As long as words are left undefined, their meanings are vague and are left up to the listener’s or reader’s imagination. Many on the left have manipulated language in this way…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Shannon Holzer as he explores the nature of a definition and how liberals uphold—or fail to uphold—essential definitions in their rhetoric. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
What’s in a Definition?
Defining one’s terms is important. Yet, terms are often left undefined when speaking about the most important of subjects. In order to be understood, one should take great pains to articulate what is meant by the words that come out of one’s mouth. However, what if one is trying to hide what she truly means or wants to evade a revealing question? In this case, she may use words that are vague and unclear. Furthermore, vague language is of good use in furthering a cause or convincing others of the truth or falsity of a controversial proposition. I believe that this is an abuse of language. Moreover, I believe that many in education, the political class, and the media are the biggest perpetrators of linguistic manipulation. One cannot deny that both sides of the political aisle are guilty. Yet, it seems that those on the left side of social issues intentionally evade univocal language. In this essay, I intend to show that the political left abuses the definitional process in many different ways and on many different subjects. In order to show this abuse, I must first give an account of two different types of definitions.
There are objects, and there are words that we use to tag these objects. For example, an object that has four wheels and an engine that is used for transportation is tagged with the word “automobile.” There are also other automobiles that have two wheels. These are called “motorcycles.” Another automobile has an open container in its rear and is used for hauling things. This is called a “truck.” By now, the reader should be thinking all of this is obvious and trivial. And while it is obvious, as will soon be shown, it is most certainly not trivial. What I have given is an example of an essential definition. Essential definitions start with objects and show how to classify them by use of their genera and species. That is, essential definitions show where objects belong in a class of like things. These show how something specific fits into a general category. One must remember most of all that essential definitions are always about the object or thing being tagged.
Another type of definition is called the nominal definition. The nominal definition has to do with the word, not with the object. To give a nominal definition is to show how a word is used. For example, in defining the word “table” nominally one would describe the different uses of the five letter word. For instance, one could say that the word table is used to refer to the list of elements known as the periodic table of elements. He could also show that the word table is used to refer to a flat surface upon which items are placed. Note that the same word (t.a.b.l.e) is used to refer to more than one non-identical object. More importantly, note that it is about the word, not the objects, that words tag. It is this type of definition that many on the political left use to their political advantage on sensitive social issues.
While there are more definitions than the essential and nominal types, it is around these two types that most of the political sleight of hand takes place. Why is it that I believe that the liberal left is guiltier of linguistic trickery? It is because many of the liberal elite deny that such things as essences actually exist. Essences are the “whatness” of a thing. It is the essence that makes one set of atoms, cells, etc. a cow and another set of atom, cells, etc. a horse. Whatever this property is, it is essential for a thing to belong to the larger class of objects. For example, Doberman Pinchers, German Shepherds, Chihuahuas, and Great Danes all share an essential property that puts them in the genera called canine. If this property is not present, then the object does not belong in the class. Thus, even though a Tabby is a four-legged, furry animal with whiskers, it does not fit into the category of canine. It belongs to feline because that is its essence. One might say that it is merely DNA that places one in a category, and they would be partially correct. It is “in the DNA,” but why does Great Dane DNA and Pomeranian DNA belong in the same category? After all, Persian Cats and Pomeranians certainly are of similar size, weight, and are very fluffy. On the other hand, Great Danes have short hair and are massive compared to their shorter fluffier canine counterpart, the Pomeranian. There is something similar and necessary that all instances of canine DNA share.
Notice that I am talking about the objects that are called dog and not the word dog. If there are no such things as essences, then there are no such things as essential definitions. All that we can speak about are words. Thus, when defining Great Danes and Chihuahuas as dogs all that is meant is that they have the word in common, nothing more. One could imagine lobbying the zoology department at any research university to start calling Pomeranians cats, thus broadening the use of the word cat to include small, fluffy, lap dogs. It would seem of course that the word dog would no longer apply. However, with nominal definitions, a Pomeranian can be both a cat and a dog. This is because one is merely saying we use the word dog in this way and we also use the word cat in this way. What it is not saying is that one’s pet Pomeranian is actually a dog (which is a non-cat) and actually a cat (non-dog). What is being stated has to do with words and not with objects.
