Saturday, July 18, 2015

Evolution of Defaults

What is a cat? Define the word "cat" and I can tell you what is and what is not a cat, objectively. That is, I can look at the external object presented to me and tell you definitively if it is a cat or not based on the definition of "cat" that is being used. The definition itself, however, is derived from its usage which means that it is fuzzy and unclear due to the wide variety of possible usages and different personalities that use the word to different ends.

A cat could refer to a housecat. A jungle cat. A toy cat. A person being referred to as "cat." An artistic rendering of a cat. A person with feline characteristics.

However, when using the term "cat" there tends to be a common usage that we default to in order to facilitate communication. Life would be long and tedious if we had to sort out the specific definition of every word being used; we tend to look at the context and then come to the most common usage of the word that fits that context. So if I say "the cat is being annoying," no one pictures me rolling my eyes at a lion or pulling out my phone to ignore Selina Kyle making off with my jewelry; neither of those are default definitions of "cat" in that context.

However, "cat" is generally noncontroversial and no one is really going to lose sleep over the specifics of the word's usage. If we use the word "man," though, now things can get good and mucky. Because I could be using "man" in a moral sense, a biological sense, a spiritual sense, a sexual sense, a psychological sense, what have you. Even given context, the default definitions are mucky enough to require discussion and organization.

Suppose I say, "a man wouldn't do that." It seems clear that I am using "man" in a moral or spiritual sense, but then we must not only argue over the morality of the action that I said a man would not perform but we must also argue over the fundamental morality of man in the abstract. People from the same background might agree with statements of this form, but two people from two different ways of life are likely to squabble. The default definition of "man" in this sense is too varied between peoples.

Now currently there is an ongoing debate about the default definition of "man" in the sexual and identity sense. If you ask whether or not Caitlyn Jenner is a man or a woman, well, obviously the answer depends on the definition being used. Jenner still has a Y chromosome, was never capable of reproduction, and has feminine characteristics as a result of medical and cosmetic intervention; Jenner also identifies as a woman, presents themselves as female to society, perceives self as a female, and is now trying to fill the role of a woman in society. By some definitions he is objectively male and by some definitions she is objectively female.

So what is the debate? The debate is not about a true definition of male and female because there is no true definition, the debate is not about whether or not a certain set of criteria is being met because it is clear when a criteria is met and when it is not, but the debate is a non-violent use of influence to try to decide on a default definition of male and female. The end goal is that when someone says "female" without clearly defining the term - that is, when it is being used for common communication - the default understanding will either encompass or exclude Jenner.

This is how defaults evolve and change over time. Every time another person begins defaulting to a certain definition of a term it spreads the influence of that default definition. Conflicting definitions being used as defaults by different people leads to separation and alienation of those groups - either a single default will prevail over time or the different defaults will gain differing status among different people groups. With the rise of social media and the interconnectedness of the internet it is more difficult than ever before for a group to simply separate their conversation from the larger conversation; the larger conversation is likely to bleed in.

Nearly every ongoing social debate can be seen as a struggle to determine the default definition of a term. It is agreed, for example, that killing innocent people is wrong. This is not in dispute. What is disputed is what a "innocent person" is, does it include fetuses, especially intelligent animals, individuals who may have ties to malevolent organizations? Marriage equality comes down to a dispute over the definition of marriage, in far too many possible configurations to bother listing.

The way one wins such a debate is not by appealing to facts, appealing to authority, appealing to tradition, or appealing to anything at all really. The way one wins such a debate is by using language in a certain way and insisting that others do the same. It is fundamentally a matter of force and influence, not a matter of investigation or research.

After you win or lose, wait a generation. It remains in flux.

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