Artillery Row

Deviating definitions

Andrew Tettenborn says the trend of redefining certain terms not only hinders social communication but is also almost literally Orwellian

Eight years ago this month, fanatical Ukrainian white supremacist Pavlo Lapshyn stabbed an innocent 82-year-old Muslim to death as he walked home from prayers in Birmingham. This week the victim’s daughter, according to the Guardian, made an interesting plea. It was not enough to recognise that her father had been stabbed because of his religion. The government needed, she said, to go further, and adopt an official definition of Islamophobia that had been put together by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims in 2018: namely, that “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness and perceived Muslimness.”

It thus already has a definition. The idea that it should also need a second “official” one, apparently different from common usage, has an archaic feel to it

To an ordinary observer, this is a highly curious demand. Islamophobia is a word in common usage. There is not much difficulty about what people understand by it: Collins Dictionary defines it laconically as a “hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture.” It thus already has a definition. The idea that it should also need a second “official” one, apparently different from common usage, has an archaic feel to it. It reminds one of the old linguistic bickerings between conservatives and liberals, with the former backing fixed meanings for words and seeking to correct perceived neologisms and heterodoxies even if they reflected common usage, while the latter preferred to record what people actually said and wrote, without too much concern about how wrong that might seem to their predecessors.

If this was a one-off event, we could dismiss it; but it isn’t. The idea of prescriptive or official definitions is gaining remarkable traction. Also over Easter this year, for instance, the International Council of Museums, with apparent support from the British Museum and others, discussed adopting an official designation of museums as being, among other things, “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures.” Earlier, in 2019, the Labour Party and others had come under pressure to accept a bespoke definition of anti-semitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: namely, a “certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”, but might take other forms, including measures directed towards non-Jewish individuals. Notoriously a “hate incident” has since 2000 been officially described by police forces generally as something “perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any non-crime incident motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.” And this before you even start on definitions of racism produced by race relations bodies or, for that matter, of women by those determined to avoid offence to trans activists.

Such manipulation of language ought to worry us, for a number of reasons. For one thing, setting up usages very different from what ordinary people actually say or think seriously impedes communication. If someone refers to Islamophobia, are they talking about simple personal dislike of Muslims and Islam, or are they evoking an esoteric kind of racism? Is talk of a hate incident a reference to something actually motivated by dislike of someone who does not fit in, or something which a third party sees – perhaps entirely misguidedly – as motivated by dislike for people in one of a number of pretty arbitrary categories?

Setting up usages very different from what ordinary people actually say or think seriously impedes communication

But it gets worse than that. Dubbing as a hate incident anything that anyone thinks is motivated by hate not only serves to confuse: it is also a direct attack on our intuition about the nature of things, which is that either an action is motivated by hate or it isn’t, and that if someone thinks it is when in fact it isn’t he is simply wrong. Again, our instinct is to regard racism as actual personal prejudice; the idea of systemic or structural racism seeks deliberately to contradict this and characterise as racism, with all its connotations, something most of us would think simply was not.

This process of dislocating our thought processes may be in part deliberate. It certainly benefits a certain intellectual elite. Even without going into allegations of slightly dodgy academic practices under which a fairly small number of doubtful articles spawn a minor citation industry and thus gain respect they do not deserve, erecting a whole new class of definitions has the effect of setting up their proponents as more intelligent than the rest of us and therefore better qualified to discuss such matters than we are. It also may have the effect of discouraging making scepticism more difficult. If you, for example, posit some underlying but ultimately unprovable substratum of “structural racism” as the real source of inequalities, it makes it hard for an old-fashioned liberal to argue with you. (This, one suspects, may be the real reason for the woke outcry at the doubt thrown by the Sewell Report on the significance of structural racism: by putting the whole issue of the present effect of racism in Britain back on the menu for argument, it has removed a great deal of scope for shutting down debate).

This leaves to the last, however, the real difficulty of the retreat into official or expert definitions. If they do not reflect actual usage and indeed often contradict itwhat purpose do they serve? The answer is not difficult: as readers will almost certainly have noticed, almost every single one is aimed at grinding a specific political or social axe. Define Islamophobia as a form of racism, as the and you immediately wrong-foot anyone with concerns about the effects of militant Islam. Define a museum as a democratising space for critical dialogue, and you gain credibility in the arts world as someone concerned to strike a blow against artistic elitism and in favour of cultural activism. Describe a hate incident as anything perceived to be hostile to a given class, and you pave the way to restricting speech on the basis of mere perceived offensiveness: and so on.

This move towards new-style definitions divorced from ordinary people’s ideas turns out to be almost literally Orwellian

In short, this move towards new-style definitions divorced from ordinary people’s ideas turns out to be almost literally Orwellian. Instead of language giving us a common point of reference from which to launch rational argument, it is being bent to do almost the opposite: it is becoming something like Newspeak, “designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” The only difference is that, ironically, the job is now being done not by an established government wishing to consolidate its power, but by a self-serving group of people whose aim is to subvert it. But the damage is the same in either case.

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