At this point, the savvy reader should see where this is going. By rejecting the existence of essences and using nominal definitions, the liberal can manipulate arguments over sensitive social issues into their favor. The following are just a few examples of social issues where those on the left use this technique to evade truth, convince the uninformed, and further their political agendas.
As long as words are left undefined, their meanings are vague and are left up to the listener’s or reader’s imagination. Many on the left have manipulated language concerning rights. It is because liberals make use of the nominal definition of the word “rights” in order to suit their needs. This is especially true when it comes to Constitutional interpretation. In discussing rights, the political left rarely refers to natural rights. This is because natural rights assume that natures exist. Natures contain those pesky little things called essences. And, essences lock one into a definition about objects and not words. Speaking about objects is too specific for those who care more about the pragmatism of the word truth than conforming to it. It is this pragmatic use of the word “right” that the left uses to its advantage. What I mean to say here is that though the political left denies essences when it comes to their own duties, they affirm them when it comes to others’ duties towards them.
Most often when one hears one on the political left speaking of rights it is in the context of what one is allowed to do. “I have a right to free speech,” cry the protestors. Rights to do one thing or abstain from doing another are yelled loud and often. Rights talk is a great tool for those who want to practice vice unencumbered. It is also used to make a claim to that which is owed to oneself. “You owe me a living wage,” “You can’t stop me from doing this,” and “You must tolerate my behavior” are examples of the demands that the left levels against others with rights talk.
What one should notice from the above is that the left is not talking about the nature of rights, their essence, or whatness. Once one provides an essential definition of rights, he is confined to what that is. If one defines the object (right), then they do so by embracing the object the Founders called rights. That definition suggests that these things called rights are grounded in God’s endowment. As Thomas Jefferson said, “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” These rights are also grounded on man’s design (end). Thus, they have more to do with man operating towards this end or conforming to his design. Notice that this does not necessarily entail permissions granted or demands leveled at others. If one speaks of rights in this manner, then he may not have permission to do what he wants. If the object we call rights has to do with God’s design, it may also show that others are not required to tolerate certain behaviors. This essential definition may also suggest that one owes a duty to others as a right. That is, if one has a natural right to something, then others have a duty to not infringe upon that natural right. The rest of this essay serves to show how the left leaves out definitions on highly contentious social issues in order to apply the type appropriate to the outcome they desire.
When it comes to promoting abortion rights, the left leaves many of its words undefined in order to achieve its desired outcome. The first and obvious word that they leave undefined is “right.” Liberals shout out for this right from the rooftops. But what do they mean? Does Hillary Clinton, when she claims that women have “a basic right to abortion,” have the same thing in mind as Thomas Jefferson’s natural rights? That is, is Hillary truly claiming that God has designed women via their endowment to have abortions? Surely she is not saying this. Hillary suggests that abortion is a Constitutional right, and that the unborn do not have a constitutional right to life. Ironically, this doesn’t carry much weight since according to the left, there is no essential meaning to the words contained in the Constitution. This is why liberals believe that the Constitution is a “living breathing document.” If there is no essential (objective meaning) to the words in the Constitution, then there are no objective rights to which one can refer. This is why the goal is the exercise of power through judicial interpretation. Rights, in this case, turn out to be that which those on the left are trying to force others to accept.
Another word left undefined in this debate is “abortion.” When one consults abortion websites for a definition, providers do not describe to what the word refers or what is being aborted. The Planned Parenthood website states that abortion physicians “gently empty the uterus,” or use a curette for the removal of the “tissue.” There is no mention of what the uterus is being emptied of or what type of tissue is being removed during the abortion. The language is used to define what is happening to the uterus, not to that with which the woman is pregnant.
A certain pro-life group used hidden cameras and microphones to show that Planned Parenthood was conducting abortions in an illegal manner in order to illegally profit off of the sales of the fetal body parts. These videos were uploaded to YouTube. The videos, in some instances, were highly graphic in nature. Yet, when Congress voted to defund Planned Parenthood, House and Senate Democrats refused to watch the undercover footage. Had they stayed for the viewing of the videos rather than walking out, they would have seen the actual objects called fetuses (essential definition) and the result of an actual abortion. By not seeing the videos, the liberal left allowed themselves to remain in the land of vague words that have no real object.
