I hang around on a conservative blog, and every now and then its members get into a flurry of definition. It suddenly matters, more than anything else, whether a particular thing is ‘conservative’ or not. Is unbridled capitalism conservative? Is gay marriage? Is the latin mass?
To be fair, some of the people around that blog are so much more conservative than I am that they may believe in platonic ideals, in which case these definitional concerns might make a little sense — though even then, they would just push the question along the line to ‘Well then, am I a conservative?’ But I think most of us are modern enough to agree that there really is no holotype specimen of a conservative on the shelves of the Smithsonian, or anywhere else. Nor a holotype feminist, christian, man, american, etc.
So why do we give a rip? Whenever these definitional flaps arise, they seem to be loaded with a bunch of assumptions. For instance:
1. There are a bunch of people out there who are invested in being X, so if we change the definition of X we can change their behavior. As in, ‘a conservative case for gay marriage.’ Or ‘the conservative thing to do is to conserve the environment.’ Has this ever worked? I see no evidence that there are many people more concerned with adhering to their chosen labels than with making their own decisions. Or rather, I see evidence that there are perhaps a dozen of those people, and they are all writing blogs to and about each other like a bunch of bots — because who really lets a word override their own judgment except a robot?
2. There are a lot of people out there who hate this label, but if we define it properly they will sign on. As in about half of what is posted about feminism. Ineffectively, I might add. Because nobody who’s paid the slightest attention thinks that simply believing women should have the same rights as men is all there is to feminism. It’s just the sugar coating.
3. Maintaining the integrity of the label matters, because how else will we establish political movements? Well gosh, I don’t know! Perhaps we should ask the Democrats, who were for slavery until they were against it. Or the Republicans, who — you get the drift. It’s funny, isn’t it, that the actually successful political parties are the least to be believed when they define themselves.
4. Most people aren’t paying attention, and will support anybody who identifies as X. So if we just convince the leaders of X to change their positions, the sheeple who vote based on labels will plod along behind them. This one’s the most plausible, in my mind. Except, if that’s the underlying reasoning, carrying out your redefinition project on the public internet seems a tad self-defeating. What happened to the good ol’ smoke-filled room?
Part of me hates labels, and part of me realizes that we need them to talk about things. At the very least, we need them for google searches. But this idea that once I’ve signed on to a label I then somehow belong to its self-appointed redefiners, to be steered hither and yon at their whim — that really steams my socks.
Because I know how a label ought to be established. I was trained in systematics, and I know that the first step is to collect the type specimen, kill it, and soak it in 10% formaldehyde. If it’s large, you may have to open the body cavities first. Then you wash it in water for about a day and by gradual steps transfer it into 70% ethyl alcohol. You describe it, carefully referencing all previous names and the International Society for Zoological Nomenclature criteria. You publish your paper in a reputable journal, and deposit your type specimen in a museum.
Any self-appointed movement definer out there who wishes to go through this procedure will have my respect, and maybe even my attention. Until then, I think I’ll do what my father always advised when we got into definitional arguments. I’ll “Call it Fred,” or Donna, or David.
Building a group out of Freds, Donnas and Davids may seem like a long-term, inefficient, piecemeal endeavor. But think of all the time I won’t waste arguing about its definition on the internet!