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September 27, 2018   4 mins

Boris Johnson launched some words out into the world the other week. The bulk of them we can ignore, but there was one line that got widespread attention. “If [the Chequers proposal for a Brexit deal] were adopted,” he grumbled, “it would mean that for the first time, since 1066, our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule.”

Some people took issue with this, including Anoosh Chakelian in the New Statesman, who said that Johnson “appears to have forgotten the Glorious Revolution, when the Dutch king William of Orange was invited by English nobles in 1688 to invade and overthrow James II”.

A large online debate then broke out, in which historians suggested that the Glorious Revolution didn’t count as “foreign rule” because William “slotted in to the existing English constitutional settlement” and “ruled as an English king, not as a Dutch overlord”.

This all sounds like a serious argument, doesn’t it? But there’s something worth noting. No one actually disagrees about anything. Everyone agrees that William was asked to invade by English nobles; that he arrived with an army; that he overthrew James II; and that he became King William III of England and King William II of Scotland, ruling from London, rather than remaining a Dutch king and ruling by proxy through a viceroy.

The entire argument is over whether that set of facts should be included in the definition of the term “foreign rule” or not. If I define it to mean “rule by a foreign person”, it probably does; if I define it to mean “rule by a foreign country”, it probably doesn’t.

The AI theorist and prolific blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky made this point a decade or so ago. If two people are arguing over whether a tree falling in the forest makes as sound if no one hears it, what are they actually arguing about? One is saying: “Every time I’ve listened to a tree fall, it makes a sound. It still makes pressure waves in the air, that’s sound.” The other says: “But no one hears it. No one experiences the sensation of hearing something. That’s what sound is, so there’s no sound.”

The whole argument comes down to one person defining “a sound” as pressure waves in the air, while the other defines “a sound” as a subjective auditory experience. But they both agree that there were pressure waves, that there wasn’t a subjective auditory experience, and that if they were to go into the forest, they’d find a fallen tree.

These are somewhat trivial examples. But it applies just as much to more sensitive subjects. For instance, a large amount of public debate at the moment is dedicated to whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. But once again, the disagreement comes down to definitions (ironically enough, given that the row is in part inspired by the Labour Party not wanting to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of antisemitism).

If you define an antisemite as someone who shouts abuse at Jewish people and paints swastikas on synagogue walls, then obviously he isn’t. But others would define the term to include people who, like Corbyn, detect “the hand of Israel” behind an Islamist terror attack, or think that some British Jews don’t “understand English irony”; they would say that these are examples of antisemitic tropes, and that people who employ them regularly should be considered antisemites.

The trouble is that there can be no right answer here. Words don’t have ‘correct’ meanings; they are defined by how they’re used, and if enough people use them differently, there’s nothing but personal taste to choose between them. So someone can very angrily insist that the definition of antisemitism includes Corbyn; others can equally insist that it doesn’t. Neither will ever be proved correct. A dictionary won’t help; it just tells you how some people use the word. All you can do is go back and forth: “I define it to mean this!” “But I define it to mean that!”

That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Labels, words, have power. If I can convince people to define “foreign rule” in such a way as to not include the Glorious Revolution, then I might be able to convince them take steps against the Jacobite scum. If I can convince people to define ‘antisemite’ in such a way as to exclude Jeremy Corbyn, then I may find it easier to make some of them vote Labour, and vice versa. It matters.

But it doesn’t mean we’re arguing over any real distinction. We both (I assume) agree that Corbyn wouldn’t graffiti a Holocaust memorial, but we also both agree that he did detect the hand of Israel. We agree on all the facts; we just disagree over the definition of ‘antisemite’.

(You could argue that we’re arguing over what Corbyn’s feelings toward Jewish people really are. But arguing about someone’s inner life is even more fruitless than arguing about the definitions of words. Besides, his words and actions are the only window we’ll ever get on to what he really thinks.)

There are reasons to argue about the definition. But they’re not truth-seeking reasons; the reason to argue about the definition of ‘foreign rule’ or ‘antisemite’ (or ‘racism’ or ‘tax’ or ‘gender’ or any one of a million other words) is to get people on board with the cause you want to promote. That’s fine and important.

If you want to argue about real differences, though, you have to get past the definitions to what the thing is underneath. Find what your real disagreements are, and what you expect to happen. I don’t expect Jeremy Corbyn ever to call a Jewish person a racist epithet, but I do expect that we’ll keep finding out stuff about him hanging around with people who repeat the blood libel.

So the question is what we feel about that. Don’t worry about whether the Glorious Revolution counts as ‘foreign rule’: we can just talk about whether the Dutch king invaded at the head of an army, or whether British institutions remained intact. Don’t argue about whether or not a tree “makes a sound” when it falls: ask whether it would make pressure waves in the air, or auditory experiences in someone’s mind. And don’t argue about whether or not Corbyn “is an antisemite”, unless you want to recruit people to your cause: look at the things he does and the things you expect him to do, and ask whether you’re comfortable with them.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.