Linguistic Control of the Food Debate

If you can control the use and the meaning of words in any debate, you will win.

Executing linguistic control in a debate is a sophisticated tactic, and it includes examples like this:

1) Arguing that a word means not what you say it means, but what I say it means
2) Disallowing the use of certain words or phrases
3) Correcting opposing debaters for using disallowed words or unapproved definitions

Sophisticated polemicists always attempt to establish, up front, any definitions and terminology that favor their viewpoints and that weaken the opposition’s arguments. Linguistic control enables a debater to dictate the frame and boundaries of a debate.

It's like choosing the battlefield, only better, because most of the time your audience and your debate opponents aren't even aware of what you’re doing.

Let's look at an example. Many of you will recall Michele Simon's aggressively polemic book Appetite for Profit. I've discussed Simon's book a couple of times here at Casual Kitchen, and I even did an interview with Simon about her book and her views.

One of Simon's brilliant rhetorical flourishes in Appetite for Profit is to include her own glossary, where she redefines, on her terms, various food industry debate phrases and expressions. Let's examine how she redefines the phrase personal responsibility:

Personal responsibility: The concept food lobbyists like to use to deflect criticism by blaming individuals for their fate--never mind the billions of dollars they spend in marketing each year.

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't happen to agree with this definition. But it's okay: I understand why Simon needs to redefine it, given her desire for the government to play a far greater role in regulating and controlling the food industry at nearly every level.

The problem Simon faces is that the generally accepted definition of personal responsibility hurts her position in the food debate. The phrase is a rhetorically and dialectically powerful expression against her debate position, because in reality people actually do hold a great deal of responsibility for what they do and what they eat.

An effective debater must therefore weaken, subvert or transform this definition somehow to prevent the opposing side from using it to their advantage. And this is what Simon does, quite skillfully I might add. In one tightly-written sentence, she argues that personal responsibility is:

1) Used by food lobbyists
2) Used to deflect criticism
3) Used to blame individuals
4) Used in concert with billions of dollars in marketing.

She has now effectively redefined personal responsibility into a phrase that functions entirely on her terms. It now helps rather than hinders her arguments.

This technique of linguistic control scores debate points in several ways, all at once. First, it's a pre-debate skirmish that can tire out or distract opponents from the real topic. Second, if the other side contests this redefinition they appear nitpicking and weak. Third, if they don't contest this linguistic tactic and just let it go, they lose access to a rhetorically and dialectically effective phrase. It's a Catch-22 all around.

In fact, if you were to debate Michele Simon and were foolish enough to agree to her definition of personal responsibility, you'd sound like a shill for lobbyists and a terrible person just by saying the words! The phrase is now radioactive: using it would give everyone in the room a sad, icky feeling toward you.

Needless to say you'd lose the debate.

Please note: my goal here is not to stake out any position on a given food debate, nor is it to criticize Michele Simon--in fact, quite the contrary: I admire her often formidable rhetorical skills. My goal here is merely to illustrate and explain a tactic that, if used against you in a debate, can destroy your ability to make your case. Watch out for it.


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