Redefining Racism and The Role of Definitions in Arguments
In a recent diversity seminar for work, a colleague asked the moderator whether black on white racism (so-called reverse-racism) could exist. The presenter said it could not because racism requires a power imbalance that blacks do not hold over whites. There are a number of issues with this contention. But for this article the most important point is whether and how the definition of racism given varies from the traditional definition of racism. Until recently, racism was thought of as any negative racial discrimination. Recently people have been redefining racism by adding the need for a power differential. As a result, proponents of changing the definition of racism exclude racial discrimination from the new definition.
Similarly, there has been a fierce debate raging on Twitter in recent weeks about whether 2+2=5 (no I am not making this up). Proponents of the “it can equal 5” camp argue that if the definitions of the symbols of the numbers, the plus sign, or the equal sign are redefined, the statement can be true. Proponents of the “=5” camp have mainly been advancing this argument to show the subjectivity of truth when it comes to morality, but their arguments dovetail with the redefining racism example.
Redefining the term “racism” and refusing to accept the common definitions of “2” and “5” both illustrate a misunderstanding of the logical reasoning process. Specifically, they fail to properly follow the first step of any logical structure: agreeing on clear definitions before reasoning or arguing. If debaters define “racism” or mathematical symbols a certain way, then otherwise absurd statements could be technically correct. However, given the real-world conversation involving political discussions (and math), changing definitions causes more problems than it solves, particularly when other words or phrases can be used to convey the idea more clearly without needing to redefine words.
Background into the logical process is necessary helps explain the role of definitions. The logical process has three components: terms (definitions), propositions, and arguments. Terms can be either clear or unclear. Propositions can be either true or untrue. Arguments can be either valid or invalid. An argument is valid when the logical connection between the propositions is sound. For example, consider the following argument. If A is bigger than B, and if B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C is a valid argument. In this case, A, B, and C are the terms. The statements “A is bigger than B” and “B is bigger than C” are the propositions. Finally, the conclusion is derived from the connection of those two propositions through simple logic. In order for a conclusion to be correct, the terms must be clear, the propositions must be true, and the arguments must be valid.
In a reasoned discussion, it is necessary to first define the terms. Without clearly defining what object is “A”, we cannot possibly determine if the proposition that “A is bigger than B” is true. If we cannot determine if A is bigger than B, we cannot possibly know if A is bigger than C. This shows that definitions must be well defined.
Purely as a matter of logic, racism and mathematical symbols can be redefined. However, adjustments must be made to the propositions that follow. If one would say that “racism is bad” by using the old definition of racism that was the same as negative racial discrimination, a change to the term racism should now lead them to say “negative racial discrimination is bad.” In this way, they would be saying the exact same thing with different words. If one would previously say that 2+2=4, but the symbol “2” is redefined to truly mean 2.5, then they must adjust to say that 2+2=5.
As a matter of pure logic, it is impossible to debate any term, including “racism” or the symbol “5”. Terms are not bound by logical structure. Terms and definitions exist for efficient communication. Terms and definitions must be agreed to at the outset of an argument. In this way, arguing what “racism” means in a logical argument is pointless.
Redefining the term “racism” or the symbol “5” may be permissible as a pure matter of logic, but it should not be done in normal conversation or in broader society. Words gain certain connotations that become ingrained into societal use. Racism, for example, has an extremely negative connotation. If racism is redefined, then the negative connotation of the word would continue to apply to discrimination against blacks but not to discrimination against whites. Both are wrong, but it is an attempt to achieve an Orwellian language trick to dissociate the negative connotation of the term “racism” towards whites while leaving the negative connotation for “racism” towards blacks.
Definitions should remain as stagnant as possible to avoid confusion and reduce the need for reeducation. People are not conducting formal logical proofs when they debate about politics. The entire point of language is to communicate clearly and efficiently. Changing the definition of racism by adding a power structure qualification makes the phrase less clear since not everyone has accepted that definition. Additionally, having to reeducate the population by changing a definition of a word introduces a needless barrier to necessary and productive conversations. Redefining what the symbols “2” or “5” actually mean is a pointless waste of time. There is already an easy way to express the value 2.4. Changing the symbol “2” to represent the value 2.4 would require every adult to revisit their Kindergarten math lessons. This would create a cost that exorbitantly outweighs any benefit.
Further, all previous references to “2” as representing twice the value of “1” would need to be updated to the new definition. Similarly, qualifying the term “racism” as requiring a power structure poses an insufficient benefit compared to the cost of reeducating the population. If there is a need for a new word, we should add a new word instead of changing the definition of an old word.
Some may critique this argument by pointing out that “racism” already has a synonymous phrase that could have been used: negative racial discrimination. They would say that no one “thing” needs multiple definitions. In fact, “negative racial discrimination” is exactly what I defined “racism” as earlier in this essay. However, this critique does not stand on practical grounds. Sure, the term and the phrase are synonymous, but that is because the phrase is the definition of the term. It is far more efficient to use the term itself rather than the definition of that term. Replacing every word with its full definition would be overly wordy and therefore impractical. As such, using the term rather than the definition is more efficient and better fits the characteristics that language strives to achieve.
Turning briefly to another lesson to be drawn from the “2+2=5” debate, the argument proves exactly the opposite of what those making the argument wanted it to prove. Proponents of the “=5” camp were trying to show how truth is subjective, but instead, they show that truth is situationally objective. Proponents of the “2+2=5” argument say that if the symbol “2” is actually defined as “2.4” and the symbol of “5” is actually defined as “4.8”, then the statement “2+2=5” is objectively correct. As pointless as it is to redefine widely accepted definitions, they are correct in their statement.
However, this does not show the truth of the statement of “2+2=5” to be subjective. For truth to be subjective, it depends on the perception of the observer. Here, the validity of the statement depends on how the terms are defined. In this example, the situation is how the terms were defined. Whether “2+2=5” is objectively correct therefore depends on the situation. The equation therefore is situationally objective.
The characterization of truth as situationally objective is not a novel concept. It is easy to think of a scenario where the morality of an action depends on the situation, not the one judging the action. Take, for example, the killing of another human being. Killing a terrorist who is about to kill 10,000 people would be considered justified. Killing a child to steal his lollipop would be considered evil. The morality of either situation is not dependent on whether the actor thought himself justified. It is not dependent on whether some observer thought the actor justified. Even if the thief thought the killing was justified because he wanted the lollipop, the action was evil. The same action (killing) is either morally justified or unjustified based on the situation, not the individual’s moral system. This exemplifies how truth, and morality by extension, is situationally objective rather than subjective.
In summary, redefining racism in a specific philosophical debate is acceptable as long as the term is clear and agreed upon between the participants. In practice, redefining racism and mathematical symbols should be avoided because it is impossible to debate the meaning of a word if neither side is willing to budge, and reeducating the population on a new definition presents an inefficiency that language strives to avoid. Tweeting “2+2=5” to provoke pushback is a waste of time even if you secretly have redefined the terms. Ultimately, it does not matter if the term used is racism or negative racial discrimination. To paraphrase Shakespeare, racism by any other name would be just as evil.