“Weaponized” words are imbalanced decision rules

by Hazard

Many words functions as labels for a decision rule, an if X then Y” heuristic, a descriptive/prescriptive blend for acting in the world. To apply such a label to something is to simultaneously assert that it fits some descriptive criteria, and additionally that you think it should be treated a certain way. A lot of legal terminology is explicitly created to serve as decision rules; this is what counts as a misdemeanor and this is how we treat people judged guilty of misdemeanors.”

Any given decision rule can be more or less useful for a given context, and more or less imbalanced”; more heavy on the descriptive side or on the prescriptive side.

From C. S. Lewis in The Death of Words”:

But surely there are words that have become merely complimentary—words which once had a definable sense and which are now nothing more than noises of vague approval? The clearest example is the word gentleman. This was once (like villain) a term which defined a social and heraldic fact. The question whether Snooks was a gentleman was almost as soluble as the question whether he was a barrister or a Master of Arts. […] This is one of the ways in which words die. A skilful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjectival parasites real or true. As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-So is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a real gentleman’ or a true gentleman’ or a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.

To be more… descriptive, than prescriptive, I’d say what’s happening is the word is becoming more and more of a prescriptive label. This is not always and everywhere a bad thing. Guilty” is a word that’s almost entirely prescriptive. It’s what you use for a conclusion. The word guilty” does not encode the process of determining guilt. That task is offloaded to the whole complex mess that is the legal system (or however conflict resolution works in your local scope). It’s useful to have a word like guilty.

You can often tell you’re dealing with a word who’s common usage has mostly come to mean the prescriptive part of a decision rule when you hear things like, Everyone agrees that X is [value judgment], we just don’t agree on what counts as X.”

I’d say that when someone calls a word weaponized”, they’re getting at how the prescriptive part of the decision rule has grown in severity while the descriptive part lags behind, not growing in sophistication to match the intensity of the new prescription. Perhaps the descriptive aspect is still anchored on dictionary definitions, ones that are decent for gesturing vaguely at a cluster, but don’t really cut it (according to the person making claims of weaponization”) for the task of mediating conflict and deciding when a severe consequence should be dished out.

Imbalanced decision rules, ones with general or vague descriptions but intense, precise prescriptions make room for a maneuver I really don’t like, arguing definitions when you’re really trying to argue how to make a decision. You argue that by definition, X is a Y, it’s pretty clear cut, I don’t see what there is to debate here” when your full logic is by definition, X is a Y, and we’ve already decided that we treat Y like Z, so let’s Z”. The real underlying argument is about should we use prescription Z for dealing with X?” but that real conflict is evaded in favor is trying to short-circuit” the decision via definitional arguments.