Redefining Words to Obscure Facts

These days, theories are formulated, conclusions drawn, and policies shaped not by the accumulation of relevant evidence, but by redefining words, which determines the desired outcome.

Let us begin with examples from the discourse surrounding the Palestine-Arab-Iran-Israel conflict. The “Science for Peace” letter, titled “Canada must condemn the violence in Gaza and the West Bank and cease all arms exports to Israel,” written by a number of Canadian academics, is full of misrepresentations that are often injected into discussions of the terrorist attacks on Israel. Here are two: “the Israeli response appears to be just as indiscriminate and more importantly disproportionate.”

The letter makes the following claims: “The Israeli response to protests and attacks from Gaza has targeted residential areas, basic infrastructure, buildings housing the international media as well as medical clinics and hospitals. The Israeli claim that Hamas militants are using these targets as human shields for their operations does not justify their targeting under relevant laws of warfare that demand civilians be protected from harm.”

In the letter, “indiscriminate” is defined, or rather redefined, as targeting buildings that have civilian uses. Yet the letter admits that the Israeli strikes are aimed at hostile Hamas terrorist operations and operatives. The Israeli targeting is the opposite of “indiscriminate”; it carefully discriminates between Hamas terrorists and Palestinian civilians, directing its attacks on the former only. It is also true that Hamas was shooting rockets into Israel in the hopes of killing Jewish Israelis, non-combatants, which was not “indiscriminate,” but intentional. In contrast, Israel undertakes heroic efforts to avoid civilian casualties by targeting only Hamas and Islamic Jihadist operatives. Israel notifies non-combatants of strikes ahead of time by means of texts, phone calls, and non-explosive signal bombs.

Keep in mind that it is Hamas that places their operations in the midst of their own citizenry, whom they use as human shields. For Hamas, dead Palestinian non-combatants are good publicity, as Europeans and others will blame Israel, as we see in this naive letter.

The second redefinition is of “disproportionate.” The letter claims that disproportionality is proven by “the casualty figures of the last week,” that is, that many more Palestinians were killed than Israelis. Clearly, the authors do not understand what “disproportionate” means in international law, or they do and purposely redefine the term for partisan purposes. “Proportionate” in warfare does not mean that you can only kill as many of the enemy as they have killed of you. It means that you cannot kill more non-combatants than are necessary for achieving your military goals.

According to Medecins Sans Frontiers, “IHL [International Humanitarian Law] prohibits attacks that may cause ‘incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.’ [emphasis added]” In this case, the “military advantage” sought by Israel was the degradation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist military capability so as to preclude future terrorist attacks. As regards their own citizenry, it is the Hamas and IJ strategy to ramp up Palestinian citizen collateral damage for international propaganda value.

The Letter also claims that Israel is an “apartheid” state by redefining “apartheid.” What does “apartheid” mean? In the foundational historical case, South Africa, “Apartheid (South African English/əˈpɑːrteɪd/; Afrikaans: [aˈpartɦɛit], seperateness [sic]; lit. “aparthood”) was a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia) from 1948 until the early 1990s. A more generalized definition is, “The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity ‘committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group  over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime’.”

The Letter claims that “The Palestinian populations subjected to this unlawful [“apartheid”] system [by Israel] have every right to protest and resist.” But in Israel proper, there is no distinction in law among the various religious and ethnic groups of Israeli citizens. There is no institutionalized segregation. Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens mix in every sector of society, up to and including the Supreme Court of Israel. Furthermore, Jews and Palestinians are not distinct racial groups. You cannot tell who is a Jew and who is a Muslim or Christian Palestinian by skin color or other physical features. The American race industry’s intersectional fantasy that Israeli Jews are “white” and Palestinians “people of color” is literally nonsense. In the absence of racial segregation, there can be no “apartheid” without redefining the word to meaninglessness.

