A persuasive definition is a form of definition which purports to describe the 'true' or 'commonly accepted' meaning of a term, while in reality stipulating an uncommon or altered use, usually to support an argument for some view, or to create or alter rights, duties or crimes. The terms thus defined will often involve emotionally charged but imprecise notions, such as "freedom", "terrorism", "democracy", etc. In argumentation the use of a stipulative definition is sometimes called definist fallacy.
Examples of persuasive definitions include:
- atheist – "someone who doesn't yet realize that God exists"
- Democrat – "a leftist who desires to overtax the corporations and abolish freedom in the economic sphere"
- Republican – "an old white man who feels threatened by change."
- Loyalty – "a tool to get people to do things they don't want to do."
Persuasive definitions commonly appear in controversial topics such as politics, sex, and religion, as participants in emotionally charged exchanges will sometimes become more concerned about swaying people to one side or another than expressing the unbiased facts. A persuasive definition of a term is favorable to one argument or unfavorable to the other argument, but is presented as if it were neutral and well-accepted, and the listener is expected to accept such a definition without question.
Overview and example
Language can simultaneously communicate information (informative) and feelings (expressive). Unlike other common types of definitions in logic, persuasive definitions focus on the expressive use of language to affect the feelings of readers and listeners ultimately with an aim to change their behavior. With this fundamentally different purpose, persuasive definitions are evaluated not on their truth or falsehood but rather on their effectiveness as a persuasive device.
Patrick Hurley provides a number of examples of contentious terms with two opposing persuasive definitions, among them a favorable and unfavorable definition of taxation:
- definition supporting taxation: "the procedure by means of which our commonwealth is preserved and sustained"
- definition opposing taxation: "the procedure used by bureaucrats to rip off the people who elected them"
Neither definition is particularly informative compared to a commonly accepted lexical definition. Note how the supporting view uses positive language where the opposing view uses negative language, such as the word bureaucrat which carries an unfavorable connotation alongside its informative meaning.
Unclear, figurative language is often used in persuasive definitions. Although several techniques can be used to form such a definition, the genus and difference technique is the usual one applied. Both definitions in the taxation example above agree that the genus is a procedure relating to governance but disagree on the difference. Persuasive definitions combine elements of stipulative definitions, lexical definitions, and sometimes theoretical definitions.
Persuasive definitions commonly appear in political speeches, editorials and other situations where the power to influence is most in demand. They have been dismissed as serving only to confuse readers and listeners without legitimate purpose. Critical scrutiny is often necessary to identify persuasive definitions in an argument as they are meant to appear as honest definitions.
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