A Question of Definitions

A short post this week, I promise!1 Last week, whilst riffing on Labour’s dog-whistle racism (which seems to have had no effect on their polling, so well done that team for letting down the Left and failing to get the racists onboard; quality job, well done!), I mentioned briefly how many people became experts on racism last week simply by reaching for their dictionaries.

As you should know, I am a philosopher, and philosophers rarely use dictionary definitions to win arguments.2 So, when people reached for their dictionaries to prove that Phil Twyford’s framing of the housing crisis in Auckland wasn’t actually racist, I rolled my eyes. Dictionary definitions are not the be-all and end-all of debate, and if you know anything about language, then you will know that dictionary definitions cannot be considered absolute, complete or even up-to-date.

Let’s look at the definition of racism. Here’s OS X’s built in definition of racism:

the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Now, that’s a fairly standard short dictionary definition. Compare it to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs.

That’s a better definition, but it does not capture the way in which racism is often used these days, which is in terms of systems and institutions. You need to look up “institutional racism” to get the following definition:

racial discrimination occurring habitually or customarily within a society or organization

That was a draft addition to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, which means it is not yet part of the main definition of a particular word, in this case, “institutional”. Note that; even though the defintion is about a form of racism, the maintainers of the dictionary think that the definition should be tagged to the word “institutional”, so even when “institutional racism” enters the Oxford English Dictionary, it will be effectively hidden and not part of the definition of what qualifies as a kind of racism.

Now, I don’t think that getting the defintion of institional racism built into “racism” will solve many, if any problems. People who are offended by the idea that racism can be more than interpersonal bigotry or prejudice will either stop reaching for their dictionaries or claim there is some agenda in changing the “essential” meaning of the word. No one is going to reach for their dictionary and then upon reading a definition go “Oh, wait, hold on a minute… Okay, no, I’m wrong; you’re right!” That never happens. However, talk of institutional racism is part of how people use the term “racism” and “racist” these days, and going to a dictionary and saying “No, you’re wrong” doesn’t prove a thing.

Modern dictionaries describe common usage, and a notable problem in that project is the lag between contemporary usage and when a term actually makes it into the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary has had, in draft form, “institional racism” on the books for nine years now, and it’s still not teachnically in the printed versions of those dictionaries people reach for. Nine years means the term has been in use for quite a while, since “new” meanings only make it into the dictionary once they are demonstrably in use and commonplace.

Being called “racist” or having a position you agree with described as “racist” can be unsettling, particularly if you refuse to counterance the idea that racism can be systemic and institional (and thus sometimes something you implicitly agree to) rather than exlicit prejudice. However, reaching for a dictionary and telling people “No, racism is…” does nothing to undermine the claim that your view or position is potentially problematic. Dictionary definitions should never be argument stoppers. The final word in what a term means is never a dictionary. Common usage decides that. Dictionaries certainly are evidence of common usage, but even the maintainers of said dictionaries know that by the time a word makes it into a dictionary, it’s likely already in the process of taking on new and interesting meanings.

Talking about dictionaries, in the process of writing this blogpost my computer’s dictionary decided that the word “draft” was not in its dictionary. Weird, huh?


  1. Mostly because I have something else I need to write today.
  2. Instead, we tend to like to completely redefine words to suit our arguments, and then go “Oh, but you don’t really mean x when you say x; you actually mean y…”

Sensible Minds Might Not Prevail

A lot of LEDs (or digital ink, if you will) has been spent over the last week discussing the whole “Labour carpet blames the Chinese for the housing crisis”. Now, it’s quite obvious what I think of Labour from that previous sentence; at best Phil Twyford and Andrew Little did not think through how their message would come across (which makes them the kind of people who are unsuited to represent us in Parliament) and, at worse, they knew exactly how the message would come across but decided it was okay to sacrifice Chinese New Zealanders as long as it got the dog-whistle vote. I do not know which end of the spectrum of hypotheses is the most likely, although I do think Twyford and Little’s doubling-down on the “People are just being overly sensitive about this; what we really meant was…” vaguely supports the worse case scenario.

