Defining terms so that they align with values

Anecdote 1:  My son is now, and always has been, fascinated by weapons.  He’s especially intrigued by sniper rifles, and their spectacular range, especially when in the hands of a talented shooter.  I therefore emailed my son a link to an article about two British snipers in Afghanistan who killed 75 Taliban fighters in just 40 days.  Mr. Bookworm was in the room when my son read the article, and he started reading it too.

Mr. Bookworm was horrified.  “I can’t believe you sent our son this stuff.  These are cold-blooded murderers.  They boast about killing people.”

My son froze.  Had mommy just sent him the written equivalent of a snuff film?

I responded, “Are you calling my father a murderer?  [As Mr. Bookworm and my son both know, my father spent five years fighting Nazis, sometimes in hand-to-hand bayonet combat.]  This is war, not murder.  In war, you kill the enemy before he kills you.”

My son relaxed.  Mr. Bookworm harrumphed, but subsided.

Anecdote 2:  Last night, we got around to watching HBO’s television show about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred 100 years ago this month.  The show was interesting insofar as it had interviews with descendants of those who survived the fire (including one of the factor owners).  The pictures of the young women who died were moving.  The show was also boring insofar as it was one of the most heavy-handed pro-union polemics I’ve ever seen.  It was as if the SEIU wrote the script.  Subtlety would have been more attractive and, probably, more effective.

When the show ended, Mr. Bookworm said to me, “You and your right wing wackos want to get rid of all those protections.  You want to go back to the time when nothing stopped the rich people from exploiting the workers.”

“I don’t know where you get that idea,” I said.  “I think it’s a good thing for the government to impose minimal, reasonable standards for workplace safety.”

“Hah!  ‘Minimal.’  That’s like no standards at all,” he responded.

“No,” I replied.  “That’s not what I mean.  I just mean that bureaucracies tend to be self-propelling, and they enact ever more standards.  I’m totally on board with life-saving safety standards.  But you know that OSHA gets involved in everything from chairs to types of pens used.  If they could, they’d dictate what color paint to have on the wall, because more people find pink soothing, while some people say that green makes them bilious.”


I thought of this little exchange when I read Evelyn Gordon’s post about the way in which the international community has cheapened to meaninglessness such terms as “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.”

It’s hard to argue with the Israeli diplomat who called Richard Falk, the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian rights who accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” an “embarrassment to the United Nations” yesterday. But the problem isn’t that Falk lies, or even that he does so with the UN’s imprimatur. The real problem is the larger trend he represents: The self-proclaimed “human rights community” increasingly treats minor issues as indistinguishable from major crimes.


By defining “ethnic cleansing” so broadly as to even include tenant evictions, Falk is essentially equating such evictions to events like the Srebrenica massacre, in which Bosnian Serbs massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, and demanding that the world be equally outraged by both. But humans have a limited capacity for outrage, and the international community has a limited capacity to intervene. Thus demanding international intervention in cases like this actually reduces the likelihood of intervention in genuine cases of ethnic cleansing like Srebrenica — i.e., in precisely those cases where the victims most need help.

My interactions with a liberal show precisely the same thing:  To a liberal, two soldiers fighting a war against a committed enemy determined to kill them (and, as 9/11 shows, us) are “murderers.”  In the same extremist vein, the government should control workplaces, because all safety issues are equally serious.

In both situations, Mr. Bookworm’s “harrumph” was a tacit admission that I’d talked him down from such silly and egregious definitions.  Most liberals, however, function in a vacuum or an echo chamber.  They never have anyone applying logic to their increasingly Orwellian vocabularies.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the Lefties never left their houses.  As long as they control the media and most educational institutions, though, it’s a big problem.  We need to talk them down harder and faster if we don’t want our world reduced to flammable, meaningless mush.