We need to draw distinctions. The words we use are crucial to this endeavor. They matter. To deny this is to become a deconstructionist, and engage in self-defeating activities like writing lengthy books on how words have no meaning. Splitting hairs seems a far worthier past time…
Our modern means of communication favor brevity, be they ten-second sound bites, thousand-word blog posts, or 140-character tweets. They do not favor extended analyses or the drawing of distinctions. Indeed, attempts to draw distinctions are met with impatience at best and revulsion at worst. One is either a tiresome pedant or a malicious waster of time and effort.
This should not be so. Our discourse needs more distinctions, not fewer. The purpose of this essay is to defend hair-splitting, to laud nit-picking, to coronate quibbling as worthy and necessary endeavors.
The scholastic dictum states, “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” This saying is a reminder that there is always more to be understood, and provides sound strategy in a debate, lest one become trapped through imprecision. This phrase is the respected cousin to the much-maligned exemplar of scholastic decadence, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” No medieval ever asked this question, though medievals did debate whether more than one angel could be said to occupy the same place. But this was a worthwhile question, inquiring into the relationship between physical and non-physical realities. But that question is not considered in this age, incurious or dubious as it is about the spiritual realm. Medievals would probably find our investigations equally superfluous. The look on the face of Aquinas, say, as he read descriptions of courses in social-science departments would straddle the line between comedy and tragedy.
People attempt to sweep away such questions or clarifications with the reductive phrase, “It’s just semantics.” The claim being made is that there is no substantial difference between two words or phrases, that they merely use different signs to convey the same concept. Sometimes this is true. There is no significant difference between “car” and “automobile”—though the latter is more expansive and could also include trucks, ATVs, and tanks, to insist on a car being called an “automobile” would not provide a useful distinction. But all too many times the claim that “it’s just semantics” is used as a hammer to beat down a legitimate distinction. Whether a couple who behaves as husband and wife are actually married or not is dismissed by some as a mere semantic difference—call it what you will, all that matters is that they love each other. This ignores, or attempts to obviate, the deep meaning of a public vow in a committed relationship. This is a significant difference.
Even words that are essentially synonymous denotatively carry significant differences connotatively, such that they could not properly be used interchangeably. J.R.R. Tolkien notes this fact while lamenting its neglect in one of his published letters:
And the meaning of fine words cannot be made ‘obvious,’ for it is not obvious to any one: least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. They think argent ‘means’ silver. But it does not. It and silver have a reference to x or the chemical Ag, but in each x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation: x+y or x+z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different responses, but also because they are not in fact used when talking about Ag in the same way. It is better, I think, at any rate to begin with, to hear ‘argent’ as a sound only (z without x) in a poetic context, than to think ‘it only means silver.’ There is some chance then that you may like it for itself, and later learn to appreciate the heraldic overtones it has, in addition to its own peculiar sound, which ‘silver’ has not. I think this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies—and alas! Little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them. (Letters, p. 234)
Another common attack against the drawing of distinctions is to call it “simplistic” or “black-and-white thinking.” We are told that things are much more complex, that the world exists in shades of gray, and that we should intuit our way through these matters rather than create artificial barriers between things. This ignores the central fact that gray is merely a combination of black and white. There can be no gray without these two being involved. Intuiting our way through the gray, then, when properly understood, is not a nebulous feeling out of inexactitudes, but rather a defining between where the black ends and the white begins.
Our age prefers to live in a gray world, which is inherently foggy, and thus it loses its way. It pursues the wrong paths of investigation because it does not ask the right questions. It does not ask the right questions because it makes the wrong assumptions. It makes the wrong assumptions because it does not properly define or make distinctions. The Supreme Court infamously ruled on a supposed constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade while acknowledging that it was not engaging the central question of when human life began and whether the unborn child thus possessed legal rights. The Court’s majority likewise re-defined marriage in the Obergefell decision while denying it was doing such, though dissenting justices identified just what was taking place. Gender theory is perhaps a preeminent example of erasing distinctions, as it argues that all differences between male and female are in the end semantic, products of culture and power and not identifications of natural realities. At the same time, it introduces a novel distinction between sex and gender, arguing that there is no connection between the two. Even when our society does split hairs, then, it splits the wrong ones.
At root it is a metaphysical issue: a thing either is or is not, and it cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, as any first-year philosophy student ought to be able to tell you. To know whether something is the case, we need first to define our terms. We need to say what makes something this and not that. We need to draw distinctions. The words we use are crucial to this endeavor. They matter. To deny this is to become a deconstructionist, and engage in self-defeating activities like writing lengthy books on how words have no meaning. Splitting hairs seems a far worthier past time.
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