Semantic disagreements are the worst and comprise a shockingly huge portion of what people argue about. This applies especially to political debates, but is pretty much everywhere. In short, semantic disagreements are disagreements wherein both sides are not even arguing over the same thing.

For example, let’s say I use the word “dog” (literally a sound that comes out of my mouth) to mean “An animal with whiskers that barks and wags its tail”, but you use the word “dog” to mean “A seawater animal with gills and blue fins.” Clearly, if we were to get into a heated debate about “dogs”, we would be talking past each other. It would be stupid of us to get into a prolonged debate about this, or blame the other for “liking an animal you could only play with if you want to hold your breath and get wet.”

Yet, this happens constantly in “intellectual” debates. For instance, two extremely common examples I see involve the words “capitalism” and “racism”. However, there are many, many more painful examples.

Example #1. Many people (especially critics) use the word “capitalism” to mean something like: “A system whereby accumulating material goods is all that matters, while all artistic or spiritual pursuits should be thrown by the wayside” or “A system that mandates constant economic growth”. On the other hand, defenders of so-called capitalism (like your average libertarian) use “capitalism” to mean something like “A system of voluntary and consensual associations among people.” Obviously, we have another dog-as-seawater-animal vs. dog-as-whiskered-wagger situation on our hands.

Example #2. Anti-racist activists use “racism” to mean something like “racial discrimination plus institutional power” (i.e., structural or institutionalized racism), while others use racism to mean “individual acts of discrimination based on race.” Anti-racist activists, therefore, will be able to say things like “Only white people can be racist”, while everyone else is appalled. “How could only white people perpetrate [individual acts of discrimination based on race]? Surely that itself is a racist thing to think!”

Yet, despite the fact that the source of disagreement simply comes down to people using the sound “rayssism” to literally mean two different things (like dog-as-fish vs. dog-as-four-legged-friend), we get intense fighting, defriending and invitations for interviews on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

There’s dog-1 and dog-2. There’s capitalism-1 and capitalism-2. There’s racism-1 and racism-2. As you heard in highschool, “label your shit”.

—Chris N.