The 1585 Hall of Frequently Misused Terms

Sometimes, rhetoricians (people who construct arguments) representing one ideology or another will deliberately misuse certain terms because it is to their advantage for people to begin defining those terms the wrong way.  As a result of this, other people, through no fault of their own, will begin employing those terms incorrectly.  The following is a list of terms that many people accidentally or deliberately misuse in contemporary political discourse.

NOTE:  This is not a tirade about grammar; grammar is a separate issue.  This is calling bullshit on people who are cheating when they argue, because The 1585 opposes cheating.  This is also not intended to deliberately help one side or the other — as you will see, this section calls bullshit on both Liberals and Conservatives.  1585s believe that if you have to cheat to win, then you don’t deserve to win — the side that wins when everyone is arguing accurately is the side that is right. 1585s pledge to use all terms correctly when they argue, to the best of their ability.

Argument:  Most people use “arguing” as a synonym for “fighting” (in the verbal sense), but this is not exactly accurate.  Technically, an argument occurs anytime someone states what they believe and gives reasons why they believe it — the term has nothing whatsoever to do with being angry or raising your voice.  So, if your best friend is explaining to you why you should see a certain movie, then your friend is making an argument, whereas two people screaming at each other are not necessarily making arguments.

Bias:  It has become commonplace in contemporary political discussion for people to accuse their opponents of bias — Conservatives say the things they don’t like have a liberal bias, and Liberals say the things they don’t like have a conservative bias.  So what does this term really mean?  It can’t possibly mean what people are using it to mean in the above example — that would mean that having an opinion at all would constitute “bias,” which you probably already know isn’t the case.  Defined accurately, bias is when someone has an opinion that is based on something either false or irrelevant to the issue.  For example, if someone says that a particular politician is the best candidate for a particular position, but is only saying so because that candidate is their cousin, then this person’s opinion is biased.  On the other hand, if someone argues that this same candidate is the best person for the job because they have studied the issues and come to a conclusion that is based on evidence, then this person’s opinion is not biased.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right, because remember I said “to the best of their ability,” and the person might still be dumb.  It just means that they are not biased.  So, it is very possible for two people to be arguing the exact same position, and for one of them to be biased and the other not biased, depending on their motivations for arguing that position.

    It is also common for institutions — a media outlet such as a newspaper, for example — to be accused of bias because they might agree with one candidate more than the other.  But this too is an inaccurate definition of bias.  If one candidate is right more of the time, then why should people feel like they have to pretend that each candidate is right exactly 50% of the time?  That would only serve to help the candidate who is wrong more often, and what is the point of that?  To further illustrate this point, imagine if it were a rule in football that the ref had to call an equal number of penalties against both teams — that would be crazy, right?  It would only help the team who commits more penalties.  A referee’s job isn’t to call penalties equally; it is to call penalties accurately.  If one team commits way more than the other, then that is that team’s fault, not the ref’s.  Media outlets are supposed to be like the referees of politics — it would be stupid to expect them to always present both sides of an issue as if both positions are equally valid; if one position is clearly stupid, then there is nothing wrong with saying so.  (NOTE:  Unfortunately, media outlets can not always be trusted to do this.  You see, unlike a football referee, who gets paid the same no matter which team wins, newspapers and TV stations make more or less money depending on how many people buy their paper or watch their station, so there will always be pressure on them to seem to agree with the position that is more popular, because they will make more money that way.  This should always be taken into consideration.)

Dogma:  Most dictionaries define dogma only as “a set of rules or principles authoritatively laid down,” or something along those lines.  While this definition is not exactly false, it is rather incomplete.  The problem with it is that even self-evidently true things can be “rules or principles authoritatively laid down” — the rule that two plus two is four, for example, or the principle that force equals mass times acceleration; and yet one would be foolish to refer to these principles as dogma, because they can be proven.  The term should be used to refer only to rules or principles that there is insufficient evidence to support — but be advised that what does or does not qualify as sufficient evidence is another matter entirely.

