Want to dismiss what someone’s saying? It’s easy: tell them they’re, “just arguing semantics.” That handful of words can serve to completely disregard someone’s argument based on the fact that they’re saying word choice is important. But what words we use are important— Mark Twain famously said, “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” While lightning bugs and lightning are obviously two different things, the difference between calling something a discussion, a debate, or an argument can be just as large.
Contrary to what we learned in school, what a word means is much more complicated than just what it says when we look it up in the dictionary. How a word is formally explained in a dictionary is just one meaning for the word, the denotative meaning. What we associate a word with, on the other hand, is a word’s connotative meaning. To make things more complicated, just like a word can have more than one definition in the dictionary, so too can it have more than one connotative definition. And perhaps more importantly, just because two words share the same denotative meaning doesn’t mean they have the same connotative meaning.
This is what people say when someone is “just arguing semantics,” that they’re pointing out that even if two words or phrases have the same denotative meaning, their connotative meanings are quite different. Quite often examples of this occur in highly charged, incredibly divisive political issues, especially where both side wants to be “pro” and not “anti” something.
So what does all this have to do with Georgia? Like much of what we’ve been talking about lately, the answer is ethics reform. Politicians don’t want to be seen as being against ethics reform, due to the fact that that would make them seem (justifiably so or not) corrupt. Instead, they come up with other tactics. For example, Speaker Ralston has quite frequently stated that he’s not against ethics reform, just against lobbyist bans. He is, however, definitely pro lobbyist disclosure.
Despite the seeming simplicity of those statements, there’s actually a lot there. Ralston is saying he’s against bans; CCGA and our allies are not even talking about bans, we’re talking about caps. Looking at the denotative definitions of those words, you can see how they’re sort of similar: one dictionary defines ban as “to prohibit, especially by legal means” while one of several definitions for cap is “set an upper limit on.” Obviously ban and cap don’t mean exactly the same thing but they are related to one another. Their connotative definitions, however, are miles apart. Bans are negative—we ban books, people ban things that are fun but maybe not good for us. Caps, however, are put in place to regulate, not to get rid of altogether. It’s sort of like the difference between forbidding and limiting, between outlawing and regulating.
When we argue that we’re not banning but capping, we’re not “just arguing semantics.” Well, we are, but we’re making a vital distinction too. It’s OK for politicians to be against bans because bans in general have negative connotations. It’s much less OK for politicians to be against caps because caps don’t.
So when a senator or representative says they’re against a particular ethics reform package (though of course not ethics reform) because they oppose bans on lobbyist gifts, take a minute and look at what the proposed legislation is actually asking for. There’s a big difference between a ban and a limit. Maybe they haven’t read the bill or maybe they just don’t realize. Either way, it’s not just semantics—it’s could be the difference in a bill being passed and a bill never making it out of committee (exactly what happened to Georgians’ latest plea for ethics reform) and it’s up to us to give our legislators a bit of a language lesson.