“Hey, Norm!”

One of the best ways to win a debate is to be the one who defines the terms. I dated a woman who was a master of this; she won a lot of arguments before I realized that she was redefining her position and the terms of the argument halfway through. And when I finally caught on and called her on it, her response was pretty much “what took you so long to catch on, dummy?” No shame, no guilt, nothing but a bit of annoyance that the tactic she’d used so successfully for so long was no longer useful.

Well, that’s not entirely true. She did pull it off successfully a few more times before I learned to watch carefully for it.

I see that same sort of thing going on quite a bit in politics.

One good example is the call among Democrats to “repeal the Bush tax cuts.” The underlying presumption is that the prior taxation level was the “norm,” and the tax cuts were the aberration. The thought that Bush’s tax cuts re-established the baseline of taxation, and what they want to do is actually raise taxes, is completely foreign to them — and doesn’t get mentioned much.

Another one is in the argument over global warming. The push against it seems to be based on the notion that there is a set point of balance, a “norm,” where the Earth’s climate is ideal. According to them, this is the “natural” temperature of the Earth, and we risk catastrophes unimaginable if we allow our industrial development to tilt that balance.

(Of course, during the 70s, the very same factors were threatening to bring about “global cooling,” and much of the same evidence was cited, but it’s considered impolite to bring this up today.)

This is, to be blunt, hogwash. If anything, the history of the Earth is one of change. The Earth was much hotter in the time of the dinosaurs, and much cooler during the several Ice Ages. Indeed, I have often read the theory that we are currently between two Ice Ages.

You want a great example? Look at the word “tolerance.” It used to mean “put up with.” You don’t have to like someone or something, but you accepted it and didn’t put up too much of a fuss. Now, if you express the slightest measure of disapproval, you’re labeled as “intolerant” and “hateful” and “bigoted.”

And then there’s the federal budget. Too often we’ve heard a “budget cut” defined as “not increased by as much as initially requested.” Someone proposes a fifteen-million-dollar increase in the Left-Handed Widget Safety Board. Someone else proposes a ten-million-dollar hike. This is described as a “five-million-dollar cut in the Left-Handed Widget Safety Board’s budget.”

The lesson is simple. When you control the terms of the debate, the definitions of the words used, you are almost guaranteed to win the argument. The only way to beat this is to refuse to play — don’t cede the ground rules.

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