Free Speech:  This is a term people use a lot, especially when discussing politics, and it is a very powerful term indeed.  No-one wants to sound like they are “against” Free Speech — we learn very early in life that being “against Free Speech” is the most un-American thing there is.  So, since we all agree that the term is so important, we should also try and make sure that we are using it correctly.  At some point, you have probably heard someone defend themselves against someone else who is mad about something they said by mentioning that they have a right to Freedom of Speech; you may even hear people saying things like this all the time — and so it may surprise you to learn that this argument is actually completely meaningless.  Technically, all Freedom of Speech means is that the government can’t make it against the law for you to say something.  This is an extremely important right that we should all be very proud of, but let’s also remember what it does not mean — for instance, it does not mean that other people can’t disagree with you, or tell you you’re wrong, or tell you that something you said made them angry.

    Those things are not an infringement upon your right to Free Speech, for a few reasons.  First of all, the other person is not the government.  Secondly, the other person is not saying that what you said should be illegal to say, nor are they preventing you from saying it; they are just telling you that they disagree.  Remember when the guy who made Super Size Me made jokes about retarded people during a speech, and then when people got mad, he talked about Freedom of Speech?  Well, his response missed the point.  People weren’t saying that he should go to jail for making jokes about retarded people; they were just saying that it was mean and obnoxious, and that they disagreed with his decision to say those things.  So, although they weren’t infringing upon his Freedom of Speech, he was, ironically, disparaging theirs by implying that they had no right to criticize him.

Logic (and/or Reason):  It surprises me that so many people are confused about these terms, but they are, so I included them here.  Now, most people do seem basically to realize that logic just means extremely careful thought, where the thinker is making absolutely sure not to leave anything out, or jump to any conclusions, or assume anything that has not been settled, and this is indeed basically what it means (reason means the same thing, but can also refer to the ability of humans to think that way, or it can act as a verb).  The problems start when people begin incorrectly associating the idea of being “logical” with other things that don’t actually have anything to do with it.  For example, a lot of people think that logic means not using emotion, or even think that logic is the opposite of “emotion,” and neither of these things is true.  For example, let’s say that someone uses the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would be done by”) to reason that murder is wrong — you are figuring out that you should not kill based on the fact that you yourself do not want to be killed, and not wanting to be killed is an emotion, so if you were actually not using emotion, you couldn’t figure this out.  Lots of people also seem to think that logic means being calm, or not getting excited — this is probably a combination of the “emotion” error and the fact that we incorrectly use the expression “be reasonable” when what we mean to say is “calm down” (there are, of course, lots of perfectly logical reasons to get excited).

    Many religious people seem to make this mistake — especially Christians, possibly because many of their theologians advocate stoicism; but this is an inaccurate interpretation of their own theology — the passage beginning at John 2:14 where Jesus unloads on the money-changers means that some things are supposed to make you angry, and indeed that it would be wrong not to get angry about them.  Of course, the preceding argument is a waste of time, since if religious people were actually so into being logical, they would not be religious to begin with.  It is inherently an enormous contradiction to identify yourself as religious and also claim that you are logical, or chastise others for not being logical.  Of course, when religious Conservatives do this, it is because they are in thrall to the overall conservative agenda, which requires the despising of people who attempt to change things for the better, and who occasionally “get excited” in their efforts to do so.

    Because of the common errors just discussed, the stereotype in contemporary politics is that Conservatives are logical whereas Liberals are emotional, but this idea is utterly false, and not only because of the fact that so many conservative positions are based on religion.  Conservatives identify themselves as logical because they believe that their positions represent order, whereas the liberal positions represent chaos, and this is a problem for a few reasons.  First of all, many conservative ideas of order are based on the idea that all people should behave in the same ways, and while this indeed might lead to a society where Conservatives are less uncomfortable, logic has nothing to do with whether people are comfortable or uncomfortable — it simply means not making mistakes.  Secondly, while it is indeed true that logic is an orderly way of thinking, it is not necessarily the case that the solutions produced by the use of logic will make human society more orderly; to believe this would be to confuse two very different concepts (which would not be very logical).

    Conservative readers will, however, be happy to hear that The 1585 considers liberal rhetoric about the concept of logic to be even more inaccurate and annoying.  You see, the problem that many contemporary American Liberals have is that they aren’t 100% sure what they actually believe, and so they simply wait for a Conservative to say something and then say the opposite (and since Conservatives are wrong so much of the time, many Liberals never realize that this is a problem).  So, when Conservatives make the mistake of claiming that they are being logical when they are actually not, many Liberals respond by making the mistake of saying that logic is a bad thing (rather than doing what they should do, which is think about it for a minute and then say “Hey, hold on, you’re not being logical at all, because…”).  In accordance with this, many liberal theorists have written whole books about why logic is bad, or even argued that it is inherently sexist, or racist, even though sexism and racism can both be disproved through the use of logic — just because logic is a word Conservatives like to use, even though they are not using it correctly!  I have seen entire rooms full of people get into big fights where the Conservatives say that logic is good and then say a bunch of totally illogical things, and the Liberals say that logic is bad and then say a bunch of completely logical things!  What a fucking mess.  (NOTE:  More so than because of any other single problem, this problem is why 1585 was started.)

