Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Definitions Matter

For my first post I wanted to talk about definitions. This is spurred by a recent New York Times article discussing the Obama administration's definition of the word 'combatant.' Before I discuss the specific issues raised in the article, I just wanted to remind people how important definitions can be. In philosophy, as in many domains of human inquiry, many debates are often, ultimately, debates about what a word means or how it should properly be used, i.e debates about definitions. In many cases, being clear about definitions often resolves disputes once the disputants realize that they were arguing about different things or that they actually agree once the terms are properly defined.

We can see evidence of this point in the NYTimes article mentioned above. Of particular interest is the administration's definition of the term 'combatant.' According to the article:
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
What this means is that the US government uses a very broad definition of the term, such that almost anyone who ends up being killed can be described as a combatant. This serves as a very important rhetorical device because it then allows the government to claim a higher rate of success for aerial strikes. In fact, it even allows the Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to claim, “there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop.” This is because of the definitions adopted by the Obama administration. It is only by employing such a broad definition of 'combatant' that the government can then claim that there are no civilian casualties. If the government were to employ a definition that more closely matches what we tend to mean when we use the term 'combatant' then they would be forced to acknowledge the significant civilian casualties caused by our aerial bombardment of the Middle East.

As Glenn Greenwald then goes on to note (here and here), the media in the US uncritically accept the government's definitions, leading to distortions in reporting and a further propagandizing of the American people.

This last point ties in to some important issues with media, particularly the propaganda model of the media developed by Chomsky and Herman.  In particular, this is a nice illustration of the jingoistic biases of the American media as well as the dangers of the media relying only on government sources for reporting on the activities of the government.

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