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"How could they possibly think that?"
When engaging an opponent, it is to your advantage to act based on where they actually are, rather than where you imagine them to be.
Words mean what we collectively decide they mean. This can produce weird effects, like combinations of words whose literal meaning and understood meaning diverge drastically. Colloquialisms are the most common example of this, as in “head over heels”, “elbow grease”, “gild the lily”. But there are also highly charged combinations of words whose explicit and implicit meanings have diverged significantly. These are most likely to occur at flashpoints of conflict and confusion, and worse, feed into that very dynamic, creating a toxic rhetorical fog of war that blinds everyone involved. Meaningful conflicts can turn into meaningless, chaotic melees of unspoken disagreement about whether the literal or implicit meaning of a phrase is under discussion, in which all actual communication evaporates and any hope of actual rhetorical triumph becomes impossible.
“Pro-family” literally means “in favor of families”, but (especially in early aughts America) came to mean “in favor of culturally conservative values and opposed to progressive goals like same-sex marriage or non-traditional-gender-roles”.
“Pro-choice” similarly has an obvious and uncontroversial literal meaning, but has come to mean “specifically in favor of abortion as legally protected option for pregnant people”.
“Not all men (are evil/predators)” is an obviously true statement that came to be read as “I endorse the belief that discussion of predatory activities that disproportionately effect women unfairly casts all men in a negative light”.
“Black lives matter” is another plainly factual statement only contested by an extreme fringe of the population, but came to be synonymous with a constellation of beliefs ranging from “Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by irresponsible and reckless law enforcement activities” to “all of Western civilization is systemically engineered to benefit White people at the expense of Black people and every interaction that might conceivably be impacted by this without active intervention to mitigate and reverse this dynamic is therefore racist”.
It is good to have short names and phrases to refer to complex beliefs and dynamics, but it can create confusion when the explicit and implicit meaning of the terms in a discussion blur into each other. It’s an easy way to end up talking past one another and neither hearing what the other is saying nor saying what the other person can hear and understand.
And sometimes that’s figured in. Sometimes the strategy people choose to pursue entails priorities other than minimizing ambiguity and communicating as clearly as possible. This is especially true when one or both sides don’t actually care about winning, only for the glorious battle to continue indefinitely, or when one side is overconfident in the inevitability of their victory and only wishes hurt and humiliate their opponents as much as possible in defeat.
But in cases where clear communication is a priority - cases where you may actually want to win - it’s worth trying to actively avoid language where explicit and implicit meanings have diverged significantly, and instead explicitly aim for language that narrowly and exclusively targets the actual thing someone wants to discuss.
“the concept of people forming loving bonds together, e.g. a ‘family’”, or
“the idea that a monogamous heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman (whose gender identities match what they were assigned at birth), optionally including the raising of children, is the only legitimate family unit, and any other concept of family is either dangerous or evil”.
“people should in general be free to choose from among many options as often as possible, all else being equal”, or
“I am pro-letting-people-choose-to-get-an-abortion; abortion is an important right that should be legally protected because being forced to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth is inhumane regardless of when the person carrying that pregnancy comes to that decision” (alternatively, “this right remains more important than preserving the fetus up to some point in development, at which point the ethical concerns become more complicated”, depending on one’s exact stance).
“Not all men” →
“There literally exist men who are not predators; I don’t think anyone actually disputes this, I just wanted to state it explicitly and there is no need to dwell on the subject,” or
“Any discussion of types of harm that disproportionately involve a male hurting a woman implicitly harms all men, and this fact should be paramount in any such discussions and reiterated to minimize the risk of negative stereotypes of men forming,” or
“In addition to all of the above, these types of discussions should be limited in general to further minimize the risk to men as a group.”
“Black lives matter” →
“Black people deserve to live; I don’t know how many people dispute this, but I wanted to state it explicitly so that everyone has mutual knowledge that we all endorse this and there’s no ambiguity about it,” or
“There are a broad swath of law enforcement activities and cultural norms that disproportionately harm Black people. This is an important problem and requires drastic reforms to law enforcement,” or
“There are a surprisingly large number of people who don’t believe that Black people deserve to live; by making this belief explicit we can marginalize them and significantly limit their ability to do harm, drowning out any subtle attempts to propagate their beliefs with explicit proclamations to the contrary,” or
“There are a broad swath of problems that disproportionately harm Black people, and it seems like these problems are generally prioritized less because the victims are disproportionately Black; this is evidence that as a society we undervalue Black lives, and we can address this by making support for Black lives explicit to cancel out the implicit devaluation, and this will hopefully lead to a wide range of reforms to address the many problems that disproportionately harm Black people”, or
“All of society is built upon a foundation of harming Black people to benefit everyone else, and this is one of if not the most important aspect of any given interaction, dynamic, or activity one engages in, such that anything short of actively working against this ubiquitous harm in all things and at all times is to support and further it.”
Doing this in a conversation doesn’t just benefit the other person by sparing them an obvious rhetorical trap to sidestep; it also benefits you by pinpointing precisely where the actual disagreement is. Once you have a better understanding of exactly what your opponent believes and why they believe it, you have a much better chance of actually persuading them, or at least loosening up the ground around their position enough that they find themselves questioning and wandering the memetic landscape later. If you’re focused on attacking an semi-imaginary monster that seems to be in the general vicinity of your opponent, you won’t actually change anyone’s mind. You may feel righteous and triumphant for having stood up to the monster - but if the monster wasn’t real, then you haven’t actually helped anyone or meaningfully changed anything.
And sometimes, just sometimes, you may just find that there wasn’t any significant disagreement at all. It’s surprisingly easy to fall into what appears to be a hardened conflict with all the trappings of a fight, only to peel back the layers of attacks and defense to reveal that there was absolutely nothing at the core of it. It’s not super common - but it can happen, and in those cases discovering the error makes everyone’s day vastly better.
Shorthand and the ambiguity of semantic entanglements are unavoidable. I much prefer the explicit and narrow, especially when emotions are running high, and clarifies where actual disagreements are. I don’t have any illusions that a few linguistic tweaks means every starts signing “kumbaya” around the campfire, but it can be the difference between “you’re clearly an inhuman monster who stands opposed to life itself” and “I think your belief about this specific thing is very wrong, but at least that disagreement is confined to that specific thing and you still endorse the fundamental idea of life/choice/family/whatever”.
Worst case, achieve a better understanding of what’s at play and what, if anything, you are actually aiming to change.
Best case, realize that you’ve already won.