Nature/Natural:  It is extremely common for people to defend something by claiming that it is natural, and for people to oppose something by saying that it is unnatural.  But how valuable are these arguments?  Surprisingly, for so common a form of rhetoric, they are nearly worthless.  This is because people are using the terms “natural” and “unnatural” as shorthand for saying that they don’t believe there is anything wrong with a certain thing, or that they do believe there is something wrong with it, in a moral sense — and this is not what “natural” and “unnatural” actually mean.  Natural is a descriptive term, not a prescriptive one — i.e., it can only be accurately used to say whether something happens in Nature, and not to say whether that thing is good or bad.  If you think about it, there are many good things that are unnatural, and many bad things that are (unfortunately) natural.  Curing a disease, for example, is unnatural in the sense that if Nature were to take its natural course, the person would die — but we certainly do not think that it’s wrong to cure the sick*.  Murder and other crimes, on the other hand, are natural in the sense that humans have (unfortunately) always done those things, and “natural” is only a description of how animals behave (remember that humans are technically animals), but we all agree that these things are nevertheless bad.  So, for example, when Liberals and Conservatives argue about homosexuality, and the Liberals say that it is “natural” and the Conservatives say that it is “unnatural,” they are all wasting their time (and ours) with arguments that sound good but don’t really mean anything — technically, homosexuality is natural in the sense that it has always existed (well, it wasn’t invented in a lab, right?), but this says nothing about whether it is “right” or “wrong” in a moral sense, because something natural can still be bad and something unnatural can still be good, so both the Liberals and the Conservatives should come up with different arguments.  (NOTE:  1585s firmly believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay — it’s just that we have a totally different explanation for this position than most other Liberals do.)

*I realize that, technically, any and all scientific inventions are actually natural, in the sense that it is natural for humans to invent things.  It’s just that this definition would mean that there is actually no such thing as something “unnatural,” because everything that exists, exists, and there is noplace for something to exist besides in Nature (well, where else is there?). 

“Nazi”:  The word appears in quotation marks because, although obviously everyone knows what actual Nazis were, the term is frequently misused when people employ it in a metaphoric sense.  When you call someone a Nazi today, you usually don’t mean that they are literally a follower of Adolf Hitler — you only mean that they are “being an asshole” about something.  But in what way? Usually, someone gets called a Nazi when they are forcefully asserting an opinion, from the standpoint that it is the only acceptable opinion.  But is doing this actually always wrong?  If the goal is avoiding conflict, then we could see how one might think that “never forcefully assert that any opinion is the only acceptable one” would be a good rule.  But if avoiding conflict is actually the goal, then we’re afraid this rule has failed miserably.  As with many “good rules,” the problem with this one is that good people observe it while bad people do not — the result being that the opinions of bad people keep getting forcefully asserted, while the opinions of good people don’t, bringing about a situation like to the one described in this couplet by William Butler Yeats:

        "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
          Are full of passionate intensity."

So, I submit the correction that the metaphoric use of the term Nazi should be confined to people who forcefully assert bad things, whereas someone who forcefully asserts good things should be considered the opposite of a Nazi.  Of course, figuring out the difference would require thinking, and people don't like thinking, which is probably why the “don’t ever assert anything” rule got so popular in the first place.  But you know what?  You’re supposed to think.  Thinking is good.  In fact, I’m going to go ahead and forcefully assert that thinking is good.  Ooh, look at me, I'm a “thinking Nazi!”  Morons.

Normal:  Like natural, this word is far less valuable as an argumentative term than people seem to think it is.  Its only accurate definition refers to what is statistically normal — i.e., to what the majority does or believes, or to what is popular.  So people who would use the argument that something is normal as an argument that the thing in question is also good are arguing fallaciously, as there are any number of obvious examples of things that are normal but not good — eating unhealthy food, taking insufficient or no exercise, lying or breaking promises, believing and repeating gossip, and watching too much TV are just a few.  Even religious people, who seem to prize the idea of normalcy more than most, must be compelled to admit that what is normal is not always good by the simple fact that committing sins is normal, in the sense that the majority of people commit sins.

