Why We Need Definitions, Borders, and Boundary Maintenance

Cross-posted from Millennial Star.

 

PART I: INTRODUCTION

Can you define the word “chair?” Seems simple—let’s say it’s a small, raised platform that’s supported by legs and which typically has a back against which your torso can rest. That definition brings to mind a single, simple, useful picture—in short, a conservative ideal of chairs.

But might that seem too restrictive?  So let’s say a chair can have variations. Chairs with wheels are chairs, too, and shouldn’t be judged for being different! Those tacky old chairs that are shaped like a giant hand? Those are chairs that demand to exist as they are—a chair that lives on the fringes of society and is getting tired of being mistreated.

Maybe accepting some natural variations is morally decent, though, right? But now we’re on a slippery slope. There are some people who claim to be more high-minded than the rest, who embrace diversity and tolerance as the greatest values, and who therefore feel driven to constantly expand our understanding of chairs for us, for the good of those would-be chairs which have been marginalized and for those of us who are too culturally dull to know that we had many more chairs among us in the first place.

Is not, they indignantly say, a chair anything on which one might reasonably sit?  Is not a bean bag a valid chair? A couch? The ground itself? Well, perhaps, we’re inclined to say, for we see many of our peers nodding at the wisdom of this, and feeling good about ourselves for being such pioneers of inclusion.

And now we’re solidly in liberal territory (liberal, after all, connotes expansiveness above all—the eternal obsession with widening existing things). Once we’ve established that the very surface of the world could be called a chair, for it can kind of serve a similar function if forced to, we have given a green light to the radicals who insist that it’s a moral imperative to recognize as a legitimate chair anything and everything that could ever conceivably be used for sitting. The hood of a car, a rock, a stack of books: all chairs.

By this point, much of society has decided that—in line with the warped thinking that has gotten us this far—virtue lies in defending the most extreme minorities possible. Life becomes a contest to advertise our righteousness by campaigning for the most imaginative visions of chairs.  The tops of skyscrapers, piles of razor blades, the backs of sleeping grizzly bears: all are supposedly just as valid as any other kind of chair.

This nightmare scenario has now become both ludicrous and dangerous; dangerous for obvious reasons—those who embrace this expansive idea of chairs imperil themselves by rushing into rash experimentation; ludicrous because we would have long since abandoned the very concept of definition.

If anything and everything could be a chair, then it cannot be said that there really is any such thing as a chair at all. Things can only be said to exist by being distinct from the things which they are not. We can say that we know that chairs exist because, for one thing, a fish is not a chair. But if we decide that such a distinction is arbitrary or even bigoted, then everything becomes a blurry mush and our understanding of chairs disappears.

In the film The Incredibles, the mom tells her son, “Everyone is special,” and the frustrated son mumbles, “Which is another way of saying no one is.” There’s a serious principle there: we might call the boy’s desire to be special wrong, we might label it “privileged,” or “exclusive,” or “elitist,” or any other such loaded slur, but the fact remains that in order for anything to be said to exist, there must be things outside the definition, and that definition must usefully restrict it.

I’m talking about religion and politics here, clearly, but this even applies to fitness. We speak of toned, trained muscles as having “definition.” That means that they’re visible, as things that exist separate from the rest of the body. Even more importantly, a defined muscle is likely to be stronger and more useful for work. A muscle that has absolutely no definition is difficult to distinguish, and may not be as useful for work.

That’s what happens when we endeavor to remove definitions from our lives: we make things so indistinct as to be invisible, and so weak as to be useless.

 

PART II: MARRIAGE

The most obvious application of this lesson is in our society’s virtually one-sided debate about the meaning of marriage. Those who zealously crusade for same-sex marriage often do so in complete ignorance of the larger context of their goal: whatever else they may feel they’re accomplishing, they are expanding the idea of marriage to the point that it will no longer exist or function usefully in our society (indeed, many conservatives have argued that this is precisely what the liberals’ larger goal is). Anyone who automatically denies that result hasn’t considered the family court ramifications of expanding marriage, for example.

Ryan T. Anderson has made a name for himself for defending the definition of marriage in public.  Consider this video, where he presses a critic to define what marriage is, and the critic refuses to do so, perhaps because he hasn’t considered it at all, or maybe because he realizes that analyzing his position will destroy it.

Ultimately, if marriage is to exist at all, it must have some kind of definition, and by its nature, a definition must exclude some things; in the real world, exclusion will always mean that some people will get left out—that good, decent people will get their feelings hurt and will go without things they think they deserve. Liberals are hesitant to admit that they’re re-defining marriage, much less define what it should be at all, because they will then be in the position conservatives are in now—the exclusivist bad guys.  How do you justify telling anyone that their desire for a marriage innovation isn’t acceptable?