Many on the left leave the word pregnancy undefined. Do women have a pregnancy, or are they pregnant? Rather than referring to the fetus or child, many clinics’ language implies that women are pregnant with pregnancy. Southwest Women’s Surgery Center writes “the size of the pregnancy, as determined by the ultrasound done on the first day.”  Pregnancies do not grow, humans do. By using the word pregnancy in the above way, the abortion provider or advocate avoids having to define another word, that with which a woman is pregnant.
Most often the slogan “my body, my choice” is uttered in response to those opposing abortion. The slogan is part of a larger claim that the fetus is part of the woman’s body. This, however, leads to obvious absurdities. For example, if the fetus is part of a woman’s body, then she has four arms, four legs, two brains, and, if she is pregnant with a boy, she also has a penis.
As stated above, women are pregnant with something. The political left calls this a fetus. Yet, there is no attempt by the left to give an essential definition to this word. If there was, one would have to show to what genus this species belongs. An essential definition of a fetus would suggest that it is a human that is at a certain stage of development. By leaving out the definition, the left leaves the uninformed with the idea that women are pregnant with something other than humans. After all, if all humans have the natural right to life and fetuses are humans, then fetuses have the right to life. Further, if fetuses have the right to life, then the government has a duty to protect that natural right. Leaving the word undefined allows one of two things: The abortion activist doesn’t have to admit that the unborn have rights, or it allows her to avoid defending the claim that not all humans have rights. The abortion debate is only one of many ethical subjects that the left leaves out or of which it misuses definitions.
The Meaning of Marriage
Marriage is another social subject that the left has benefitted from nominal or non-existent definitions. Just as with abortion, the left leaves the words surrounding the issue vague at best and missing at worst. As with abortion rights, the left leaves the word right up to the imagination or changes it to suit its needs. When same-sex couples claim that they have a right to get married, do they mean that they have been endowed by God with this as their design? If so, then they need to observe what it means to have a natural right to this union. Natural rights entail Natural Law. Natural Law is determined by design. Just as the eyes are designed to see and the ears are designed to hear, the sexual organs are designed for procreation. Homosexual acts do not use the procreative organs for that which they were designed, procreation. Therefore, these acts do not adhere to the Natural Law. Since same-sex marriage does not adhere to the natural law, it is not a natural right. If there is no natural right to same-sex marriage, then neither the state nor the individual is obligated to recognize it as an actual marriage.
Of course, the above all centers around an essential definition of the word “rights” that is grounded in natural law as the Founding Fathers suggested. As I mentioned earlier though, the elite left rejects the notion of essences. As such, there is no natural right as I just described. Therefore, same-sex advocacy groups may use the word right to refer to passed legislation that requires one to call the same-sex relationship a marriage. Yet, take note that legislation is not the same thing as an endowment by God. The left is using a nominal definition for the word right. In this case, the word refers to passed legislation. But wait, prior to any passed legislation, the left still claims that same-sex couples have the right to be married. This cannot refer to legal rights since it was before the laws were passed to create legal rights. On the other hand, as stated above, it would be a hard sell to suggest that they are endowed with this right.
The left may claim that by right they do mean that same-sex couples are endowed by God to be married. After all, are we not endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? That would seem to solve a great many objections to same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the left falls into the same practice as before by leaving the words “liberty” and “happiness” undefined. Without providing an essential definition, the liberal is allowed to apply these words to whatever meaning she wants. Liberty must mean that I can do whatever I want, and I want to marry so and so. And, happiness can mean whatever I deem to please me or bring me joy at any given time. If one wants to give an essential definition to these words, then he would start with the object of which the author wrote. What was the object called liberty and the object called happiness of which Jefferson spoke? Is it possible that this purveyor of natural law meant by liberty anything other than ability and duty to operate within one’s design and not the freedom to do whatever one wants? Or, was he not referring to the Aristotelian understanding of happiness that was passed onto him, which is grounded in virtue? If one uses the words liberty and happiness to tag these two terms, then he would not arrive at the conclusion that same-sex couples are endowed by God to be married as a fulfillment of their liberty or happiness.
