Persuasive Definitions


Charles L. Stevenson coined the term "persuasive definitions" (Ethics and Language, 1944). It means: to apply words with favorable or unfavorable connotations to things or actions in such a way as to substitute for actual argument. Examples abound in political discourse nowadays.

I'll focus on just one: "invest." Politicians repeatedly tell us Americans to "invest" in our children, education, job retraining, medical and other research, defense, infrastructure, a healthy environment, clean energy, energy independence, transportation, progress, the future — whatever. Here "invest in" means "have the government spend more money on." More fully, it means "have the government spend more money on such things — money raised by taxes and by increasing the national debt."

What further examples can readers contribute?

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Luther Jett

"Liberal": From the same root as "Liberty", but often meaning the opposite.

Jon Harrison

How about the "Patriot" Act? What's patriotic about restricting the freedom of U.S. citizens? The "War on Drugs" is another one. That war is being fought not against illegal drugs, but rather against individual freedom on two fronts: first against the citizenry in general (in that all of us have lost some of our personal freedom to law enforcement imperatives); and second specifically against drug users, who may not, the state says, ingest certain substances, even in the privacy of their homes.

One could just go on and on. Remember "user fees"? Recall the "police action" of 1950-53 in Korea. Think of it, over 40,000 U.S. citizens, not to mention countless foreigners, died in a police action. Speaking of police actions, wasn't Janet Reno trying to "save the children" at Waco? Now you've got me started, Professor Yeager. Here's another one: "budget shortfalls." Wait, I must go -- the ghost of George Orwell is knocking on my door . . .

Fred Hewitt

Hi Jon,

Looks like you could write the book on political words. Or at least the first volume.

Fred Hewitt

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of politics is that so many of the words used have multiple and confusing definitions. I am certain that a book about this problem would have considerable heft. In most areas of human endeavor there is considerable effort to carefully define word meanings. But in politics, in which the goal is to control individuals by coercion or deception, vague language is a useful tool. This particularly the case in majority or plurality elections where the marginal votes have such extraordinary value that any thing goes in order to defeat the other side (there being only two viable sides). The value of the marginal vote not only account for the deceptive language but also the large expenditures to achieve election victories.

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