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Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Taxonomy

Definitions are funny things. In one sense they're just abstractions that we keep written down in books for our reference. In another, however, they constitute our entire world. Social psychologists often talk about the "definition of the situation," which is a way of conceptualizing the interpretive process that goes into understanding our world. For those who aren't already familiar, allow me to describe a scene: you walk into a room and find rows of chairs with writing surfaces affixed to them. Most of these chairs are filled with individuals in their early twenties who are scribbling in spiral notebooks while watching, and listening, to an older person speaking from the front of the room. What is happening? Well, most of you probably figured out that this is a classroom- probably at college level or beyond. In figuring this out you have defined the situation and obtained an understanding of how you, and others, should behave. Think about that for a moment: in defining the situation in which you find yourself you also develop an understanding of what sort of behavior is acceptable. The simple act of applying a definition, in many ways, controls your further behavior.

This isn't the only place where definitions are important, however. Any time we communicate we trade streams of significant symbols, each of which carries some sort of information- in effect, we trade symbols that carry definitions.* To the extent that these definitions resemble each other, we can communicate successfully, but if they differ too much we will no longer be speaking the same language even if the words are the same. Parents of teenagers are most likely familiar with this problem as youth most definitely have their own way of defining not only situations but basic terms. Often their use of these tools produces very different meanings from the same strings of symbols that adults use. In many ways, the cognitive content of a sentence is like an equation: a set of operators linking things that are operated on. If any of these elements is changed then the result of the entire equation shifts dramatically.

I ended up thinking about definitions today after perusing Conservapedia and running across a reference to this article from the Daily Mail, a British newspaper. Okay, well, that's not totally accurate: it's more of an ultra right-wing tabloid that has a long and "dignified" history.** In any case, the article in question is about a National Health Service report on the number of fetuses that survive abortion procedures. The findings, as you might guess, are somewhat disquieting:

Botched abortions mean that scores of babies are being born alive and left to die, an official report has revealed.

A total of 66 infants survived NHS termination attempts in one year alone, it emerged.

Rather than dying at birth as was intended, they were able to breathe unaided. About half were alive for an hour, while one survived ten hours.

The figures are the first to give a national picture of the number of babies who survive abortion but are left to die.

Experts previously believed the phenomenon was limited to a handful of cases a year.

The babies were aborted using a drug to soften the cervix and induce labour. Once born no medical help is offered.

The statistics are contained in the small print of an official report by the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health, commissioned by the Government.


Now, I am pro-choice, and so this article is as distressing as its writer no doubt intended it to be.*** That is, indeed, the whole reason why the Conservapedia folks put a link to it on their front page. At the same time, my reaction to it isn't that we need to stop all abortions but, rather, that we need a better technique for performing them. I suspect that a conservative reading that will regard me as heartless and evil for being "immune" to the plight of these fetuses. So be it. That isn't the case, but I'm disinterested in explaining the reasons for my pro-choice position right now. The thing is, given the way I define the situation and fetuses and the reasons for abortion, this report doesn't really change things. Before this report came out I was fully aware that abortion involved the destruction of a fetus and nothing has changed now.

And this has made me think about something else: the death penalty. I know quite a few liberals who are absolutely opposed to the death penalty on what seem to be moral grounds.**** At the same time, many conservatives seem to be in favor of it. More than that, they often seem to favor fewer restrictions on ownership of firearms and are more likely to see the application of military force as a legitimate solution to foreign policy issues. Liberals, on the other hand, oppose these issues so regularly as to frequently be labelled "squeamish" by conservatives. Liberals often regard the death penalty as murder while conservatives feel the same way about abortion.

What's my point in all this? Eh. I don't really have one- this is a blog after all. If anything, though, it's just this: don't let anyone tell you that definitions aren't important. Often, they are a matter of life and death.


* Affect control theorists would no doubt object to my focus on the cognitive, rather than affective, content of symbols. That's okay, though- they can get their own blogs.

** As a side note, the writing quality reminds me of nothing so much as USA Today, which is to say that the reading level is so low my brain stem suffices for the task.

*** No doubt I would find it substantially more disquieting if it represented a larger percentage of procedures. For example, if we assume that the same number of abortions were performed in 2007 as in 2004 then there were a total of 185,400 procedures. That means that the 66 botched procedures in the article represent 0.03% of all abotions performed in the U.K. I suspect most people would be compelled to agree that a medical procedure that is successful 99.97% of the time should be labelled highly reliable.

**** As long as we're on the subject I have no particular problem with the death penalty, though I admit that I have reservations about the manner in which we choose to impose it.

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1 Comments:

Blogger TDEC said...

The strangeness of that abortion/death penalty pro-life position seems to go mostly unnoticed. There are groups of Catholics now, it appears, who oppose both abortion and the death penalty, but as far as I know, they are the only group to hold the "logical" position. George Lakoff has some interesting insights on the topic, and why the political positions are so at odds with what you might logically expect.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 8:22:00 AM  

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