Redefining the Conversation

The Strategy of Some to Win Debate

By Vin Sparks

How would you go about changing the meaning of a word? Well, it happens all the time. We redefine words by using them differently than they have traditionally been used. Most often I think of it happening with technology. American Express’ OPENForum.com featured a list of 11 Ordinary Words That Have New Meaning in Social Media.

Here are a few:

“Spam”, to someone from the WWII generation is a can of compressed mystery meat. spamNot only that, they’ve actually eaten it. Today, “spam” is unsolicited email, IM, tweets, etc.

When you say “troll” to someone of my age, we recall images of short, hairy, smelly, human-like creatures with big feet, uncontrollable drooling and live under bridges. Today a “troll” refers to someone who cyber-stalks people and intentionally provokes them in various online forums or social networks. (Maybe that word hasn’t changed much.)

A “friend” always has been an ally, a supporter, someone we would regard with affection and trust – someone who had my back. Today it’s someone I may not even know very well but we’re connected on Facebook. Now it’s even a verb meaning to add this stranger to a list ofBefore the Computer people with whom I’m connected on Facebook.

To “stumble” was to misstep, now it is to discover, recommend and rate web pages, photos and videos on the personal recommendation engine StumbleUpon.

More nouns which have undergone a “meaning – full” facelift are mouse, feed, tweet and status. These verbs as well have undergone a change due to technology: click, swipe, stream, check-in, poke, tag and pin.

Purposeful Redefinition

Technology has done its part in redefining the English language, but what about the focused redefinition of a word that is a key to an argument, to reasoning or to the battle of world views? What about the changing of the meaning of a word strategically in order to win the argument, the reasoning or the battle of world views? Is there a focused strategy in play? Absolutely, I believe there is.

ChangingMinds.org, is a website dedicated to helping people professionally with skills that can make them better negotiators, sales professionals, leaders, brand developers, etc., The site includes a section devoted to the redefinition of words as part of a strategy to win debate, negotiations or in practicing persuasion. Consider how they say to do it:

Redefining a Word

A Method to Winning
Change the meaning of words. Take a current word and stretch or constrain its meaning. Apply it to new contexts. Assert it as truth. As appropriate, define the meaning explicitly.

Challenge the meaning of words used by others. When they use a word for a particular effect, challenge their use of the word. Reach for the dictionary. Assert a wider, smaller or different meaning.

If you can control the meaning of words, you have control over the meaning of the whole conversation.

Enter the Atheist

Atheist is a word that is undergoing an orchestrated redefinition for the purpose of changing the way we look at atheism. It is traditionally defined as follows:

A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beingsAtheist Headstone
Dictionary.com

1. A disbelief in the existence of deity.
2. The doctrine [teaching] that there is no deity.
Merriam-Webster

Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
The Free Dictionary

Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
Oxford Dictionary

Straight forward enough. Now read and consider how the American Atheists organization redefines the word atheist and the discussion it advances surrounding that redefinition:

What Is Atheism?

No one asks this question enough. The reason no one asks this question a lot is because most people have preconceived ideas and notions about what an Atheist is and is not. Where these preconceived ideas come from varies, but they tend to evolve from theistic influences or other sources.

Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods. Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God.” Some dictionaries even go so far as to define Atheism as “wickedness,” “sinfulness,” and other derogatory adjectives. People cannot trust these dictionaries to define atheism. The fact that dictionaries define Atheism as “there is no God” betrays the (mono) theistic influence. Without the (mono) theistic influence, the definition would at least read “there are no gods.”

Why should atheists allow theists to define who atheists are? Do other minorities allow the majority to define their character, views, and opinions? No, they do not. So why does everyone expect atheists to lie down and accept the definition placed upon them by the world’s theists? Atheists will define themselves.

This characterization of atheism allows those trying to win the world view debate to argue from a redefined set of ideas – a vantage point of their own choosing. They’ve rigged the fight; the fix is in, so to speak.

The Blogger

This presented itself very clearly the other day as I read an atheistic blogger. As I engaged him, he did just what we’re talking about. The exchange went like this:

Original blog post: Brainwashed (title of a very short post). For the indoctrinated, it is not enough to merely consider alternative views. To arrive at a truly objective position on the matter, they must actively resist their instinct.

My comment: Was it your intention to comment on the indoctrinated atheist?

Blogger’s response: Atheism is the absence of belief in any particular theistic god. When a child is born, before it is exposed to theistic ideas, it is an atheist. This requires no indoctrination.

My reply: The belief that there is no god is indeed indoctrination, just as the belief in God is. Your definition of “atheism” is disingenuous.

Blogger’s response: True. Claiming to know there is no god is as ridiculous as claiming to know there is one. If “Theist” means to “believe in an intervening God” and the prefix “a” means “not”, the word “Atheist” simply means to “not believe in an intervening god”. Lacking the belief that god exists and believing that he certainly does not exist, are two very different things. How am I being disingenuous?

My reply: Your definition is disingenuous. Oxford, Dictionary.com, Webster all define atheism as the disbelief. Your definition is from the American Atheists and is convenient for the argument you wanted to make about a child born without indoctrination. Disingenuous.

Blogger’s response: Judging by the Oxford Dictionary “disbelief” means the same thing as the term I used, “absence [sic] of belief”. Does it not?

My reply: It is you that is making the distinction in definitions and there isn’t one. You did so in order to lay a foundation for the absurd statement that a newborn child is an atheist. You are attempting to color atheism as a natural state of mind and not as the product of indoctrination. The only way you can do this is to redefine what an atheist is by twisting the meaning of the word to suit you and then manufacture a context in which you can present the distorted result. The trouble is, only an undisciplined thinker buys into it.

If you can control the meaning of words, you have control over the meaning of the whole conversation.

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