Playing the semantics game

To the editor,

Today’s social and political climate is the most divisive in modern history; or at least that’s what I keep hearing. Between Democrats and Republicans, Covid or climate change believers and deniers, and now social justice warriors and white supremacists, I see the same arguments circling each other without meaningful acknowledgment. Not only are the arguers burning bridges with each other, they are also burning apart their rhetorical understanding of one another. What I’m referring to is that in many arguments today, one party defends semantics; the use of a word or phrase in a sentence, while the other argues pragmatics; the use of a word or phrase within a greater context.

Here’s a simple example of a semantic argument: “Apples have red skin, therefore it is not racist if a football team is called the Redskins.”

What this argument claims is that the term “Redskin” is not racist because we use that phrase to describe a fruit. However, this negates the pragmatic argument that a football team, owned by a white person, is profiting off a stereotype used to “other” a group of systemically oppressed people. But to the semantic arguer, we’d also have to stop saying that apples have red skin.

Here’s a real example of a semantic argument from Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe on climate change:

“In case we have forgotten – because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record – I ask the chair, do you know what this is?” Inhofe takes a snowball out of a plastic bag, “It’s a snowball – just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out.”

Inhofe attempted to discredit climate change without acknowledging the pragmatics of it; that the concept itself is a pattern of weather over time. To simply say that

it snowed in the winter is to say that “Indeed, apples do have red skin, so that phrase is not racist.”

With this understanding, I can now introduce my main point. We are going into our third week of protesting since George Floyd’s death, I am seeing people use these tactics to belittle the Black Lives Matter movement.

The semantic arguer says, “All lives matter and to say otherwise is racist against non-black people.”

While the pragmatic arguer says, “Black lives matter because there is a history of disproportionate systematic oppression and violence against black community members that still exists today.”

Now this is where things get a little bit sensitive with a personal example. I recently outed a business owner on my Instagram for being racist after lecturing me about “Muslims converting the Blacks to conspire against (white people).” He responded with a colossal bombardment of comments, but one of them stood out: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

This is where semantics has ruined discourse. You can say anything you want, but as long as you preface with, “I’m not racist, but ... ,” semantic arguers will agree.

We need to step away from conformation-comfort and start looking at the world pragmatically. Oh, there’s “Black on Black crime?” Why do you say that? Is it to recognize a history of traumatic oppression that puts communities of color in survival situations, or is it to negate that the traumatic oppression carries on today?

If you say you’re not racist, you’re ignoring systems that benefit your daily life and therefore are likely in fact, a racist; especially if you say otherwise.

Look at the big picture. Everything – every cell’s mitosis; every tree’s collapse; every atom’s fusion; every birth and death; as well as every argument – is in the same picture. To say anything without knowledge of the rest, is a fallacy. I understand that’s impossible, but we must do our best, and semantics is not that.

– Aidan Multhauf, Durango