The Importance of Definitions

"The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms."
-Socrates
The idea of needing a definition is one of the most annoying things I have ever encountered. Not the absolute most annoying, but it's pretty high on the list. I was once in a discussion-based class where one student would consistently request definitions. These definitions were seemingly pointless, since everyone clearly knew what we were talking about. She was fine outside of class, but in class, we groaned when she opened her mouth. How unfair we were to her. The next year, she learned her lesson, and didn't ask for any more definitions. At first, we had peaceful bliss. Until, that is, we realized something that we should have seen a lot sooner. She was right, and we needed her. As the weeks went on, it would become apparent that we needed a definition, and slowly the people in class turned to look at her, each of us too scared to make the suggestion. But she'd learned her lesson, and just smiled back at us, enjoying our discomfort which we so clearly deserved. Finally, I couldn't handle it anymore. "I hate to say the D word, but I think we need a definition."

Often, we think we know what something means, but don't actually know well enough for a proper discussion. One example of this is when I was competing with Stoa in Lincoln-Douglas Values Debate. I provided my definition for the word "mitigate" which was essentially to make a situation less harsh or severe. After my opponents had had a chance to respond, I would ask them whether they agreed with my definitions. The most common answer was that yes, they did. At this point, assuming that their case focused on escalation, (which many did,) I had already won the debate. Why is that? Because they didn't pay attention to the definitions.
Let me explain. When we say that we're going to mitigate a conflict, that's often taken to mean that we'll intervene. So many people would make the argument that intervention was bad, and assume that mitigation and intervention were the same thing. But if they had actually payed attention to my definition, they would know what I actually meant when I said that word. Just because mitigation is often interpreted as intervention doesn't mean that that's what the word means. Since they ignored my definition, they were really ignoring my entire case. And since they had ignored my case, I was able to go back and point out that they had agreed to my definition. Therefore, their entire case was irrelevant.

Mismatching definitions are the cause of much confusion in the world. Jane and Harry, for example, both believe in point A. However, Jane uses description A and Harry uses description B. Because their definitions aren't synchronized, they each think that the other believes something different. In another area, Harry believes in point A while Sally believes in point B. But both use description B, so they think that they agree, when actually they're using different meanings of the words.

Obviously, I'm not saying that people should go around defining every word they use. However, when it comes to actual discussion, definitions should be examined, especially if there seems to be some discrepancy. In addition, people should be careful to know their own definitions and what they mean when they speak; in some cases, it may even be necessary to see if there's a better word that they could use. But without definitions, we cannot have understanding. Words are meaningless without a common meaning. And that meaning, as it turns out, is called the definition. There was a total of one student in our class who understood how important definitions are. When you become that one person, you'll be pushing yourself to a higher level.
"Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning."
-Maya Angelou

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