The danger of definitions: what you’re still getting wrong about racism

Richard Cook
8 min readJun 2, 2020

I’m no expert on racial issues, and I won’t pretend to be. But I get frustrated when I read the comments of a piece talking about racism and see the same old arguments being thrown around.

“well actually, ALL lives matter”

“white people can experience racism too”

“if this was the other round you would call it racist”

These objections are tired and well-addressed. Instead, I’d just like to share a way of looking at why they’re unfounded that might be helpful. And I think it all boils to down to definitions, and how we use them.

Definitions are useful!

Ask any philosopher about an issue and one of the first things they’ll do is stop you and ask you to define what it is you’re talking about. And this is a helpful thing to do.

Does God exist? Well, that depends on how we define God. Is it wrong to steal? Well, define “wrong” and “steal”. Then we can start to answer it.

Debating definitions has been going on since basically forever. When Socrates wandered around the agora asking people what justice or courage is, he was pushing them for a definition.

SOCRATES: And now, Laches, do you try and tell me in like manner, What is that common quality which is called courage, and which includes all the various uses of the term when applied both to pleasure and pain, and in all the cases to which I was just now referring?

LACHES: I should say that courage is a sort of endurance of the soul, if I am to speak of the universal nature which pervades them all.

SOCRATES: But that is what we must do if we are to answer the question. And yet I cannot say that every kind of endurance is, in my opinion, to be deemed courage.

In the Dialogues, this happens over and over again. Socrates pushes his interlocutor for a definition, they give examples, he asks for the unifying concept behind these examples, and they generally flounder.

The Socratic approach can be useful in some situations. It’s an interrogative method that highlights our assumptions and leads us to a greater understanding of things.

Richard Cook

Professional cynic (but my heart's not in it)