    Occasionally, someone will even try to defend or exalt a certain idea or behavior as normal even when they do not mean that it is typical of the majority.  In these cases, what the person usually means is that the idea or behavior is acceptable in a moral sense.  This may of course be true, since there are many ideas or behaviors that are perfectly morally acceptable, or even morally desirable, even though they are uncommon — but the person should be advised to use a term other than normal to make this case, since the term is both vague and unpersuasive.

Open-Minded:  When two people are arguing with each other, one will frequently accuse the other of not being open-minded; in fact, they may each accuse the other of this.  But what does it actually mean?  In the sense that most people use it, it means that your opponent is unwilling to consider the possibility that your position might be true.  But should an opponent always do this? Suppose they have proof that your position is false?  If someone tells you that penguins can fly, and you know for a fact that they can’t, are you failing to be appropriately open-minded?  Of course not.  The term only makes sense in situations where more than one explanation is possible.  

    Many people also seem to think that the strangeness of the explanation is an issue, when this is in fact not the case.  Consider a situation where two people are trying to figure out why a few small objects in a room moved around while no-one was there:  one of them insists it was ghosts, and the other says that it may have been a small earthquake, or an electrical disturbance caused by the computer, or the bass from the stereo shaking the table, or that their friends might be playing a joke on them.  The person who says it was ghosts is more likely to accuse the other of not being open-minded, but in fact the reverse is true, because the second person is willing to consider several explanations whereas the first person is willing to consider only one.

Opinion:  Popularly, this term is used to refer to anything that a particular person might believe — and technically it does; the problem is that people tend to make insufficient distinction between different types of opinions.  People frequently use the phrase “I have a right to my opinion” to mean that they are allowed to believe whatever they like, and indeed this is true, but it does not mean that all opinions are equally valid.  As explained in the entry for “Free Speech,” being allowed to believe anything you like is rather like being allowed to say anything you like — it is legally permissible, but that does not make it true.  If one person prefers a certain painting to another, and a second person prefers the second painting, they might agree to disagree, saying that each has a right to their opinion — and indeed, there is no way to prove which of two paintings is better; the matter is entirely subjective.  But what about when someone claims a right to their opinion in a matter where proof exists that they are in fact wrong?  It means that they are allowed to believe this; that the other person cannot do anything about it, or force them to change their mind — and this is true; but being stubborn is hardly the same thing as being right.  1585s believe that it is always better to believe something true than something false — not only in a philosophical sense, but in a moral sense, since almost all moral wrongs are committed by people who have allowed themselves to believe something false.

Prejudice:  This is a serious issue, which is why it really pisses me off when people use this word incorrectly — misusing the word prejudice by applying it to things that aren't actually prejudice trivializes things that actually are prejudice.  So, okay, prejudice is when you assume that some characteristic (like something about their intelligence or abilities) must be true of someone just because another characteristic (like their race or gender) is.  But you probably already knew that, so what's the problem, right?  The problem is when people expand the definition of prejudice to mean not liking anyone for any reason.  Have you ever heard someone try to argue that “I hate prejudiced people” is a contradiction in terms, on the grounds that hating prejudiced people is itself a form of prejudice?  Well, that's a crock of crap, because no it isn't.  Look back to the initial definition, and then look at the word itself: prejudice means pre-judging someone, i.e., assuming something about them is true before you know it is.  If you know that someone is racist, then it is not prejudice to hate them for being racist, since you are not assuming that they're racist; you know they are.  Only what they're doing is prejudice; what you're doing isn't pre-judging, it's just regular judging, which is fine if the person is actually doing something wrong

Prescriptive/Descriptive:  Unlike most of the other terms on this page, these two words are here not because they are misused, but because they are not used at all in situations where they should be used.  A prescriptive (or “pragmatic”) argument is an argument about what someone should or should not do; a descriptive (or “conceptual”) argument is an argument about what is or is not true.  Confusion frequently arises in arguments when someone’s audience thinks their argument is prescriptive, when in reality they are only being descriptive.  For example, if someone argues that humans evolved from apes partly because they began eating meat, which contained enough protein to allow their brains to grow larger, the person is not making an anti-vegetarian argument and saying that there is a moral imperative to eat meat; they are only stating the fact that this is what happened, and not anything about whether eating meat is good or bad.  

