The Obsession With Terms

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Whether it’s discussing the rise in homelessness in a city or immigration, sometimes the conversation has a bad habit of veering off into an obsession over terms.

Yes, there are certain terms that people would prefer to use out of respect for a group or situation. A lot of people prefer to use “unhoused” or “unsheltered” as opposed to “homeless,” because they want to emphasize that a person might consider someplace to be home. There’s no issue with that, and occasionally someone may use these phrases if the situation deems it appropriate. In the same way that there’s no issue if someone does not like to use the term “illegal immigrant.” People have their own reasons, and what’s great about the United States is the ability to freely express oneself through language.

But the issue comes when people feel the need to hyper fixated on the language people use, and care more about that than the deeper issue at hand. People have a tendency to get lost in the way things are discussed, and nothing is able to progress or be resolved. In order for change to be invoked or a conclusion to be reached, one must be able to identify when this happens.

If a conversation focuses more on terms than facts and solutions, then the conversation has veered off course. Unfortunately, many would prefer to dwell on the words people are using and police them for political correctness (or even lack of political correctness, at times) as a deflection. Just as resortting to personal insults is a sign of defeat, arguing over terminology is typically a sign to end the discussion.

The only time when focusing on terminology makes sense is when the definitions of the two phrases are fundamentally different. Clarification is obviously important, especially when discussing topics that are nuanced and complicated. This is particularly important when it comes to conversations on social issues, where people may have such different views that they can’t even grasp a universal sense of reality.

So, how can someone tell the difference between clarification and veering off course?

Well, one needs to ask themselves if the discussion of terminology is adding any new information or context. Next, it’s important to consider if it’s being done to ignore the root cause of a problem or meant to mask the weakness in someone’s argument.

While it’s easy to see the political applications of this, as pundits and activists frequently use tactics to navigate away from the flaws in their points, there are plenty of cultural and personal applications as well. For example, while the theological debate is necessary and helpful in Christian circles, some run the risk of being so fixated on slight differences that they lose sight of the core beliefs of the faith.

Here’s the deal: Words matter, but they aren’t always the most important thing. One must consider someone’s intent before overreacting or causing a stir over using a phrase that might not be the most appropriate or just makes them feel good.


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