With all of this said, I have not even mentioned the definition of marriage yet. If one starts with the object, which we have traditionally called marriage (one man and one woman), then he would see that same-sex couples are not the same thing. Thus, why call them the same thing? Yet, if we use a nominal definition and start with the word, then we can apply the word marriage to anything we desire. If we use a nominal definition, then we can say anything is married. In the end, this does nothing to the same-sex couples in reality. They are merely called the same thing that traditional conjugal marriages are called, even though they are not the same thing. This is much like a boy named Sue. Calling a boy by a girl’s name does not make him a girl. This brings us to the most current debate over definitions, gender.
The discussion over gender rights uses the same tactics that the previous two left-wing political pundits use. That is, they deny essences, avoid definitions in general, and give only nominal definitions when pressed. Pro-transgender rights advocates comprise the most obvious case of the denial of essences. In order to assert that one is a female because he identifies as one is clearly not the same thing as saying that one was designed to be woman because she has the female genetic makeup. For the transgender community, the word female is defined by how it is used, not by the objects that were up until now called female. Again, it is the nominal definition that is in use. Advocates define the language of gender, not to label an existing object in a class of objects, but to define it by how they use the word. Accordingly, Bruce Jenner is a female because the transgender advocates now use the word to include those who “identify” with being a female. In this case, we are not talking about a genetic makeup. This use of loose definitions may end up being a bridge too far.
Problems with Loose Definitions
There are indeed problems for the left that emerge from the denial of essential definitions. These come in two forms. First, defining terms nominally infringes on special interest groups that are traditionally aligned with the left; thus, hoisting the liberal up his own petard. Second, this approach to language leads to absurd conclusions.
Defining terms nominally infringes on certain special interest groups that are traditionally aligned with the political left. How is this so? As shown above, the nominalist approach does not focus on the essence of the object, but instead, it focusses on the words. As an example, in the abortion case one may use words to deny humanity or confer humanity as one sees fit. That is, one may deny calling a fetus by the word human in order to deny her human rights. While this use of language works for abortion rights advocates, it may also work against women’s rights in general. The transgender argument is one example of this. If gender is conferred by how one “identifies,” and if laws require equal treatment under the law, then those who are genetically, i.e., chromosomally xy can fulfill affirmative action quotas as long as they identify with being xx. This may actually be to the advantage of employers who do not want to hire genetically “natural” women to avoid paying for maternity leave. Moreover, natural men may be able to take advantage of Title IX, which was introduced to provide equal treatment of women in college sports. Already a transgendered athlete Boyd Burton known Fallon Fox has competed in mixed martial arts. It was no surprise that Burton has won five out of six fights. The big news, in this case, was that Burton lost at all. Regardless of the loss, by enforcing gender definitions that don’t accord with nature, the door for male dominance in female sports is now open. Unfortunately, this does not work the other way. Women, who identify as men, may call themselves male, but the chance of their success in male sports is highly unlikely.
Second, the loose language of liberalism leads to absurd conclusions. If one is male or female in definition but not by nature, then one may also be white, black, or Asian by definition and not by nature. The same problem as above occurs. Affirmative action requirements may be fulfilled by those who are Asian or white as long as they identify with being black or another minority race. Unlike the gender claims, the fluidity of race has not gained much traction. Yet, if the left is consistent with how they use definitions, then it would follow that just as gender is conferred by definition so too is race. Yet, I do not believe that the political left is concerned with consistency. It would be of great interest to me to see a genetically white person claim that he should receive reparations from the government for the harm that the institution of slavery did to his people.
Beyond infringing on the rights of their own special interest groups, the left’s use of loose definitions may be used against them. After all, what is good for those who identify as a goose is good for those who identify as a gander. Just as the left can deny the essence of humanity to fetuses by denying the word, so too can the political right deny essences to deny rights.
In the end, it is important to define words, and to do so essentially. It is certainly important to do so for clarity. If we do not make it clear what object we are speaking about, then we will be speaking past each other. On top of that, if we demand essential definitions, we will less likely be fooled by those who wish to use vague language to cover up their real intentions. It will also help to keep ourselves honest. By striving to use essential definitions, we will be limited to speaking only about the object being defined. This is especially important in rights speech. It is far too easy to infringe on the rights of others by demanding one has the right to say or do something. Most of all, we will not be caught in the trap of trying to create reality with language. Instead, we merely have to recognize and live according to it.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in November 2016.
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 See any logic book about this, especially Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic: A Logic Text, Using Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend Indiana (2010).
 I will show some examples of this later in this essay.
