Let us agree upon definitions.

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King Author
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Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby King Author » Tue Jun 22, 2010 6:20 am UTC

In a proper debate, of which this forum attempts to be a fascimile, all participants agree to ground rules and agree upon definitions and facts before the debate begins. This is so as to keep the debators from bickering over definitions and being detracted into the realm of pedantics, and to keep the question of the reliability and verifiability of cited facts from overtaking the subject of the debate itself. Participants may feel differently about terms they've defined, and may interpret statistics very differently, but they at least agree upon them in the first.

I believe it'd be quite useful for us to do the same. Rather than having to define terms specific to a thread in every single topic that's made, I think it would be usedful to have a general topic (this very one) to cover general definitions. We could, in general, defer to these definitions in the forum at large, and only offer different definitions in a specific thread when the topic creator wishes to deviate for the purposes of his or her topic.

I propose the following structure for this attempt to clear up definitional matters.

First, in this topic, anyone who wishes may propose a definition for any given specific term, such as racism, political posturing or discrimination.

After a period of some weeks, the terms and definitions are compiled, similar definitions are combined, and, should the list exceed two significantly different definitions for a given term, we shall submit the offending terms to Azrael, if he is agreeable, to narrow the choices down to two. If he is not agreeable, we'll choose a respected, long-time forum member who is.

Finally, we start a new topic with a poll, and anyone who wishes may vote upon their preferred definitions, voting for multiple or no definitions for a given term if they so choose. The definition for each term which has the most votes at the end of a thirty-day period will be considered the go-to definition in Serious Business.

Again, in any given topic, if the creator so chooses, he or she may define their own terms and conditions for debate, but barring such desires, these common, agreed-upon definitions can be quickly deferred to to end or perhaps even prevent distracting, detracting, off-topic arguments over definitions.

Of course, this is purely voluntary and non-binding. Nobody has to do this, I have no authority, and even if it goes through to fruition, those who disagree with the definitions may still argue against them when and if they are referred to, but again, I think it would be very useful for us all to take the matter of a lack of agreed-upon definitions into our hands and vote upon such definitions ourselves.

Anyone who wants -- feel free to begin. Start offering up definitions (as tolerant and unbiased as you can make them, if you please) of oft-debate terms such as sexism, homophobia, prejudice and the like.
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Pez Dispens3r
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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Tue Jun 22, 2010 9:15 am UTC

You make a nice suggestion, but a systemized solution is not workable. On any given topic you might get three pages of arguments about definitions for every two pages of actual discussion. Any controversial definitions here will involve too many debates to even start at a common definition. And even if we do get one, people will not agree with it in the actual threads on the topic.

The workable solution is for the OP, or any person making a substantial argument, to define the terms as they mean them within their post. If I were making an argument about cheating on a partner, it would not matter whether you agreed with me on what constitutes cheating, for my argument, as long as you understood what I meant by cheating. If such a poster is not clear on their terms, they deserve that people may misunderstand their argument: sloppy writing begets misinterpretation.
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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby King Author » Tue Jun 22, 2010 10:17 am UTC

I have faith in our ability to work together. There's a time to put away childish things, as the saying goes. Why not now?
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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby Zamfir » Tue Jun 22, 2010 10:47 am UTC

But in many debates, definitions are close to the core of the debate. The same goes by the way for reliable sources.

Few debates lead to a consensus, unless the participants are new to the subject. Knowledgeable people will not, and probably should not, change their opinions on complicated issue based on a few talks.

So usually the best you can hope for is that participants learn to understandeach others views, and get a critical examination of their own views. For that, definitions are important. They are not just arbitrary signifiers, but also ways to order reality.

Take discrimination as example. Some people include a power differential in their views on discrimination: you have to be able to act to discriminate. Others focus more on intention.

Such differences are not unimportant sideshows, they are reflective of different views on the phenomenon and its causes. You can't separate that out of the'real' debate.


As an aside, what do you mean by a 'proper' debate? In what sense are debates here not real debates?

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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby Arrian » Tue Jun 22, 2010 11:12 am UTC

King Author wrote:In a proper debate, of which this forum attempts to be a fascimile, all participants agree to ground rules and agree upon definitions and facts before the debate begins. This is so as to keep the debators from bickering over definitions and being detracted into the realm of pedantics, and to keep the question of the reliability and verifiability of cited facts from overtaking the subject of the debate itself. Participants may feel differently about terms they've defined, and may interpret statistics very differently, but they at least agree upon them in the first.


I'm not familiar with formal debates, I take it these definitions are exogenously supplied by the moderators/hosts of the debates and are work much like logical axioms? That is, they're agreed upon as "true" for the purpose of the debate regardless of how equivocal they may be under close scrutiny.

The problem I see is that most things worth debating over can't be defined neutrally. Sure, you can define "blue" as a certain wavelength of light or Keynsian Economics as a certain group of theories, but what about something like poverty? I might define it as earning less than three times the cost of 2000 calories worth of food per person per day in a household, someone else might define poverty as being in the poorest 10% of a population.

Both definitions are worthy of discussion, and more importantly, rather than being banal or pedantic the differences are illuminating. They illustrate two fundamentally different perspectives of the issue and the definition that is chosen will frame the course of the debate.

In fact, I find arguing over definitions is often illuminating because it exposes the other side's belief's and values, and a great many issues are intractable because people simply have different value systems. Take abortion as an example. You can't come up with a "right" answer to whether abortion is right or wrong that everyone can be convinced of, it boils down to whether you consider it an issue of taking life or personal liberty. You can find out which side of the argument a person is on by the way they choose to define abortion and the issues around it.

<edit> So yea, Zamfir said what I just said, but faster. I'm posting anyway, just because I can. </edit>

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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby Indon » Tue Jun 22, 2010 12:56 pm UTC

A single agreed-upon set of definitions isn't going to work on a broadly different set of discussions because definitions can and do change with context.

And once we're arguing about definitions contextually, we've lost any timesaving value such an idea would have, because now instead of arguing about the definitions themselves, we'll argue through proxy using context.
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Re: Let us agree upon definitions.

Postby Azrael » Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:06 pm UTC

This isn't going to work for several reasons:

1) As mentioned, debates about meaning are often completepy tied up in the context of the debate. Attempting to untie the two will lead to the debate being brought out of the original thread and into here. Worse yet: debates in the thread about the aplicability of debates outside the thread.

2) I have no interest in trying to define anything by consensus; it just doesn't work.

3) People won't follow these new definitions and I have no interest in trying to enforce them. People have a hard enough time with simple but non-conventional rules, let alone redefining the language.

4) Dictionaries, encyclopedias and context all exist. Use them properly and maturely and the need for grand efforts to duplicate their outputs are not necessary.

That being said, the "we need to define that!" crowd is getting tiresome in their continual derailments. Consider this the first warning to stop.


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