The fact that Israel is a Jewish state with a Jewish majority and Muslim, Christian, Druze, and Baha’i minorities does not make it an “apartheid” state, unless Iran with a Persian majority and a Turkish minority, Finland with a Finnish majority and a Swedish minority, and Canada with an English majority and a French minority are also “apartheid” states.

To be surrounded by enemies is more or less the common fate of states throughout history. Terrorist Palestinians have consistently attacked Jews, both before and after the formation of Israel. They were not alone, as multiple Arab states repeatedly invaded Israel in 1947, 1967, and 1973, only to be defeated. But the Palestinians remain aggressive terrorists: Hamas and Islamic Jihadists explicitly try to destroy Israel and kill Jews, while the Palestinian Authority controlled by Fatah calls for peace in English and death to Jews in Arabic. “Apartheid” has apparently been redefined as refusing to allow your enemies to destroy your state and kill your population. Many others have faced such circumstances: the Chinese built the Great Wall to keep the northern barbarians outside, while Hadrian built his wall to keep the rampaging Scots from raiding Roman Britain. Defending your country from aggressive invaders is not “apartheid.”

Leaving the word play about the Arab-Israel conflict and turning to the current cultural revolution in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, redefining words is one of the main strategies of the revolutionaries. “Racism,” “justice,” and “equity” were the primary targets for redefinition.

“Racism” is a relatively recent term in the English language. It is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as “1. Belief in superiority of a particular race; antagonism between different races. 2. Theory that human abilities etc. are determined by race.” American sociologists, not content with a definition that does not necessarily generate class conflict and a Marxist revolution in society, redefined “racism” as “race prejudice plus power,” thus validating racial identity classes. This would in turn replace the unpopular, orthodox Marxist economic classes of proletariat and capitalists.

Under the traditional definition of “racialism” and “racism,” anyone could be racist if they held the specified beliefs. But under the new definition, only whites, who are allegedly dominant in society, could be considered racist. The heightened cathecting of race in America has led to virulent anti-white prejudice and discrimination, as well as to theories about the superiority of blacks and Asians. On empirical grounds, this now widespread anti-white prejudice and discrimination refutes the appropriateness and usefulness of the new definition of racism, which conflates race and power. But, however arbitrary, it has succeeded pragmatically in heightening racial class conflict and bringing revolution closer to fruition.

“Justice” has been redefined from, as the Concise Oxford Dictionary puts it, “…fairness; …due allocation of reward of virtue and punishment of vice,” to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This means in practice favoring certain categories of people who are, according to the revised definition, allegedly “victims” of power, particularly “marginalized,” “racialized,” and “underserved” categories of people, and disfavoring unpreferred categories of people, allegedly “oppressors,” including the supermajority of citizens who are white and the half of the population who are male. (“Diversity” of course does not include diversity of thought and opinion, because the meaning of “justice” is “settled,” and other views are not welcome.)

This plays out in universities in obvious ways. Institutionalized “diversity, equity, and inclusion” has taken over from fifty years of “affirmative action” favoring blacks and females, adding to the favored categories LGBTQ++, the disabled, the poor, and the homeless. In admissions, funding, hiring, promotion, facilities, and ritual, members of preferred categories are advantaged and sometimes segregated, while members of unpreferred categories—whites, males, heterosexuals, the able, and the middle class—are discriminated against. Race advocates and diversity bureaucrats claim that “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism” (racism and sexism directed at the oppressors) by definition cannot exist, because the oppressors have “power.” But whites, men, and other unpreferred categories do not have the power to avoid being discriminated against. Once again, redefinition obscures reality.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “equity” conventionally means “fairness; recourse to principles of justice to correct or supplement law.” But “equity” has been redefined by the revolutionaries to mean statistical equality of outcome for census categories of people. The operational definition of equity is equal representation of members of a category on the basis of their percentage in the general population. It is regarded a violation of equity if members of a category are statistically “underrepresented” in a particular activity, group, institution, or status, or statistically “overrepresented” in unfavorable activities, groups, institutions, or statuses. By means of this redefinition of “equity,” individual people and individual variation are erased, as are criteria such as achievement and merit, which have specifically been denounced as “white male supremacist” ideas.

