rhetorical gerrymandering, n. Unilaterally redefining the borders of a word’s meaning to win an argument.

Imagine if you and I lived in the same neighborhood and commuted across town to the same workplace every day. You have a car. I do not. You drive to and from work everyday. I take the bus. Now imagine that you and I sign a contract wherein you agree to “give me a lift” in 2019 for $500. Being American, you think you just agreed to a carpooling arrangement.

But unbeknownst to you, I was surreptitiously referring to the British definition of “lift” (that is, elevator). When this eventually became clear, would you honor your commitment? Would you build me an elevator in 2019 for the bargain-basement price of $500? Of course not. You’d quite rightly maintain that you never would have agreed to those terms if you’d known what I meant by “lift”.

When activists engage in this sort of sleazy wordplay, I refer to it as rhetorical gerrymandering. Here’s how it’s done: (1) Begin with a word, phrase, or concept like “racism” or “hate speech” that (a) has a commonly understood meaning, and (b) is commonly understood to be good or evil. (2) Sneak in a weird, atypical definition (e.g., racism is only racism when certain people do it, hate speech is only hate speech when it’s about certain people, etc.). (3) Now claim that anyone who is against this thing that is commonly understood to be evil, or for this thing that is commonly understood to be good, must agree with your policy proposal, analysis, etc.

It’s a clever hustle. Beware of it.

—John Faithful Hamer, Welcome to Likeville (2018)