    Because so many people are in the habit of believing only what they want to be true, people frequently assume that if someone is asserting that a given thing is true, then they must like the fact that it is true.  For example, if someone doesn’t believe in God, others may accuse them of being “against” God, or of wanting it to be the case that there is no God, or even of disagreeing with every single principle espoused by a particular religion — but these people are confusing a descriptive argument with a prescriptive one; the person may very well wish that there were a God, but simply not believe it to be the case that there is a God.  (NOTE:  Very nearly everyone who doesn't believe in God still wishes that there were a God, including me — of course, the God I wish there were would not have many of the same opinions as the God that most religious people believe to exist.)

Theory:  Since science comes up a lot in politics (when discussing issues like global warming, evolution, or abortion, for example), I thought that theory was an important term to include here, since it is one of those words that people use differently in day-to-day life from what it means in the strict scientific sense.  In day-to-day life, people use the word theory to mean “guess,” like if you tell your friend that you have a theory that So-and-so has secretly been hooking up with So-and-so.  This usage leads to confusion when people argue about things like the Theory of Evolution, because some people think it means that scientists are just guessing.  But in science, you only call something a theory after it has been tested over and over again, and you have a lot of evidence to support it and absolutely no evidence against it, even though you have looked as hard as you could for evidence against it.  In other words, “theory” is the highest “rank” that an idea can have in science; scientists never call anything a fact, because it is considered impolite in science to officially call something a fact (although scientists still use the word “fact” when they are speaking casually to regular people).  The word that scientists use to mean “guess” is hypothesis — you call an idea a hypothesis at the beginning, before you test it, but only call it a theory at the end, after you have tested it in every way you can and it is still the best explanation you have.  

    (NOTE:  The fact that I talked about science here may lead some readers to suspect that The 1585 always agrees with Liberals, but this is not strictly true.  Yes, there are lots of issues where the Conservatives are the ones who disagree with the scientists — but remember that there are also lots of issues where the Liberals are the ones who disagree with the scientists, like with stuff about the differences between men and women, for example.  In pretty much all cases where there is a disagreement between scientists and other people, 1585s agree with the scientists — sometimes this means that we disagree with Conservatives, and sometimes it means that we disagree with Liberals.)

“Think for Yourself”:  This phrase is usually used as a recommendation to people who appear to be under the influence of dogma — but, as is the case in the entry for the term dogma itself, one should think carefully about where the phrase is or is not applicable.  Someone may be told to “think for themselves” if the person appears to have passively accepted what someone else has told them about a certain topic — but is it always wrong to believe what someone else told you?  After all, someone else taught us math and science, and even the words we use when we speak to one another — we did not all figure out for ourselves that light has mass; Einstein proved it, and we believe it because Einstein said so.  But Einstein could prove that he was right with experiments that supported his idea — many of us may not be smart enough to understand the experiments, but we trust that other scientists would have figured it out by now if there was a problem with them.  And besides, when someone tells you to “think for yourself,” they are usually not even really telling you to think for yourself — they are telling to you agree with them.  If what they mean is that their position has more evidence or better arguments to support it, then that is what they should say — and if this indeed what they mean, then the expression is redundant, because they are not telling you to think for yourself so much as they are telling you simply to think at all (and this is in fact usually what the expression basically means).  99% of the times I've ever heard it, the expression “think for yourself” has been worthless.

    This is one of the great difficulties that plagues us when we are choosing what and what not to believe:  it is not always possible to figure out for ourselves whether or not a given idea is true — either because we are not smart enough, or because we do not have the time or the proper equipment.  Very often, we must simply choose which of two (or more) people to believe about a given issue — and even when one person claims to have proof, we may not be able to understand the proof.  And so we are forced to look for clues about who is right by asking ourselves questions: which of the people appears to be smarter? which one do more smart people seem to agree with? which one has been right more often in the past? does one of them have something to gain by lying? when someone objects, does the person explain themselves better, or just get angry? do the people who object have evidence that the person is wrong, or simply want them to be wrong? and so on.  The 1585 will never ask you to believe something simply because I say so.