Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Dictionary Fallacy

I am a person who almost always comes up with my ideas while already engaged in the activity. I usually have a germ of an idea and then start writing or talking, but it only becomes clear during the writing when I discover I think something I never knew I thought.

I wanted to preserve a comment I made at The Moderate Voice blog today, and so I am copying it and the preceding discussion first. OK, mostly I think the last line is true. There are 2 commenters before me, and I am essentially replying to Commenter 1, so I copied their stuff in first.

Commenter 1:

The political entity we call "America" is divided, in reality. That division is is not a creation of either Democrats or Republicans but of a fracturing society that is diversifying itself out of existence. "United" and "diverse" are antonyms, you can have either one or the other but not both.

Commenter 2:

I have to disagree with you that "united" and "diverse" are antonyms; They are actually two unrelated words, that if used in conjunction describe what I, and many other of the "small donors" to the Obama campaign are hoping for. Homogeneous and diverse are antonyms. United and divided are antonyms. America is inherently diverse. If we can work together towards a common goal we can be united.

Commenter 1:

Diverse (adj) distinctly dissimilar or unlike
Common(adj) belonging equally to, or shared alike by all

Yep, direct antonyms. The more diverse a people the less they have in common, it's a rigidly inverse relation.


The good news, Commenter1, is that dictionaries define meanings of words as best as an academic can guess by speaking with people and reading the use of the word. However, they are most certainly not scientific descriptions of the world, in this case largely a sociological analysis. One can only put unity in direct opposition to diversity if you assume a single dimension and no creativity, but neither is true of any society or set of human relationships.

One can give a variety of examples of how diversity can in fact strengthen a unity or simply not undermine it in any way. If you have a mathematical bent, most entities can be broken down into subsets. Any set of numbers can be broken apart into diverse subsets without harming the overall unity of the entire set. If you have a biological bent, probably the best guess for why sexual reproduction exists is that it introduces diversity into the gene pool, which asexual reproduction does not. It is precisely this variability that gives the whole species as a unit (note the connection to the word unity) greater strength. Similar biological arguments could be made for the benefits and drawbacks to only being able to exist in a highly restricted niche.

On a more everyday level, often the best couples complement each other in some way. The whole opposites attract. When one person is willing to lie back and go along, the other partner will rise up and fight for what the family needs. Same goes on with parenting. My wife is better at certain aspects of parenting than me, and vice versa. We are much better parents as a pair exactly because of our diversity.

I'm sure you get the point. Deciding how societies function by looking in the dictionary is like looking up the word "atom" and thinking you are doing particle physics.


pjd said...

Oh, snap! Love the conclusion. And of course I agree with the buildup. I mean, you'd have to be confrontational by nature or already vested in the opposite side of the argument to disagree with what you wrote.

Robin S. said...

Yep. Simple but elegant is sometimes just...too simple to make sense in the light of day.

And...PS, I memed you.

blogless troll said...

Well that's just great. Do you know how many people I've got believing I'm a particle physicist? The hell am I gonna do now?

Good post, Paca.

Precie said...

Ditto. It's easy for people to dichotomize things that aren't actually dichotomies. Diverse and united aren't either/or. And what a great way for you to clarify.

ChrisEldin said...

I always get a bit smarter after visiting your blog.
The effect soon wears off, however...

ChrisEldin said...

BT *is* a particle physicist.
He physically removes particles from his nose. See him over there?