Labels: Letting People Define Themselves

Ever try to make a compelling case and then find the conversation going nowhere fast? Ever been in a debate with someone and feel that your views are constantly being attacked and misrepresented? Ever been in the position where you think you’ve fairly addressed a person only to later find out you’ve completely missed their point or misunderstood their position?

I have. A lot. And I’m willing to bet we’ve all been there.

So, this is going to be an interesting thing to discuss because on one hand it seems like a basic topic but on the hand it’s super important. I think by talking about labels and definitions, we’re getting at the heart of a lot of circular conversations and unintended offenses.

What made me want to talk about this that I’ve seen a lot of articles, tweets and comments sort of defying the self-identifications and labels of their objectors and re-naming them. For example:

  • You’re not pro-life. You’re anti-choice OR you’re pro-forced-birth. (I’ve seen this A LOT.)
  • You’re not pro-choice. You’re pro-murder OR you’re anti-life.
  • etc.

And it goes on and on, remixing the pros and antis with whatever buzzword seems to fit. It seems a lot of people are really invested in those disputes. A lot of it, to me, seems motivated by prejudice, negative emotion (or at least unchecked emotion), and unfair generalizations.

I am fairly committed to being pro-life, as many know, and I’ve chosen to invest a sizeable portion of my free time dealing with bioethical issues in the public sphere. Because it’s important. In this context, while most of my conclusions I can apply to other debate topics, my next statements can be understood to be responsive to my personal experiences in doing public apologetics, activism, and online debating on the issues of abortion and euthanasia.

To win an argument, it seems you have to do a couple of things. First and foremost, before you present your argument and expose the opposing view, you must have accurately defined your terms, your own position, and the counter-perspective.

This means at least two things:

  1. You must take the buzzwords out of the conversation OR carefully assign an agreed-upon meaning to them and use those words with purpose.
  2. You must allow the opposition to define their beliefs and honor how they wish to identify or label their position. What matters is that terms are used consistently. And by keeping to this, you might have a good chance of later on exposing to them how their own self-identification and definitions are wrong.

I’m speaking from a lot of experience in getting nowhere in discussions, mis-representing my own position, mishandling terms with specific meanings, and misunderstanding the position of those who disagree with me. These are all mistakes I’ve made and continue to make a lot. And they’re all costly.

Choice? What does that mean? Freedom? Autonomy? What exactly are human rights? What’s the basis for the notion of human equality? Define equality. Define human. Define life. What are some philosophical or scientific considerations to be made? How serious or fundamental are they? Make appropriate distinctions.

Define abortion. Define euthanasia. What is involved? Who are involved? Explain the action itself and its necessary consequences.

What are our ethical considerations? What ethical principles are being applied? What are our moral assumptions leading to our conclusion? Start from the premises and build up towards a conclusion.

What is the contention of the other side? It may not be what you think. Why do they believe this? What’s their foundation? What may be some experiential motivators and barriers? What needs have they identified and are seeking to address? Do your commitments and priorities line up? How does your worldview provide a better answer to the problem they’re trying to solve? Be fair. Be genuine. Be willing to listen and learn. Be willing to admit mistakes.

This is my train of thought, anyways. Perhaps a bit flawed. But this is generally how I think when I’m in a debate, in-person or online. Sometimes I deviate, for better or worse. But it’s all in the spirit of the Golden Rule–treating the other as I’d want to be treated.

Carrying on a conversation in this way means trusting that the other person will be honest and making a personal commitment to being honest as well. It also, I think, means being generous when the other person, in the moment, says things they didn’t mean or makes unintended mistakes in their argumentation. Giving them the opportunity to correct themselves.

Bringing it back to the problem of labels and mislabels, categorization and misnomers, I think the disputation over what best identifies the “other side” is often symptomatic of ill-placed priorities.

Winning the argument is only half the battle.

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