But that’s how we end up with grizzly bear chairs.

Here’s another great, recent example of Anderson defining marriage in the face of a critic’s failure to do so. The trend here is not accidental.

 

PART III: BORDERS

Another political issue can be illuminated here. In the ongoing arguments about illegal immigration, there are many who cry for compassion and inclusion first and foremost. Those things may be good, but when they come before or at the expense of definition, they become destructive.

A nation, like a marriage, a muscle, or a chair, must have a definition. It must be distinct from anything else that is not part of it. It must, in short, have a border. And that border cannot be a mere line on a map—it has to mean something. A border must delineate where something begins and ends—where it exists. Again, anything with no limit cannot be said to exist at all.

Those who oppose unchecked immigration are often derided as “nativists,” but they’re only interested in saving the continued existence of a nation as it is (in conserving it, to employ another literal definition). A liberal might ask, does unchecked immigration really imperil the existence of our nation? Yes, indeed—that’s usually how nations do end. Not in the “total annihilation of the land and all life on it” sense, but in the sense that, when definition is removed, when our understanding of who we are is expanded to the point that polyamorous groups can be considered marriages or grizzly bears can be considered chairs, we lose what Mark Steyn calls “civilizational confidence” and the definition of a nation—in the metaphorical if not in the literal sense—evaporates.

People are unlikely to have pride in, much less sacrifice to defend, a nation that doesn’t even know what it is. The relativistic virtues that have been foisted on us for generations now bear their fruit: a civilization that accepts anyone and everyone as part of it without assimilation is no real civilization at all. The British historian Arnold Toynbee said that all civilizations die from suicide, and one major test of our will to live is whether or not we have the will to define what America is…and what it is not.  Failure to do so will have inevitable and predictable results.

Liberals undervalue the questions illustrated by our border problems: the issue isn’t just about crime and economics (or tolerance and racism), it’s an existential need to decide if we even care who we are.

 

PART IV: RELIGION

In the recent kerfuffle about the disciplining of agitators, some sympathizers have criticized LDS church leadership for what they snidely refer to as mere “boundary maintenance.”

Ironically, that’s the very crux of the issue. Few things could be more important. Just as expanding the definition of “chair” becomes silly and counterproductive, just as a muscle without definition may be less useful, just as redefining marriage must necessarily injure the institution, and just as erasing borders damages civilizations, artificially altering our understanding of priesthood, for example, to make it more inclusive, will have the same negative effects such well-intentioned expansion has everywhere else: the watering down of the thing itself until it is little more than bland mush.

Nephi identifies just such a process of steady erosion as the root cause of the Great Apostasy:

And after they go forth by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, from the Jews unto the Gentiles, thou seest the formation of that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches; for behold, they have taken away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away.

And all this have they done that they might pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the children of men.

Wherefore, thou seest that after the book hath gone forth through the hands of the great and abominable church, that there are many plain and precious things taken away from the book, which is the book of the Lamb of God.  (1 Nephi 13:26-28)

What was the practical result of repeatedly removing distinctive, challenging, exclusivist features of the gospel and church? The remaining material was free to be corrupted by every whim the trendsetters felt free to impose as they improvised new definitions.

Thus the medieval church, with its incomprehensible Trinitarian creeds.

Thus much of modern Christianity, which has accommodated itself to the world so much that one wonders why, if it’s going to simply agree with everything in the culture around it, it needs to exist at all.

I recall Hugh Nibley once writing that a non-Mormon teacher of his had criticized modern Christianity for being anemic. That’s a perfect word: it suggests the same watered-down weakness I’ve been discussing.

 

PART V: CONCLUSION

Today, we have an all-things-to-all-people religious and political culture that doesn’t really mean anything.

Al Franken once mocked Rush Limbaugh for saying “Words mean things.” Sad that he didn’t realize that that’s precisely what differentiates our sides of various debates: conservatives are demonstrating care about basic meanings, and liberals aren’t.

I used to think Aristotle’s concern with classifying everything (see here) was pointless, but I now see that it’s essential: there can be no progress in thought unless we first know exactly what we’re working with. As a debate coach, I can tell you that the side that better defines the relevant terms will almost always win. (That’s why the mainstream is winning the same-sex marriage debate: popularizing the word “homophobia” was a stroke of genius.)

Institutions react like a gas: when elements are removed, the fewer remaining particles expand to fill the void in a pale simulacrum of the original, giving us a much thinner substance. If you remove the borders containing it, it will expand to the point where it effectively disappears, blending into the environment around it.

Hopefully I haven’t labored the point too excessively, but I need you to see the same cause at the root of all these disparate problems.

As an English teacher, I’m happy to suggest that as we confront controversies in religion and politics, we would do well to focus on defending definitions.

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