Understanding the words we use
Religion & Liberty Online

Understanding the words we use

Today, we face a prevalent problem when making arguments about trending topics. Words such as capitalism, socialism, conservative, liberal and other broad categorical terms all have a wide range of meanings and emotions attached to them. Political and ideological topics are discussed passionately and ad nauseam in the news, with friends and around the dinner table. This raises a serious question: How can we have meaningful conversations without clearly defining the words we are using? In order to have any sort of productive conversation, we need to clearly define our terms before engaging in debate.

For example, when I refer to “socialism,” what do you think of? Think of a clear definition in your mind before reading on.

If you search for a definition of socialism on Google you find “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Is that close to what you thought of? Maybe or maybe not, but the fact is that socialism is defined in many different ways by many different people. When talking about socialism, someone may be thinking about a Bernie Sanders version of Democratic Socialism or the type of Socialism that people often wrongly attribute to Nordic countries. Someone could define socialism as governmental distribution of healthcare, or a complete centralization of all goods and services. A recent Pew Research study indicated that about 55% view socialism negatively and 42% view it positively. It is also entirely possible that both parties in the debate have no strong definition at all, and instead have emotions such as “something I view favorably” or “something I view unfavorably.”

Words can mean very different things to different people. I think Jordan Peterson hits it on the head in this interview when asked if he believes in God. For the purpose of this article you can substitute “belief in God” with any other categorical question, such as “Are you a liberal” or “Are you a Christian?”

“So people often ask me, ” Do you believe in God?’ which I don’t like that question. First of all, it’s an attempt to box me in, in a sense. And the reason it’s an attempt to box me in is because the question is asked so that I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument. And the reason I don’t like to answer it is because A.) I don’t like to be boxed in and B.) I don’t know what the person means by ‘believe’ or ‘God’ and they think they know. And the probability that they construe ‘belief’ and construe ‘God’ the same way I do is virtually zero.”

Feeling categorized by binary questions is a common sentiment, and one which I hold as well. When asked about my political or religious views, for instance, I try to stay away from an A/B answer, as I don’t know what the person asking means when they use certain words. Rather than hoping the other person and I have the same understanding of a word, I try to explain what I believe. This is countercultural to the rising trend of sound bites and statements made up of 140 characters or less. Our brains are naturally wired to categorize and “box people in” as Peterson states.

Being precise in our language is crucial for meaningful conversation. This is even more important today when viewpoints and worldviews continue to become more polarized. If we are to engage in a meaningful conversation in an effort to seek truth, we must not simply aim to win arguments through non-specific and categorical speech. We must start from a point of mutual understanding, with careful attention placed on each word we use.


Photo Credit: Dmitry Ratushny

Spencer Haven

Spencer Haven grew up in Kansas and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where he completed his Bachelors in Kinesiology at Calvin College. During this time, he participated in numerous leadership and volunteer positions, including initiating and leading a ministry to assist the homeless. After, Spencer volunteered for Peace Corps in Guatemala to help provide health resources for local schools. Since then, he has been involved in several international development opportunities, including work in Tanzania, Kenya, and Guatemala. Spencer is enjoying working at the Acton Institute as a Development Associate and is enrolled at Eastern University working toward an MBA in Social Impact and plans to pursue academic and professional work in business and social entrepreneurship.