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The New Babel
How our differing definitions create political conflict and confusion.
Everyone agrees that racism is bad, but no one can agree on the definition of racism. What does this mean?
In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humanity tries to build a tower into the heavens. Seeing this, God confuses their language. When this story was presented to me in Sunday school, we usually imagined that one day people began speaking different languages - Summerian, Egyptian, Hebrew, etc. Yet, the confusion of language could be interpreted in a different way. What if they all still spoke the same language, but each believed the words to have a different meaning?
Much of modern American political conflict is over the definition of words. Conservatives define racism as discrimination on the basis of race. Critical race theorists define racism as a system that produces unequal outcomes between racial groups. From this definition, critical race theorists suggest that it would be antiracist to discriminate on the basis of race to produce more equal outcomes. Conservatives reply that discrimination on the basis of race is racist. Critical race theorists say that conservatives are racist for supporting systems that produce unequal racial outcomes. Both sides then debate what the “real” definition of racism is.
This isn’t how words typically work. Usually, words are used to describe our reality. If you see a plant growing tall out of the ground, you might use the word “tree” to describe it. The fruit it bears might be called “apples.” If one day, while you and all of humanity were building a tower into the heavens, your friend began using the word “tree” to refer to “clouds” and the word “apples” to refer to “thunder,” you might become confused:
“There’s a lot of trees today. Might be apples soon.”
“Are you sure? Spring is not for a long time.”
“I can hear apples in the distance.”
“What are you talking about? Apples don’t make a sound.”
“Have you ever even seen a forest (definition: thunderstorm)?”
Unless these two tower-builders realize they’re working from different definitions, they’ll probably want to kill each other by the end of this conversation. An argument over the “real” definition of apples would be fruitless (heh) because they’re not talking about the same concept, but two different concepts: clouds and a fruit we call “apples.” You might believe one of them is correct, but the choice to use the word “apples” to refer to one concept and not another is arbitrary. The “real” definition of the word “apples” could just as easily be “clouds” if we all decide to construct it to mean that.
Here are some words I believe modern political factions are working from different definitions for: human rights, racism, antisemitism, mutilation, gender, democracy, fascism, free speech, harassment, protest, peaceful, justice, social justice, left, right, far right, far left, Marxism, socialism, black, white, Jewish, lives matter, votes count, secure elections, engagement, sexual, child/children, border, illegal, mental illness, medicine, health, healthcare, freedom, love, family, marriage, relationship, compassion, and empathy.
That’s a pretty significant list of words not to be able to have a meaningful conversation about. If you don’t share the same definitions, your conversations will be reduced to Babel. For this reason, every time I introduce a new concept in my own writing, I define it. Much of modern political conflict is not over the concepts themselves but which concept has the right to which word, and what the “real” definition of a word is.
There is power in redefining words. Suppose the Tower of Babel apple gathering team has over a hundred thousand members, but the cloud watching club only has thirty. If we redefine apple to mean cloud, suddenly the cloud watchers have far more resources at their disposal. All of the political and social concepts mentioned above carry significant social power. If one of those concepts can be redefined, then those who control the new definition can seize that power for their own ends.
One could think of the redefining of political concepts as an attempt by political factions to privatize the commons. Whereas these concepts might have previously been public domain, if they become the intellectual property of a private owner, they can be used for profit. If everyone can use and understand the word “racism,” then we can all work together to build a tower against it. If only specialists trained in critical race theory can correctly understand it, then suddenly you’ll need a lot of critical race theorists on the payroll if you want to avoid racism. This principle applies to all the concepts mentioned above.
If everyone worked together from the same definitions, we could build a tower to the heavens. United around the same concepts and definitions, we could probably even go to the moon. Somewhere our language was confused. Welcome to Babel. How do you like them apples rumbling in the distance?