There’s a mental disease I’ve been aware of for decades, mostly without realizing it, sometimes afflicted with it myself. I need a clever name for it, but for now I will call it “pointless definitional pedantry”, or PDP. I observe it frequently in political speech and Web comments, but it can be found almost everywhere. I think PDP may be related to “math envy” and “science envy”. The beauty of math is that starting with a few basic assumptions and using only logic, a vast and useful quiver of conceptual tools can be developed. The beauty of science is that by cleverly setting up reproducible situations, taking careful measurements, and applying imagination, logic, math, and statistics, we can socially construct facts that anybody (suitably informed and equipped) can confirm or improve. The problem with PDP and the envies is that these techniques don’t really apply to social and cultural disputes.
A PDP example: Back in the HoB era I hung out with folks, some of whom were not shy about how proud and superior they felt to be known as Libertarians. It was quite popular among some of these ‘Berts (as I call them here; an analogy to “Karen” is probably germane in the larger context, if not specifically to the folks of my history) to “prove” such “facts” that, contrary to how they present, environmentalists “actually” hate humanity. Their arguments were invariably based on boutique, specious, PDP style definitions; charisma and obstinacy armed with practiced platitudes: rhetoric, the art of making the bad look good. Another example: defining “alive”, as if there were a single sentence that could capture all of biology. If it is having the ability to reproduce, a worker bee or a red blood cell isn’t alive. Having the ability to move independently? Mushrooms aren’t alive but self-driving cars are. Is a virus alive? A seed? An ant colony? A bacterial specimen frozen at -80° C? The problem with defining life is that every simple definition has exceptions. Religion provides a seeming infinity of examples. One could almost define religion (see what I did there? note the use of “almost”) as an enterprise dedicated to applying PDP, with ever-increasing vigor, ever-more-inappropriately.
The point here is that argumentation about issues that involve vast amounts of interaction among complex agents, in the context of trying to completely define inherently vague terms, is a sucker’s game. If you go along with demands for perfectly defined terms, you have already lost what isn’t really an argument. Words don’t have exact meanings, concepts are metaphors, and the structure of language makes it impossible to prevent paradoxes. One medicine for PDP is a reliance upon hallmarks rather than definitions. Any complex system that possesses many of the hallmarks of life is alive. Obviously, care must be taken with hallmarks, and the goal must be consensus rather than strict agreement.
Back to the ‘Berts. Given the magnitude of effort needed to (rather, to attempt to: they are nothing if not recalcitrant (q.v. Brandolini’s Law)) correct their misrepresentations and oversimplifications, most people, myself included, would rather cut their losses in exasperation, unfortunately gifting them with the emotion of having “won” the “argument”, an illusion often convincing to a credulous audience. Another PDP trick ‘Berts seem to love is the secret use of boutique definitions, which are pulled out for a ‘gotcha’ at the last minute. Just attempting to get a ‘Bert to come to terms usually invites exasperation, again virtually guaranteeing them their victory illusions. The tragedy of our era: we’ve all got things to keep working on, but we need to figure out – and implement! a time and effort self-tax! – strategies and tactics to combat the ‘Bertshit.