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Definitional Claims: War of Words

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Suppose that Rachel, who loves playing videogames, and her friend Joey, who enjoys playing Texas hold ’em, engage in the following argument.

Rachel: “E-sports, like League of Legends, should be considered legitimate sports.”

Joey: “I say nay. A virtual sport is not a real sport.”

Rachel: “In e-sports, there’s competition between teams. Physical skill, such as eye—hand coordina

tion, is required. Competitions draw huge crowds. There’s even a world championship.” Joey: “Since when do competition and large crowds define a sport? The World Series of

Poker draws large crowds. It’s even broadcast on ESPN!”

Rachel: “There’s a difference though. Poker requires mental skill, not physical skill.”

Joey: “Au contraire. Poker requires stamina. Furthermore, controlling one’s nonverbal cues

to prevent ‘tells’ is a physical skill.”

Rachel: “The stamina required for poker is more mental than physical. As for remaining stone-faced, it may be a skill, but it is hardly an athletic skill.”

Rachel and Joey are arguing about what constitutes a “sport.” Theirs is a definitional dispute. Although not as common as policy and value disputes, people also disagree on definitions of terms and concepts. Definitional disputes are often part of a larger debate over value or policy. Such controversies center on how to define a concept (e.g., “Is a hot dog a sandwich?”), how best to categorize something (“waterboarding is a form of torture”), or how to classify an action or behavior (“I didn’t steal the car, officer, I borrowed it”). Some examples of definitional issues appear below.

  • • What distinguishes an electric bicycle, or e-bike, from a motor scooter or a motorcycle?
  • • What is the difference between a companion animal and a pet?
  • • Is Beyonce a pop singer, rap/hip-hop artist, or R&B performer? Does it matter that nearly all of her Grammy wins are in the R&B category?
  • • What is the difference between an assault weapon and a hunting rifle? Are gun-control advocates conflating “semi-assault weapons” with automatic weapons, such as machine guns?
  • • What qualifies a film as a “documentary”? Movies that are “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events” aren’t necessarily documentaries.

Building a Definitional Case: More Than Semantic Quibbling

The Dictionary Dilemma

There are a variety of ways to construct a definitional argument. A standard dictionary definition is a good place to begin. Dictionary definitions are not without their limitations, however. Dictionary definitions are based on common usage (i.e., the definitions are gleaned from recurring real-world use of terms). Language evolves. It takes time for dictionaries to adapt. Consider the meaning of the word “gay.” In the traditional Christmas tune Deck the Halls, the phrase “Don we now our gay apparel,” or the lyrics to the Flintstones’ theme song, “We’ll have a gay old time,” the word “gay” had a different meaning than in modern-day parlance.

In addition to changes in meaning, it takes time for new words to find their way into a dictionary. The term “cisgender,” or sometimes just “cis,” to refer to straight people is an example. So are the terms “woke,” “gig economy,” and “microaggression.” Culture bias may be lurking in the definitions of terms such as “marriage” or “racism” (Caplan-Bricker, 2016; Hoyt, 2012). As McKean (2009) cautions, “despite all the thought and work that go into them, definitions, surprisingly, turn out to be ill-suited for many of the tasks they have been set to—including their ostensible purpose of telling you the meaning of a word” (p. 16).

Advancing a Definition: Bright Lines or Blurry Boundaries!’

Sometimes it is possible to draw a clear line between the meaning of two terms or concepts. Sometimes the dividing line is blurry. For example, imagine that two people are arguing about whether “human trafficking” is synonymous with “modern slavery” or distinct from “human smuggling”? What similarities do these terms share? What differences? Even experts disagree on the meaning of these terms (Crosset, 1997; Jansson, 2014; Siller, 2016; Weitzer, 2015). The way terms are defined shapes our perceptions of, and reactions to, them. With this in mind, we look at two stock issues for advancing a definition.

Identifying Definitional Criteria

The first stock issue for defining a term is to identify definitional criteria. Definitional criteria are the key questions or issues surrounding the term in question. For example, in formulating a definition of “human trafficking,” as distinct from “modern slavery” or “human smuggling,” one might employ the following criteria, which we highlight below.

