"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Terms of the Debate

James Robbins and Walter Williams both have pieces on the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison and the murder of Nicholas Berg that hinge on the definitions of the terms we keep flinging about.

A couple of points: both suggest that the terms being used to describe what's going on are just the wrong words. When Williams thought of atrocities, he thought of "eye gouging, piercing of prisoners' hands and knees with electric drills, beating soles of prisoners' feet, cigarette burns, fingernail extraction, whipping and placing prisoners in acid baths". Robbins opens his terrorism classes by asking his students to define what a terrorist is. For Williams, the actual events of Abu Ghraib do not merit the term "atrocity", and Robbins implies that the definition his students give is so broad as to be meaningless.

They seem like esoteric points in the midst of heated events, don't they? Does it really matter if we use the "right" word to describe what's happening? After all, who's to say just what the "right" terms are?

Well, it does matter. It matters a lot. In discussing these issues, pouring your own meaning into the terms used by both sides is like getting home field advantage at a baseball game. Concede to me that pro-choice is an appropriate label, and I'll show the other side to be oppressors of women. Let me call it a "massive" tax cut, and I'll teach you to hate the rich.

That's what's going on in this debate. People are either carelessly or deliberately misusing terms in order to make sure their side wins. The Humpty-Dumpty brigades, fresh off the idiocy fostered in literacy criticism of the reader determining the meaning of the text regardless of the author's intent, want to adulterate the terms in order to get the power because the power is all that matters.

Williams and Robbins are right, and it's important.

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