The Semantic Wars: How efficient communication leads to inefficient arguments


View expressed not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society.

We know what we mean when we say something. However, language is an ambiguous beast and meaning doesn’t always accompany words. For example, the recent dispute about whether the leader of the Labour party needed to be nominated or  automatically placed on the leadership ballot can be traced back to unclear rules. It is my impression that many disagreements are rooted, at least partially, in different definitions and understanding of words and concepts.  A illustration of the ambiguity of language is given by the sentence

“I never said he took my money.”

This sentence has seven different meanings, depending on which word is emphasized. While spoken language can communicate such subtleties, this sentence is a nice illustration of the need for interpretation. Another example of this is:.

“A woman without her man is nothing.”

 This sentence could be made clearer by punctuation. How would you clarify this sentence? The two possibilities could be “A woman, without her man, is nothing” or “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”. It is clear that a heated debate over such a statement could easily be had, simply because people assume a different interpretation is the topic of discussion. It is easy to argue semantics of words and sentences rather than talk about actual differences in meaning.

Why is speech ambiguous?

Efficient communication relies on us understanding the context of a statement. Otherwise we would be forced to be clear about everything we say, drastically reducing the amount of information we are able to communicate with a given number of words. Imagine you come to a friend’s house and s/he asks you, while you are in the kitchen, “Can you make coffee?”.  

To make such a simple sentence understandable to e.g. computer, it would be necessary to break it down into simple steps. First, find an utensil for making coffee in the kitchen: either a coffee machine, a percolator or a press. Then the ingredients needed, i.e. coffee and water need to be found and transported to the coffee maker. How to open containers, operate the tap are assumed background. Finally, we would set the loaded coffee maker running.

This paragraph, besides being the most dull description of breakfast, spells out more fully what is meant with the simple phrase “Can you make coffee?”. We are used to take the implicit meaning of a sentence, rather than taking it at face value. And thank god, otherwise, daily live would be tedious. However, this exact feature of language  means having an argument about an idea is an exercise in misunderstanding. Two people disagreeing are likely to have different contexts to their understanding and mean different things with the same words.  For an illustration of the shortness of language and hence, how much is left to context and interpretation,  have a look at Wikipedia’s list of words that are their own opposite. For example,  “to screen”  means both  “to show” or “to conceal.”. A similar point is made in this clip, where famous physicist Richard Feynman is asked by an interviewer why magnets repel each other.


Terrorism has everything / nothing to do with Islam

A good current example of such a misunderstanding is the debate that rages between pundits whenever there is a terrorist attack. Some will say “Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” and other will say “Terrorism has everything to do with Islam”. These statements seem contradictory but I would argue that each of them are both right and wrong, depending on what is meant.

“Terrorism has nothing to do with Islam” is often meant to express that terrorism is not intrinsic to those practicing Islam. Millions of muslims practice their faith but are shocked and saddened by terrorist attacks, finding them morally repugnant. It is plain to see that not all muslims are terrorists.

However, if one takes this statement to mean that there is no connection between Islam and terrorism it must be wrong. There is currently a clear correlation between fanatics that blow themselves up and profess belief in that religion. Some might cry at this point that this is not Islam, continuing the semantic wars. Of course what ISIS describes as Islam is very different to what the secular banker in the City describes as his religion but changing the semantic definition of the word Islam just obfuscates the meaning. Both take the teachings of Mohammed and the Quran (and associated texts such as the hadith and the old testament) as their basis and say of each other that the other isn’t practising “true” Islam.

The Holy texts of the Abrahamic religions are riddled with contradictions so a large dose of interpretation is needed. Hence one can read them as calls for tolerance as well as calls to barbarism. Terrorists can find a justification for their actions in these books and cite them as their inspiration. To say that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam not only ignores the correlation but also what the terrorist say themselves. That in no way means that humanitarian, pacifist muslims cannot base their behaviour on the Quran equally as well. (The same is true for Christians and Jews, although there are currently far fewer reported cases of terrorism based on these faiths.)

Anyone who doubts such a correlation can take me up on a wager that of the next 10 suicide attacks, more than 5 will have been done by those professing to be motivated by Islam.

“This has everything to do with Islam” or “This is  Islam” can be taken as the observation that while not all muslims are terrorist, almost all current terrorists are muslim (in the sense that they profess such beliefs). Or some simply mean with this statement that a justification for such violence can be found in the Quran.

On the other hand, the statement can also be taken to mean that there is  something fundamentally wrong with all practises deriving from the Quran in a way that leads to terrorism. Given that there are clearly liberal, secularist muslims and examples of countries with Islam as state religion but there is no problem with terrorism, that is too simplistic a view. To suggest that any person that has an interpretation of the quran is necessarily bound to produce terrorists is ridiculous.

Purposeful misunderstanding

The ambiguity of language means that statements are less clear than we commonly believe. Two opponents in an argument might say that terrorism has everything and nothing to do with Islam respectively but mean the same thing. Therefor, to have a meaningful conversation, it is necessary to always strive to understand the other person. Only by giving our contrarian the benefit of the doubt can we avoid arguing about a semantic misunderstanding rather than a difference in meaning. Sadly, one of the problems of public discourse is exactly such semantic shaming where what someone says is interpreted in the least charitable way and then used as an ’argument’ against them.

Consider me saying: ‘I am not a feminist’, meaning that I disagree with the latest ‘feminist’ fashion of introducing trigger warnings. In the currents climate this would quickly be interpreted as ‘He is against the equality of men and women’.  The current presidential election in the US provides a wealth of examples on both sides.

How to do better?

As a liberal secularist I am  deeply opposed to any religion that has a political agenda. De Facto blasphemy laws, such as opposition to publications of Mohammed, are such a political agenda where religion is  no longer confined to the private domain. However, there is a large difference between holding an opinion and acting upon it. If I disagree with some legislation, I should be free to express this disagreement but not to break the law.

This distinction is the litmus test of a liberal attitude: would you defend someone’s right to speak in favour of Female Genital Mutilation while campaigning for its criminalisation? Of course, all people who practice FGM talk in favour of it but not all that talk in favour of it practise it.

The status quo does not require any arguments to prove its existence, as it is happening. Hence, the burden of proof that terrorist attacks are signs of a bigger problem lies with those making such claims. The truth of the argument that the current situation necessarily will lead to spiral of violence is uncertain.  They are certainly not made by asserting that “This has everything/nothing to do with Islam”.

Many question give ample room for disagreement and debate. Predicting the future is difficult and no matter what you assume, someone questioning your assumption will hopefully improve your predictions. However, disagreeing over a semantics argument is both pointless and a waste of everybody’s time. Given that there are many issues over which there is no public consensus, focusing on the real areas of disagreement is essential if we wish to ever reach a clear picture of the present or something as lofty as meaningful compromises .

I have no good method for better understanding, only the observation that what you think people mean, often isn’t what they mean. Similarly, it requires introspection and honesty to distinguish real arguments for one’s own views from cheap or unrelated professions that sound good but are not actually relevant.