Eliezer Yudkowsky gets at the thing that probably bothers me the most about almost all public discourse these days on politics, religion, philosophy, and so on.
You get a very different picture of what people agree or disagree about, depending on whether you take a label’s-eye-view (Albert says “sound” and Barry says “not sound”, so they must disagree) or taking the test’s-eye-view (Albert’s membership test is acoustic vibrations, Barry’s is auditory experience).
More often than not, I get quickly frustrated with how people resort to ambiguous and undefined words in an attempt to argue their point: “socialism”, “conservative”, “racist”, and so on.1 It leads to unproductive arguments, in that people tend to be talking past each other and can’t even figure out what they agree on. Much less have a chance at convincing anyone to think differently about a topic.
To be fair, the actual process of tabooing your words during an argument is difficult, as all parties need to agree to do it, and it can be rather time consuming.2 But the actual process of doing it to ones own beliefs is, I think productive.
That’s not to say that these words can’t have clear, unambiguous definitions; just that in common discourse they generally don’t that the people engaged in discourse all agree to. ↩
This is one key reason I tend to prefer argumentation by pen than in person: time consumption is less of an issue. There’s also time to think, consider, and reason about arguments. ↩