Crimes Against Language: Missing the Trees for the Forest

I once was listening to a class, and the lecturer was speaking about the value of different perspectives. Attempting to emphasize that two people can often interpret the same situation differently, he made the analogy to his own eyes. The fundamental structure of his eyes differs from eye to eye – the various rods and cones are arranged in different patterns and different numbers. And the wiring to the brain differs too – the cells transmit the information in different paths and in different ways. “If I don’t see the same thing from one eye to the other,” he concluded, “how can I be upset with someone else for seeing something differently than me?”

I was, to put it mildly, frustrated. This type of statement is a huge pet peeve of mine. I completely agree with his statements about the anatomy of eyes, and I agree that multiple perspectives are tremendously valuable. But he makes not one, but two inferential leaps to get from one to the other that are simply not allowed. First, he infers that merely because the electrical relays differ, he sees things differently from eye to eye. If he genuinely believes this, I would like him to take the simple test of closing an eye, then the other eye, and reporting his observations. Perhaps he will be surprised, but I doubt it. (1) After this, however, and perhaps more frustrating, is the shift in meaning of the word “see”. He originally uses it to mean “a visual perception” then completely shifts meaning, equating that to the broader definition of “perspective on a situation”. This makes about as much sense Netflix hiring Cards Against Humanity to make a deck advertising the season two premier of “House of Cards”, noting, to everyone’s surprise, that the name of both products contains the word “cards”. Rumor has it that Netflix has also lobbied Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to build a literal house of cards for the premier of Season 3. The most disturbing part of all of this is that the lucky recipient will fall asleep looking at Frank Underwood every night.

These errors may not seem like a huge deal to many people. If someone agrees with your premise and conclusion, and the two are tied together linguistically, people will often overlook the fact that they aren’t even talking about the same thing. People that agree with you will simply note that you’re scoring a point for their side and that your argument sounds remotely reasonable. They will smile, nod, and smugly think to themselves, “I’m so smart for thinking B is true, I knew it all along.” Meanwhile, opponents will immediately realize that A and B are completely unrelated and be more likely to dismiss future arguments for B. Making bad arguments makes both sides more confident of their opinion, regardless of which side you’re arguing for.

This accomplishes nothing but further polarizing the debate, perpetuating a culture that emphasizes winning an argument at any cost, regardless of the logical missteps made along the way. And the more polarized the debates become, the more likely people are to grasp at straws and make bad arguments, resulting in a vicious cycle. Political (and I’m not only talking about public policy) arguments have become so visceral and so heated that the only thing that matters is winning. But if we are ever going to improve at decision making as a society, we must deemphasize the answers, in favor of the methods used to get those answers. In fact, the answers can be crackpot ideas, but if the methods used were rigorous, they require the same deliberate investigation as other more “scientific” theories. (2)

At any rate, this kind of language error is fairly common. For some reason, people seem to be under the impression that confusing various meanings of a word makes someone wise or reveals inner truths about the world. As someone who avidly maintains a collection of quotes fifteen pages long, I see this a lot. Ayn Rand once remarked, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those that deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” Indeed, mathematically, the smallest natural number is, in fact, one. I used to really like this quote: it scored points for my team, and did it in a semi-plausible manner. It completely misses the point, however, that by “minority” what is generally implied is “a group of persons with a sociological history of being oppressed by another group of persons”. This is exactly the reason that, despite being less than 50% of the population, white males are not typically referred to as a “minority”.

Not to lack for examples, Johnathan Swift is quoted as saying, “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.” While I’m sure this makes me un-American, I must admit that I can see a few differences in communist China and the pre-Civil War American South. While the communist regime in China is by no means progressive, I think the slaves might have been slightly worse off. At a bare minimum, I wouldn’t suggest arguing otherwise in polite company.

For some reason, people seem to be under the impression that confusing meanings of a word makes someone wise or reveals an inner truth about the world. But these lingual errors don’t make you a Zen Buddhist monk, they just reinforce bad thinking whenever they’re passed on as “deep wisdom”. To paraphrase Sam Harris (at 2:53), in the best case, they provide bad reasons for correct beliefs where good reasons are actually available, and in the worst case, it decouples beliefs on both sides from the rational processes one should go through to believe them. In almost every instance, the answer you get matters very little, but how you get there is everything.


 

  1. It is possible (although I think unreasonable, particularly given that this charitable interpretation makes the second half of his sentence make even less sense) that our dispute is actually one of definition. This reminds me of the argument “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound”. But since Eliezer has already written an excellent piece on this and I would simply be plagiarizing him, I have no intention of delving into the topic here.
  2. An unfortunate consequence of treating “absurd” hypotheses seriously is that sometimes, the data comes back in a completely unexpected way. This should, I hope, reinforce just how overwhelmingly conclusive the evidence is for the things you believe. Hint: Not very
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3 responses to “Crimes Against Language: Missing the Trees for the Forest

  1. I think your argument works if what you’re judging language by is the literal nature of its content. But I also think there’s poetry in that empathy example, illustrating that even when it comes to something as fundamental as seeing the world, we contain multiple perspectives. I highly doubt that lecturer would argue with your critiques in terms of the facts, but I think that their evocative image captivates and compels in a way that strict logic often fails to do.

    In other words, I think all metaphors (like all models) are flawed, but some metaphors are useful. So I, personally, wouldn’t be too quick to toss them out just because of their lack of internal consistency. I think they have value, it’s just value with an asterisk.

    • I think this comes down to a discussion of whether or not it’s a good idea to use, for lack of an absurdly childish term, The Dark Arts as a means to an end. Aside from the ethical issues, which I think are important to consider, I have always felt that in the long run you do more harm than good. You may convince someone of a better opinion, but you’ve taught them to think incorrectly. And if you don’t convince them, you’ve made the more resistant to being convinced in the future.

      • I guess I don’t even think the goal has to be “convince someone of a better opinion.” I think getting them interested, getting them engaged, inspiring them, challenging them, fascinating them all can be good goals. Just as you write above, I don’t like a culture where “winning an argument” is all that matters. But I think part of stepping away from that is enjoying the process of exploration which artistic license can certainly provide.

        Another way of saying what I’m saying is that I think logic is helpful situationally, but I don’t think it’s everything. Creating space for more than just logic in the human experience can be enriching, especially when “right answers” aren’t always the goal.

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