The Importance Of Making Distinctions

The Importance Of Making Distinctions

Something odd has been going on in public discourse. More and more commentators are ignoring important and in some cases rather obvious distinctions. As a result, they pursue lines of thought that defy common sense and cause confusion, injury to others, or both.  Consider these examples:

Many political pundits denounce the term “illegal immigrant” as offensive and even racist. They demand that it be replaced with “undocumented worker.” That would be like calling someone who crashes a party an “uninvited attendee” or someone who falsely passes himself off as a medical doctor an “uncertified physician.” In reality, there is a distinction between those who break the law and those who observe it, and torturing language does not change that distinction.

Some school officials classify little boys who use their fingers as make-believe guns or hurl imaginary grenades at imaginary foes as potential sociopaths. That classification ignores the glaring difference between normal play and mental abnormality.

Champions of separating church and state protest and litigate against religious displays, claiming that religious people are imposing their views on those who do not share them. That claim ignores the distinction between freely exercising one’s own religious freedom and coercing others.

Many gun control advocates conflate the ownership of guns with the use of guns in the commission of crimes. In reality the two are very different: gun ownership may be legal or illegal, whereas using guns to commit crimes is always illegal.

Some experts on child rearing equate discipline with punishment and then denounce it because of that association. In reality, though discipline can take the form of punishment, it can instead take the more positive form of guidance and encouragement toward self-control and responsibility. The distinction, though subtle, is especially important in parenting.

Increasingly of late, government officials and agencies tend to ignore the distinction between protecting and controlling the public. An example of protection is closing down restaurants that violate the health code. In contrast, controlling is preventing the public from exercising their right of free choice, for example by requiring restaurants to limit the size of soft drinks and the salt and/or fat content of their food.

Some members of the U. S. Justice Department argued for trying in U.S. criminal courts foreign nationals who engaged in acts of terrorism on foreign soil. In doing so, they effectively denied the distinction between acts of war and domestic criminal acts, as well as the distinction between citizens and non-citizens.

Many legislators habitually ignore the obvious distinction between spending and saving, not only indirectly by trivializing the dangers of governmental deficits and debt, but in some cases directly by portraying profligate spending as the solution to the debt problem.

One reason for this widespread failure to make important distinctions is that for almost a century the emphasis at all levels of education has been on mind stuffing rather than training in effective thinking. (Some teachers have changed the emphasis in their classrooms but have seldom succeeded in getting their institutions to change.) The result of this misconceived focus is that many people finish college and even graduate school without having learned how to think effectively.

Another reason is that Humanistic Psychology, which has been dominant in our culture for almost fifty years, has persuaded many people that truth is subjective rather than objective—that is, created rather than discovered. Those who embrace this idea believe that their views cannot be wrong, so they see no need to make distinctions (or for that matter to follow any other principles or rules of logic).

Both private and public discussion of serious issues would improve markedly if all of us were careful to make the following important distinctions:

Between the person and the idea. Highly intelligent people can have foolish ideas and relatively unintelligent people can have brilliant ideas. Similarly, dishonest people can have unethical views and honest people can have ethical views. Therefore, there is no necessary connection between attacking the person and disqualifying his or her ideas.  (Memo to politicians: stick to the issues and stop demonizing your opponents.)

Between fact and opinion. This distinction is a little trickier. Facts are ideas that have been documented to reflect reality; opinions are judgments that await such documentation. Today’s opinion may become tomorrow’s fact—think Galileo. And here is the tricky part: what was considered a fact in the past may be found to be wrong—for example, the answer to the question “How many planets are in our solar system?” We should be careful not to regard our opinions as facts no matter how attached we are to them.

Between matters of taste and matters of judgment. The difference between the two is suggested in the old Latin proverb, De gustibus non disputandum est, which may be loosely translated “it is pointless to debate matters of taste.” Conversely, it is profitable to debate matters of judgment. If I say “I like chocolate” or “I prefer the Ford Taurus over other full-size American cars,” I am speaking of matters of taste and needn’t defend my statement. But if I say “I believe Senator Blabby’s position on immigration is the most reasonable one,” I am speaking of a matter of judgment and should be prepared to explain why I hold that belief.

Between making assertions and supporting them. People who confuse these two activities believe that piling one assertion on another, or expressing the same idea in different words, is the same as providing evidence. It isn’t. For example, supporting the assertion about Senator Blabby’s view on immigration entails specifying what merits his view has that competing views lack.

Between familiarity and validity. It is natural to be more comfortable with familiar ideas than with unfamiliar ones. Also, to regard that comfortable feeling as evidence that the idea is sound. (Realizing this, people who wish to manipulate us repeat certain ideas over and over—a current noxious example, “Republicans don’t care for the poor and middle classes.”) But familiarity and validity are separate matters. The ideas we are most familiar with could be wrong.

Between classifying and evaluating. One shortcut in thinking has become popular today—judging on the basis of labels. For example, if a talk-show guest is identified as a liberal or conservative, or pro- or anti-gun control, or a Christian or atheist, many people automatically reject what the person has to say even before he/she finishes speaking. They may even believe that their reaction constitutes evaluating the person’s ideas. That is not the case, of course. An essential part of evaluating ideas is to separate them from the person who expresses them, as well as from any label attached to that person.

Between feeling and thinking. Many people believe that feeling and thinking are not only similar but equally effective as guides to believing and acting. In fact, they are very different both in form and effectiveness. Feelings are more spontaneous than thoughts but also more capricious—that is, more easily influenced by our changing moods and manipulated by other people. This is not to say that feelings have no value—only that they need to be tested by careful thought before being trusted. To put it slightly differently, feelings should never be used as a substitute for thought.

Between style and substance. Style refers to the rhetorical appeal of a spoken or written presentation; substance, to the quality of its reasoning. It is possible both to speak nonsense eloquently and to speak sense inarticulately. If we do not distinguish between style and substance when we read and listen, we are liable to reject good ideas and embrace bad ones. If we do not make that distinction when we speak and write, the quality of our presentations is likely to suffer.

Making these distinctions ourselves, and calling to account those who do not make them, will help to elevate contemporary discourse.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero