Low redefinition

"Why do wars begin? The simple answer is that they never end."

Tom Palaima, Times Higher Education Supplement, December 12 2003

One of the most commented upon headlines in the world’s press the day after
9/11 appeared in the liberal French newspaper Le Monde: "We are all Americans".
It was a powerful expression of the solidarity of democrats everywhere in the
face of an apparently new and terrifying threat.

No-one who read it, however, would have been foolish enough to take it literally.
Had the article then gone on to claim that, since we were all Americans, French
citizens should be able to vote for US presidents and have the other rights
of US citizens, the absurdity would have been obvious. We all understood that
the usual sense of "American" had been widened so that it carried
a metaphorical and symbolic meaning, alongside its usual narrow one.

Yet something like the absurd move from the metaphorical to the literal can
happen with a process known as low redefinition. This is when the legitimate
meaning of a word is broadened in order to make a questionable proposition seem
more plausible.

This is what I think is going on in Tom Palaima’s argument about wars. He wants
to advance the thesis that war is essentially ceaseless. We ordinarily think
about history as being divided between periods of peace and periods of war.
In Western Europe, for example, it is thought that we have had peace since 1945,
apart from a few regional conflicts, most notably those in the former Yugoslavia.
Palaima, however, disputes this. War never ends, it simply goes through quieter
and more active phases. "[P]eriods of so-called peace," he writes,
"were intervals when the competing nation-states were inevitably preparing
for the next phase of open war…"

The problem with this thesis is that it is only true if war is understood in
a broader sense than usual. It is not that we have been deceived about the lack
of war in Western Europe, it is that there has not been war in the usual sense
of the word, period. If you want to define war in a broader way, then you might
be able to claim that war has never ceased. But we have to be clear that this
requires a low redefinition of war – a broadening of its meaning – and is not
just about correcting a false idea we have about war.

There may well be legitimate reasons for wanting such a low redefinition. In
Palaima’s case I think the motivating factor is a desire to make us reconsider
the nature of peace. Palaima wants to challenge the comfortable idea that, because
battles have not been fought with great frequency in Western Europe since 1945,
that we live in a period of geopolitical calm and stability where military power
is no longer an issue. Urging us to accept a low redefinition of war is a way
of making this claim vivid.

Nevertheless, his article does not make it explicit that he is revising our
ordinary sense of war. So his de facto low redefinition of "war" either
fallaciously conflates the usual meaning of the word with his broadened one,
in which case his argument is flawed; or it glosses over the revisionary nature
of his claim, in which case his argument may be misleading.

Low redefinition is often more brazen and without any good justification. When
people say "chocolate is an addictive drug, "everyone is bisexual"
or "altruism is ultimately just self-interest", they are in each case
broadening the meaning of the central concepts to make what would otherwise
be an outrageous claim plausible. In order for low redefinition to be a legitimate
argumentative move, we need to know why the broader meaning is preferable to
the usual, narrower one. Otherwise, it’s a bad move.

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