The final example is biological sex, which has been redefined as “gender,” which, it is alleged, is “socially constructed” and has nothing to do with genes, chromosomes, or natural selection. The biological basis of sex is denied, and the biology of male and female is replaced by a non-binary continuum of multiple and varying genders. In this new gender dispensation, a person can choose what gender they wish to be, and, hay presto, they are that gender, until they decide they are something else or something entirely new and never-before-seen. In the United States and Canada, citizens are compelled by law to believe whatever someone says about their gender.

Redefining words is a way of denying facts and reality in order to advance political goals. Although in a technical sense, all definitions are arbitrary, politically driven redefinitions, such as the examples offered above, are little more than politically motivated lies, the primary mode of contemporary academia, media, and education.

Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Public Domain


  • Philip Carl Salzman

    Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Past President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

5 thoughts on “Redefining Words to Obscure Facts

  1. This is one of those exceptions to the anti-woke argument. You get the same thing at Campus Reform and The College Fix, and also in the social media posts of Spiked Online, James Lindsay, and to some extent, Triggernometry.

    In a nutshell, the anti-woke brigade criticise the exaggeration of racism by Black Lives Matter etc., who claim that words are violence, using words like “safety” and “harm” to undermine freedom. But in just one case – Jews – the anti-woke people use the same logic.

    When Roger Waters organized a conference at UMass to criticize Zionist censorship, Zionists tried to censor it, claiming it would harm Jewish students’ “safety and well-being” and cause “irreparable harm”. Campus Reform published articles defending a bill which would make it it illegal to accuse Israel of being more racist than “any other country”.

    On this site, Anne Hendershott, in “Anti-Semitism Growing on America’s Campuses”, claims that the boycott movement could lead to a repeat of the Nazi Holocaust.

    The glaring inconsistency seems obvious. I wonder what is at the root of it.

    1. With regard to “repeat of the Nazi Holocaust” — I suggest that you read up on the Hamas charter.

    2. Mr. McLaughlin points to what he claims is an inconsistency between sane objections to woke extremism, on the one hand, and, on the other, the objections by “Zionists” to attacks on Jews in universities. This is a false equivalence, a trick common to anti-Israel demagogues. We have heard it recently in the false equivalence between Hamas aggression aimed at civilians, and Israeli defense aimed at Hamas assets. What Mr. McLaughlin ignores is the aggression of anti-Zionists on campus which goes way beyond criticism of Zionism and Israel. From my own campus, here are a few examples: The elected student leader who tweeted “Sock a Zionist today.” The attempts to block student candidates from running because they were not sufficiently anti-Zionist. The explicit policy of the student-fee funded paper to never publish any defense of Israel or Zionism in response to its repeated virulent racist attacks on Israel and Zionism. At universities all around the country, pro-Palestinian and Muslim activists try to intimidate Zionists to keep them from expressing their opinions and to block them from office. This now extends not just to Zionists; today it is enough to be a Jew to be attacked. But apparently Mr. McLaughlin is fine with that.

      1. Prof Salzman, most of your reply refers to ‘the aggression of anti-Zionists’ toward Zionists. My comment said nothing about that – for all I know, it could be true. My comment is about the remarkable similarity between the language used by Zionists to refer to ideological differences, and those used by woke ideologues like BLM.

        After presenting several instances of this ideological dispute, you add “This now extends not just to Zionists; today it is enough to be a Jew to be attacked” without any examples, and claim I would be “fine with that”, without any evidence.

        I’m not an “anti-Israel demagogue” any more than I was an “anti-South Africa demagogue”. I have no reason to prefer Islamic fanatics over Jewish ones. It’s just that my tax dollars support the latter. I am obliged to try to stop the US government from forcing me to fund murder.

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