend to be completely nuclear when they occur, but it isn't the only one. There's another reason that escalations are so easy, and it's to do with how we process a particular idea. We've looked before at how easy it is to become entrenched, and especially in how difficult it can be to shift ideas once they're embedded. That reason is the real subject of today's outing, dear reader. Always wont to deliver a lengthy preamble, we've finally arrived. Yes, this is going to be another post about semantics.

I still find it difficult on occasion to internalise the notion that probably most people think that words have fixed definitions. Every now and then, though, I get a slap in the face that reminds me how far we have to go.

We each carry around with us an internal complex of concepts. For some of them, those concepts are sufficiently well-defined that we can all agree that what we're conceptualising is the same thing, although we can even run into problems there. One obvious instance of this is the old philosophical chestnut about colour perception. We can both agree, for example, that red is the band of the colour spectrum with a dominant wavelength of between 625 and 740 nanometres. That's a perfectly robust definition, and you and I, if somebody points to this colour, will both agree that it's red. What we can't do is to say that we both agree on what it looks like. Do you perceive red the same as I do? Are you sure? In the end, 'red' is a just a label we put on that narrow band of frequencies. The ancient Greeks allegedly had no word for 'blue', and described the colour of the sky with a word that translates into 'bronze' (it doesn't materially affect the point I'm making if this turns out to be untrue). That doesn't mean that the sky is actually the colour we associate with bronze, only that that's the word they used. They probably - with the aforementioned caveat - perceived the colour of the sky largely as we do now. This should be a good guide for where I'm going.

Here's the thing: the names we give to things are shorthand for our internal conceptualisations; they are not the things themselves. We've even developed a shorthand for this notion over the various musings in this quiet little corner of the interweb; the map is not the terrain.

Problems arise in almost every circumstance in which we falsely conflate map and terrain, and one of the areas in which we most readily do this in public discourse has it's own shorthand, much misunderstood, often dismissed as trivial or unimportant, but actually among the most important areas in philosophical discourse: semantics.

Why is semantics important? Because it deals with what we mean when we say a thing. It is the beating heart of communication.

Natural language is very slippery for a whole slew of reasons, and to cover them all (don't even get me started on the notion of 'synonyms'§) would be well beyond the scope of my purpose here. I do want to focus on one aspect of natural language that was brought into sharp relief by a discussion on Twitter some weeks ago, and it's the reason for the rather clickbait title of this piece.


We looked at the distinction between scientific nomenclature and vernacular usages in What's in a Name? However, because the focus of that piece was to address some common apologetic arguments, here I want to make the discussion more general. The technical name for the notion that words are defined rigidly within certain disciplines/professions, etc., is 'term of art'. 

We only looked at it from the perspective of science, but it's a general principle employed right across the spectrum. 'Theory', for example, is a term of art in the sciences, being an integrated explanatory framework encompassion all the facts, laws, hypotheses and observations pertaining to a given area of interest (some would include predictions in there, but predictions are the product of hypotheses, so they're already in there).

Another term of art, and one that is the source of much confusion, is 'racist'. 


For many, racism is any form of prejudice in thought or deed based on race. Race itself is a social construct predicated on physical similarities indicating a shared origin.

However, in recent decades, racism has become a term of art in several spheres, not least the social sciences. There are very good and important reasons for doing this having to do with being able to accurately quantify this, but that's less important for our purpose here than to highlight that it's necessary to do so, because clarity of communication is important, and ambiguity of meaning defeats all comers.

In the social sciences, then, racism means something very specific, namely systemic prejudice where there exists an imbalance in sociopolitical circumstances because of those characteristics that the vernacular definition indicates. It's a good definition for the purpose.

So here's the problem. When we engage in discourse, especially on what are always going to be contentious and likely heated topics, it's important not to hear your definition every time somebody else uses the term. This is why books on philosophy spend so much time in defining things. You can't question a book.

So here it is. Once you have clarified your definitions, the discussion should proceed. If you spend the entire time arguing about what words mean, you get nowhere. This is what the phrase 'it's just semantics' applies to. A semantic argument is one that argues about definitions, and all such argument is pointless and unconducive to discourse. The really good stuff where you actually get to talk about problems and maybe have a crack at solving them is just beyond. 

I'm sure that my friends are more than capable of holding more than one definition in their heads at once. I certainly am, so when I issue a statement of agreement with a certain statement (whether it contains a bit of hyperbole or not), I'm issuing it on the basis of acceptance of the definition given by the person I'm in discussion with for the sake of progressing the discussion, especially when I'm doing so after having spent a long time explaining the semantic distinction, and that the way one person was using it was a reflection of the 'term of art' definition, and a whole slew of other context (not least my opening statement which was issued on the basis of the broader vernacular definition) that couldn't have made my position any clearer.

That another term of art was added into the mix in the form of a definition given by a legal authority in another country entirely only added to the obvious confusion surrounding what it means for a word to have a definition.

The semantic portion of a discussion should be done by brief interjection to clarify what the person you're in discussion with means when they use a term. Then you move on, regardless of whether their definition accurately reflects your own understanding. As long as, when they use the term, you hear their definition, you should be good to go. If you're really good at this, you can even use their definition when you use the term, just to keep everything neat and tidy.


Please, people. This is not worth the emotional investment of falling out with ALLIES about. Stop arguing about what words mean, and let's talk about some serious shit. Words don't mean shit.


*Using the scare quotes advisedly here, because I'm not talking about knowledge in the sense I usually employ the term, but the things 'you just know', that bear no resemblance to true knowledge, which is always demonstrable.

Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas: Why it can be difficult to shift ideas once we think they're true.

‡ I've actually been using this phrase for as long as I can remember, and I use it often to highlight the distinction between representations of things and, as Kant put it, the ding an sich (thing itself). Further writings about these ideas at:

The Map is not the Terrain: The pitfalls of natural language.
What's In A Name?: Scientific nomenclature versus vernacular usage.
Who Put It There?: Information in DNA and why DNA is not a code.

§ Synonyms are a particular source of issues, but they'd take us too far beyond the scope of this piece. While use of synonyms is extremely useful for creative writing to avoid repetition, words are rarely directly synonymous, and that's even before you get into the notion of a term of art.