Define your insults, you Jabberwock!

Bill O’Reilly recently interviewed Barack Obama. Comedian Bill Maher was upset at the number of times O’Reilly interrupted Obama. In fact, he thought O’Reilly’s conduct was “unpatriotic.”

Presumably, Maher meant this as an insult and not a compliment. The implicit assumption is that “unpatriotic” is something you do not want to be.

The Free Dictionary defines patriotic as “feeling, expressing, or inspired by love for one’s country.” According to Maher, O’Reilly was doing something opposed to this, namely, that he was disrespecting the president by talking over him. This works if you allow “Obama” to stand in for “country.”

There is a problem with using the word “unpatriotic” this way. First of all, there is clearly a distinction between Obama and the United States. Maher obviously knows this, so he must not have been using the common, dictionary definition of the term.

Perhaps what Maher means is that patriotism entails loving your country plus respecting your president. In this case, its antonym “unpatriotic” has lost most of its force as an insult. It is one thing to accuse someone of hating “what America stands for,” and another to say they possess bad manners. If Maher had made his understanding of the term explicit at the beginning, no one would care that he was just accusing O’Reilly of bad manners, and no one would be talking about it now (as people on cable TV are).

A similar problem exists with other common insults whose meanings are vague. For instance, those who oppose wars or massive military spending are often called “weak on defense.” It is not at all clear what it means to be “weak” on defense, or “soft” on defense. If someone is called weak on defense because they oppose an aggressive war, then to be weak on defense is no insult at all. In fact, it is morally obligatory to be weak on defense, if it is defined to mean opposition to aggressive wars.

There are two lessons we should take away from this:

1) When someone accuses you of doing X, and you don’t know what X is or you don’t know why it matters, just ask the person why it matters. It is that simple. Barring this, there is no sense in retorting that in fact you do not do X. For instance, do not argue that you are in reality very tough on defense before you know why it is wrong to be weak on defense. Depending on your verbal assailant’s definition, weakness on defense may be perfectly acceptable.

2) A term that denotes something genuinely bad can lose its meaning through inflation, that is, by becoming overly broad. As an example, anti-semitism used to mean hatred of Jews. While it carried that connotation, anti-semitism was certainly bad. Now, according to the U.S. State Department, anti-semitism means demonizing not just Jews but Israel by “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and delegitimizing Israel by “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, and Israel the right to exist.” These beliefs are certainly not on a moral plane with a hatred of Jews. In fact, it is debatable whether they are wrong at all. Under this new definition, anti-semitism has ceased to denote something truly offensive and may even be defensible. If you want to maintain that anti-semitism is bad, do not include these other beliefs in its definition.


2 Responses to “Define your insults, you Jabberwock!”

  1. David R. Henderson Says:

    Excellent post. Very nicely done.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thank you, David. By the way, I haven’t seen your columns on lately. Have you stopped writing for the site?

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