In defense of arguing about definitions

Freddie deBoer thinks we should stop it. I think his approach can only obscure and complicate the debate even more.

Freddie deBoer says that we should “stop debating definition.” This is a complaint I have seen floating around in the discourse a lot lately, but I do not think it is a very good one. When people say “stop debating definition” they always mean “stop debating definitions that are unimportant.” But the reason they don’t put it that way is that they want to frontload a judgement about what is important into their objection without letting on that they’re doing so.

To see what I mean, let’s look at the very first example of definitional bickering in Freddie’s article. He begins by observing that there has been “a lot of debate lately about the application of critical race theory in K-12 schools.” When the hypothetical critic objects that what is being taught in schools is not CRT, Freddie replies that “OK, but…principles broadly associated with critical race theory are being implemented in K-12” (emphasis added).

The objection here seems to be that when the right refers to CRT, we all know that what they really have in mind are certain principles associated with CRT — and that it’s not important to point out this distinction. But I think it’s very important! Because I think that when you look at some of those questions directly the disagreements become clearer and more coherent, and that the only reason to talk about them through the indirect proxy of references to CRT is if you do not want the conversation to be clear and coherent.

And frankly I think a lot of people don’t want that. In my conversations with folks on the right about CRT, what I have found is that a lot of them are really just voicing objections to stuff like “government intervention against discrimination” and so on. When we reach that point in the conversation it often becomes quite productive, and at the very least we know exactly where we disagree. But it’s often like pulling teeth to get there precisely because people want to hide their real position within vague euphemisms like “critical race theory.”

I could go through Freddie’s other examples and raise similar objections, but you get the idea.

In general, I think this “stop debating definitions” stance is in denial about two basic problems. The first problem is that people like to use loaded terminology and then call you pedantic if you challenge it. During the 2020 presidential primaries, for example, everyone from Elizabeth Warren to Kamala Harris branded their healthcare platforms “Medicare for All,” and if you refused to accept that branding at face value, they would make the same kind of arguments that Freddie is making here. In the case of CRT, it is very clear that the term only emerged because of quite deliberate attempts on the right to reframe old debates in a new way. It does nothing to advance debates or clarify disagreements to pretend like these marketing efforts aren’t obscuring our discourse.

The second problem — the more serious one, in my view — is what I gestured towards at the beginning. When Freddie says “stop debating definitions” he really means “stop debating definitions that are unimportant”; but this supposes some kind of mutual agreement about what is important. And that makes his rule useless as a procedure for working through political disagreements. Instead of arguing over the principles associated with CRT (what I want to do), or about CRT (what Christopher Rufo wants us to do), we are now arguing some procedural meta-point about whether the difference between the two is worth drawing attention to. I do not think this is what Freddie wants to do — but since we don’t agree on what definitions need to be debated, this is where his advice inevitably leads us.

Photo credit: Ginny, Jonathan’s Desk, License CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo obviously edited.