What Is the Definition of ‘Is’

During his grand jury testimony Bill Clinton said his now infamous statement, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” That statement, which may have been the most weaselly statement in history up to that point, was dumb at the time. However, if the same statement were made today, it may not appears as dumb.

The divide between political ideologies in the United States has become so wide that partisans are often speaking an entirely different language:

My social media feed these past few days has contained several references to the recent interview between Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson and BBC journalist Cathy Newman. Throughout the interview, as Dr. Peterson gave his views on topics like feminism and LGBT rights, Ms. Newman routinely interrupted him with the meme-worthy phrase, “So what you’re saying is…” before re-stating what Dr. Peterson said in such a way as to make him appear prejudiced.

Dr. Peterson responded graciously throughout the interview, and the entire happening has been seized upon by multiple ideological viewpoints, from conservatives like Ben Shapiro who hail Peterson as a hero of free speech, to leftists who denounce Peterson as an alt-right troll.

However, the seemingly simple ideological clash in this video reveals an unfortunately common truth — when discussing topics like prejudice, it seems that many of us aren’t speaking the same language. While we all are speaking English, the semantic meaning of the words seems to be completely different depending on which ideology you follow.

This phenomenon isn’t new. I’ve periodically pointed out words that have different meanings to people of different political ideologies. Let’s consider the definition of freedom. To a libertarian freedom generally means being free of government coercion. To a communist freedom generally means being guaranteed the necessities of survival. This difference in definition can lead to some rather humorous or aggravating (depending on your point of view) conversations.

Let’s consider a hypothetical conversation between a libertarian and a communist on the topic of welfare. The libertarian is obvious in favor of reducing government welfare whereas the communist is obviously in favor of increasing it. Both parties believe that their stance advances freedom. However, when the libertarian says, “We should reduce government welfare,” the communist will likely rebut with, “You hate the poor!” If we flip the statements around, when the communist says, “We should increase welfare,” the libertarian will likely rebut with, “So you want the government to steal even more money from poor people!” The libertarian believes that reducing government welfare increases freedom because doing so also reduces government coercion. The communist believes that increasing government welfare also increases freedom because doing so reduces the likelihood that individuals will starve or die of exposure. Regardless both sides will declare their rebuttal a checkmate to the other and return to their parents’ basement to enjoy some mental (and maybe physical) masturbation by logging into their respective ideological forums and posting about their harrowing battle against the other.

I just spent two paragraphs discussing the different definitions two political ideologies have for a single word. An illustration that only includes one word and two political ideologies doesn’t do the magnitude of this problem justice but I lack the time to cover the different definitions held for thousands of words by thousands of political ideologies. And the magnitude of this problem will only increase as the divide between political ideologies widens. At some point, which we have probably already reached, the definitional divide will be so wide that meaningful conversation between believers of different political ideologies will be impossible.

So what’s the solution? I don’t believe there is one, at least not an actionable one. While this problem could be worked around by all parties in a debate providing their definitions for words (their political dictionary if you will) before the debate commenced, few people seem to be interested in doing so since political debates are primarily about winning the favor of comrades, not trying to expand one’s own horizons. Therefore, political debates will remain exercises in mindless screaming for the exclusive purpose of gaining external validation. At some point one side may decide to escalate matter to violence and then the possibility of all sides wiping each other out will finally be on the table.