  • • Human trafficking involves recruiting and exploiting people illegally. That is, exploitation is the essence of the crime. According to Siller (2016) “trafficking criminalizes the process of acquiring a person for their exploitation” (p. 407).
  • • Human smuggling, on the other hand, involves moving people across borders illegally. In this regard, Pierce (2014) emphasized that “smugglers always move migrants across national borders... In fact, the UNODC estimates that approximately one quarter of human trafficking victims are exploited within their country of origin” (para. 5).
  • • In contrast, slavery refers to a person as being owned by, or the property of, another, whether the person is relocated or not. As Paz-Fuchs (2016) observes, “the core concept of slavery and the contemporary revulsion from it, is strongly associated with the idea than one individual can own another” (p. 764).
  • • Human trafficking, in contrast to human smuggling, is involuntary, taking place without the victim’s consent. As Richmond (2015) notes, “often, individuals pay significant amounts to smugglers to help them cross a border because they desire to be transported into the country. In contrast, human trafficking by definition is always involuntary because it occurs by prohibited coercive means” (p. 21).
  • • Finally, human trafficking involves some form of coercion, force, deception, or fraud. According to Hume and Sidun (2017), “both the UN and the U.S. definitions emphasize that traffickers use some means (e.g., force, fraud, coercion, abuse of a position of authority) to exploit individuals for commercial gain” (pp. 8—9).

These criteria—illegally exploiting people, against their will, but not necessarily transporting them, or owning them, while using force or coercion—form the basis of a reasonable definition of human trafficking.

Applying Definitional Criteria

The second stock issue for advocating a definition is to apply the definitional criteria. This involves incorporating the criteria you’ve identified into a workable definition. To illustrate, the United Nations’ definition of human trafficking, known as the Palermo Protocol (2000), happens to incorporate many of the same criteria we just identified. Specifically, it argues that trafficking in persons involves:

the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation, (article 3-a)

Some would take issue with this definition, arguing that human trafficking is a form of modern slavery (Leary, 2015). Nevertheless, the criteria provided above would establish a prima facie case for a definition of human trafficking.

Refuting a Definitional Argument

Suppose that you are not advancing a definition, but rather refuting an opponent’s definition. To do so, you have three basic options available. First, you can dispute your opponent’s definitional criteria. You might, for example, revise the criteria offered. Second, you can contend that the definition offered does not satisfy its own criteria. That is, the definition is inconsistent with one or more of the criteria presented. Third, you can offer an alternative definition altogether. To illustrate how this might work, let’s return to our earlier example involving Rachel and Joey: Does League of Legends, a popular multi-player fantasy game, meet the requirements for a “real” sport? Lagaert and Roose (2014) offer the following definition of a sport.

the normal English meaning of‘sport’ requires: (1) the application of some significant element of physical activity; (2) that such physical activity is itself an aim, or that it will have a direct effect on the outcome of the activity; and (3) that physical skill - of which mental skill may be a part, and which includes physical endurance — is important to the outcome. To our minds sport normally connotes a game with an athletic element rather than simply a game. (p. 485)

To counter Rachel’s position that League of Legends qualifies as a sport, Joey could show that it fails to meet at least one of these definitional criteria. For example, he could acknowledge that videogames require limited physical skills, but that pressing buttons with one’s thumbs does not constitute “a significant element of physical activity” as the definition requires.

Second, Joey could argue that unlike high jumping or gymnastics, in which the “physical activity is itself an aim,” operating the controller in an e-sport is only a means to an end. The end is manipulating a virtual character or object.

Third, Joey could also introduce an alternative definition. For example, ESPN shows some e-sports on their network, but ESPN’s president John Skipper said “It’s not a sport—it’s a competition. Chess is a competition. Checkers is a competition” (cited by Tassi, 2014, para. 2).

Summary and Conclusion

In this chapter we examined arguer’s burdens, including the concepts of burden of proof, presumption, prima facie case, and burden of rebuttal. Argumentative burdens vary from field to field. In everyday arguments, the person making a claim has the burden of proof to support that claim. Arguers may attempt to shift the burden of proof unfairly, a fallacy known as appeal to ignorance. Invention is the process of discovering the available arguments and evidence to advance or refute a claim. There are stock issues for advancing different kinds of claims; policy, value or judgment, definition, and fact.


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