 See, John M. Ellis, Charles L. Geshekter, Peter Wood, Stephen H. Balch, National Association of Scholars, “A Crisis of Competence; The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California” (April 2012).
 Hillary Clinton referred to an investigation into her private email server as a “security review” rather than a “criminal investigation.” See, Catherine Herridge, Pamela K. Browne, “Hillary misleading about email probe during debate, former FBI agents say”, FoxNews.com, (February 06, 2016). Herridge and Browne write, “Hillary Clinton used misleading language in Thursday night’s Democratic debate to describe the ongoing FBI investigation into her use of a private email server to conduct official government business while she was secretary of state, according to former senior FBI agents.”
 See Bernard Goldberg, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, Harper Collins, WA. D.C. (2003).
 My claim is not that all liberals use trickery, or that no conservatives use trickery. It is that this is common among liberals and not as common among conservatives.
 Many elites have embraced the Constructivism of Post Modernity. With this, meaning is not discovered, it is constructed. Truth, thus, becomes relative. See, Eva T.H. Brann, “What is Postmodernism”, The Harvard Review of Philosophy (Spring 1992).
 There is an old saying to “beware of the sound of one hand clapping.” This goes on in the nation’s universities when professors give their side of the story while leaving out the other side or giving a strawman argument in its place.
 This happens most often in ethical standards. Many on the left believe that there is no essential or universal concept of morality. From here the liberal concludes that morality is relative. The problem is that the relativist then turns to the moral realist and judges him to be immoral when he makes a claim that homosexuality is wrong. On the one hand, the relativist rejects moral judgments to allow his own behavior, and on the other, he accepts them in order to condemn those who disagree with him.
 Declaration of Independence.
 If one has the right to life, then others should not tolerate murder.
 Shannon Holzer, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Same Sex Marriage: Do Same Sex Couples have a Natural Right to be Married?” Texas Review of Law and Politics (2015).
 “Hillary Clinton calls abortion ‘most basic of human rights.'” Texas Right to Life (January 2013).
 April 3, 2016 “Meet the Press,” NBC News. Here Hillary Clinton says “Well, under our laws currently, that is not something that exists. The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.”
 Cook, Catherine “Legislating from the Bench.” Harvard Political Review (March 3, 2009).
 Planned Parenthood Abortion Procedures: “In-Clinic Abortion.”
 “Planned Parenthood Still #Guilty of Selling Baby Parts for Profit One Year After Videos #ppsellsbabyparts.” Center for Medical Progress. (July 14, 2016).
 The Center for Medical Progress’ YouTube channel.
 Raymond, Laurel “Democrats walk out of GOP-led Planned Parenthood Hearing.” Think Progress. (September 22, 2016).
 Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.
 Klusendorf, Scott Television debate with Planned Parenthood, Colorado Springs, CO (1997).
 This would not be the first time a culture has determined that some humans do not have rights. See Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York (2004).
 Brake, Elizabeth Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2012).
 Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson, “What is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, (Winter 2010). 245–287.
 Supra, 13.
 See, Miller v. Davis, No. 06-55538, April 02, 2008.
 Supra 13.
 See Shannon Holzer, Competing Schemas Within the American Liberal Democracy: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Differing Perceptions of Church and State, Washington College Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture, Vol. 8, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, (2016).
 Supra 13.
 Supra, 26.
 Mikkola, Mari, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Winter 2017 Edition).
 Jenner was referred to as a woman even without gender reassignment surgery.
 The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Title IX of the Federal Education Amendments Act of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex by federally funded educational institutions.
 A transgender Mixed Martial Arts fighter has already collected some victories. Mcelroy, Jordy “Ronda Rousey vs. Fallon Fox Head-to-Toe Breakdown.” Bleacher Report. (May 25, 2013)
 Transgendered MMA fighter Fallon Fox fought Tamika Brents. Brents said, “I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor,” she stated. “I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right.” Meyers, Laura “Transgender MMA Fighter Destroys Female Opponent.” The Libertarian Republic. (June 10, 2015).
 Robert Neunzig, Robert “Transgender men could overtake women’s sports.” Gaston Gazette. (May 22, 2016).
 Sieczkowski, Cavan “NAACP Leader Rachel Dolezal Allegedly Faked Being A Black Woman For Years,” The Huffington Post. (June 12, 2015).