Skip to main content


These days we argue over words, not ideas 

An anti-lockdown protest in New York last November. John Lamparski/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

More and more, we are arguing not about things but about the definitions of words, says Sam Leith in The Spectator. What “woman” means has become a “bear-trap” for politicians on talk shows. “Zionism” can refer to those who support the existence of the Jewish homeland or be used as a term of abuse to mean someone who “rejoices in seeing Palestinian homes bulldozed”. It’s an awful lot for one word to cover. “Freedom” is also tricky: “freedom from” often clashes with “freedom to”. Some Americans advocate freedom to bear arms. Others are keener on freedom from “being gunned down” in school.

As for “democracy”, that’s really “been through the mill”. Everyone claims it’s on their side, but from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, it “comes in more flavours than a slice of cassata ice cream”. Even something so apparently straightforward as “whiteness” now has a similar meaning to “hegemony” for fans of critical race theory. But when non-academic white folk hear “white privilege” being denounced, they think they’re being subjected to reverse racism. “Which inevitably kicks off another definitional argument about whether ‘reverse racism’ exists – and so, ding dong, the boulders fly.”