Why Definitions Matter: Politics versus Ideology

While I really hate to resurrect old debates, and I really hate to see them come back on some other blawg where a straw man argument is raised that it’s intended to make a point that can’t be made against the real argument, some discussions keep bringing new issues into the mix that themselves are worthy of further discussion.

And so it happens. A little background first for anyone who is so foolish as to not read every post and every comment on Simple Justice.  You may recall that  I questioned Doc Berman’s support for a Kentucky law that sought to promote asset forfeiture. Doug took issue with my position, and then  announced his belief that the blame falls on liberals, who refuse to consider imaginative alternatives to incarceration.  On his own blog, Doug tried to disconnect himself from his own rant by  disavowing the use of “political labels,” not an easy thing to do following a condemnation based entirely on political labels.

Off to the side, Bennett picked up on this anomaly in Doug’s position as well and posted about it.  Doug went over there to  call my post “silly over-reaction,” notwithstanding his feeling compelled to provide an “extended response” to my silly over-reaction.  Does that make his post a “silly extended response?”  I’ll leave syllogisms to others.

But in the comments to Doug’s “extended response,” as well as my “silly over-reaction,” the same thing happened, and this is the point of this post.

Doug’s rant lashed out at liberals and praised conservatives.  Yet, the discussions were about Democrats and Republicans.  This was the point of Bennett’s post, addressing the obvious confusion in definition.  Indeed, over at Doug’s post, no one, including Doug, even made the effort to correct this glaring misdirection.  Here, the confusion was by another blogger for whom I have the utmost respect, but who adamantly refused to see that we were not talking about the same thing.

One of the problems that invariably arises when you engage in discussions like these is that people superimpose their own personal definitions (or project their own idiosyncratic views), making it impossible to talk apples to apples.  Without agreed-upon definitions, we can never be sure that we are talking about the same thing.  And when it becomes obvious that one side is confusing the definitions, as with discussing Democrats but calling them liberals, they tend to insist, strongly, that they aren’t confusing the two because they don’t believe there is any confusion.  To them, the two are the same, and you’re the idiot because you separate the ideology from the politics.

I neither sought, nor anticipated, that my initial challenge to the notion of asset forfeiture (a specific remedy that I believe to be particularly bad) would generate a diatribe against “liberals”.  But after having considered the comments, both by Doug and those who commented on his blog without Doug’s intervention, and Scott Henson here, it dawned on me that it is quite likely that we were never talking about the same thing.  I would have thought that a lawprof would distinguish a term relating to ideology from a political party, but I belief that not to be true now.

If the entire debate was about Democrats versus Republicans, it would have been a very different discussion, at least on my side.  I agree with most of the commenters to Doug’s post that there is little to distinguish between the two.  I would still take issue with the notion that Democrats love incarceration more than Republicans; They both seem to love incarceration, and I don’t see any evidence that one political party loves it more than the other.

So perhaps there was less of a disagreement than would appear, but for the fact that we were arguing apples to oranges.  Or perhaps not.  But whatever the outcome of a Democrats versus Republicans debate, it simply wasn’t the discussion that happened because we were using words divorced from their meaning.  Before we engage in another debate, I’m going to follow  Bennett’s advice and demand that we define our terms up front, so that we don’t waste all those words over nothing.

And finally, I’d like to clean up a few loose ends.  Was my reaction to Doug’s rant an “over-reaction?”  Obviously, I thought it worthy of a post or I wouldn’t have done so.  Others can disagree.  In fact, Doug’s refusal to “agree to disagree” was a large part of my reason for pursuing the issue.  When we debate to the point where neither side is persuaded but there’s nothing new left to say, then reasonable people agree to disagree.  When one side refuses to do so, it becomes problematic.  When it results in a broad-based attack showing underlying animus, it raises entirely different issues.  It seemed to me to compel further discussion.

Was my post “intriguing”, as Doug characterized it in his “extended response,” or “silly” as he called it on Bennett’s blog?  I’m betting that “intriguing” was a euphemism.  But calling it silly surprised me, since it’s usually considered inappropriate for academics to use name-calling as a substitute for reason and substance.  Sure, I realize that some lawprofs aren’t used to being challenged, but that was pretty disappointing.

At the end of the day, however, I view all of this to have served the purpose of airing out differences, even if the airing may have resulted in more confusion than illumination.  I still have great respect for Doc Berman, Scott Henson, and all who’ve added their 2 cents, whether for or against me. 

Whether or not there will be any further comment, posts or discussions about this has yet to be seen, but I’ve said my piece and I will let this rest.  Others may still want to get in their “last licks.”  For some, getting in the final word is very important.  I cede the floor to anyone else who feels the need to opine, and will let whatever I’ve written up to this point speak for itself.

4 comments on “Why Definitions Matter: Politics versus Ideology

  1. Gritsforbreakfast

    I simply, strongly disagree that liberals don’t support mass incarceration.

    Let’s try this another way: The neoconservative movement on the right, which is the segment of the GOP that uses the “tuff on crime” mantra as a club, grew not out of the conservative movement but out of the work of anti-Communist liberals like Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, et. al.. But they were assuredly drawing on LIBERAL ideology, as all historical accounts of neoconservatism agree. They are the dark underbelly to modern, post WWII liberalism, not a rejection of those values.

    Mass incarceration in my view is supported not just in a bipartisan but also a cross-ideological fashion: Big government liberals and neoconservatives are the backbone of support for mass incarceration, and both are offspring of the same ideology.

  2. Doug B.

    SHG: I’m sorry if I got under your skin, and I apologize if any comments I made have troubled you. But, based on this latest post, I’m now really confused about what we are fighting about:

    1. When/where did I ever talk about Democrats and Republicans instead of liberals and conservatives? I did not use either R or D in my post, and most of my commentors did not use those terms either. But you say “Doug’s rant lashed out at liberals and praised conservatives. Yet, the discussions were about Democrats and Republicans.” Can you point me to “the discussions” you are referencing (and I am asking with genuine interest, since you suggest that label confusion was the key problem here).

    2. Perhaps this is all my fault because I started the use of liberal/conservative terms at the end of our first comment debate, though I did so wondering if you were a true “liberal” since you seem so concerned about losses of property. Note that my first use of the term was in talking about “other (so-called?) liberals.” I often find puzzling that many self-described liberals seem to be concerned about a lot of stuff other than human liberty.

    3. I did use the term “silly over-reaction” to describe some of your extreme assertions about me. In my last comment to our original debate, I used the term “liberal” twice and “conservative” once at the end of an extended substantive debate. As a result, you accused me of having a “smoldering hatred of liberals” and of being a “liberal-blaming conservative” and of being a “liberal in sheep’s clothing.” I continue to think these invectives are “silly over-reactions,” though I mean no insult through my use of the term “silly.”

    4. I did find your mass incarceration post “intriguing” in many ways, which is why I gave it an extended entry on my blog. It also generated some interesting comments from lots of different commentors. As I explained in point 3 above, I thought the name-calling aspects of this intriguing post were a “silly over-reaction.” Perhaps I am the silly one from trying to avoid calling other persons names in my substantive posts.

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