So, what do I have to add to the debate (aside from an awful lot of tweets last week poking fun at Labour Party sympathisers)? Very little. However, obviously some people think I should be writing on this, given emails, DMs and tweets all to that extent. And, I can see why; if you think Labour knew what it was they were doing, then it does seem like they have conspired to keep their intentions secret. Then there is the ongoing question of where they got their data from, and the secrecy which still remains about how they moved from a Bayesian analysis of who was buying what to the claim about the non-residential nature of the buyers. Potent questions/issues to be sure, but I really don’t know that I have much to say about.

Compare this case to the Rachinger allegations (the story of which seems to have gone quite quiet, and I am sure certain parties are blaming me and my cronies for that; we were, after all, meant to focus on our common enemy Cam Slater and not question the many interesting details of the story). In the Rachinger case there was an awful lot of publicly available evidence. In the Twyford case (or maybe I should, for consistency, refer to this as the “Twyford Allegations”) there is much speculation but little actual data. Indeed, this was a frequent criticism of the allegations, as shown by Keith Ng, Chuan-Zheng Lee, and Thomas Lumley to count a few. Labour’s response to these criticisms has been disingenuous, and I hate to say it, but none have been more disingenuous than the person who ran the statistical analysis, Rob Salmond. His Sunday Star-Times piece (which can also be read here either deliberately reinterprets the criticisms, or shows that he wasn’t so interested in debating the issue as he was in defending his methodology. Indeed, a more paranoid mind than my own would think, based upon the actions of the Leader, the MP and the Statistician1 indicate a concerted effort to wallpaper over the dog-whistling because they know it is doing them harm but they can’t be seen to be in error.

Now, it’s a little known fact but I know quite a bit about Bayesian analysis, since the last two chapters of my book uses such an analysis to argue that in a range of cases conspiracy theories can be inferences to the best explanation.2 As such, I read through Salmond’s description of his method with interest. I was struck by this claim:

To estimate ethnicity, we used public NZ census data on the ethnic distribution of neighbourhoods, and also used data we developed privately about the ethnic distribution of last, middle, and first names in New Zealand. We followed some advice – especially about estimating Asian ethnicities – from prominent US academic studies. I won’t be describing that process further, as that is sensitive IP for Labour.

Now, I can understand that, in some cases, claiming “This is sensitive intellectual property!” is a fine thing to say. However, in the case of a Party trying to make hay from an issue, that really is not good enough. If a Party wants to make a claim like “Foreign, non-resident Chinese are buying up all our houses!” and part of the analysis which supports that claim is secret, why should the Public trust the Party particularly when people have already pointed out methodological problems in the data analysis anyway? Hiding behind IP might be a sound business decision, but it should not be an action undertaken by a Party that a) wants to make it into Government and b) would appear to be engaging in racist dog-whistling to do it.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive about this, having written a book chapter on why we should never trust explanations which cite secret evidence. However, the sheer amount of flippancy about the framing of the claims and then a certain amount of secrecy over the alleged evidence which supports them is, if not outright conspiratorial, reason enough to make people sympathetic to a conspiracy theory that says Labour is doing this for reasons other than the ones the Party is willing to admit to.

Another reason to be concerned is Phil Twyford’s claim that the person who leaked the property data from Barfoot and Thompson is a “whistleblower.” Twyford has said:

I think the whistle-blower I dealt with did Aucklanders a favour and put this information into the domain out of a sense of public duty. I think Aucklanders owe that person a debt of gratitude.

A whistleblower is someone who reveals illicit or illegal activities. Whoever the leaker was, they were not a whistleblower. Nothing about the leak suggests Barfoot and Thompson did anything illegal. Not only that, but it seems the leaker was not aware the data they were passing on was making it to the Labour Party (and, it seems, other Parties). That raises some interesting questions about how the leaked data was obtained, which really does not reflect well on anyone.

Side issue: I frequently find myself reading the comments section over at Public Address (but rarely commenting these days), and what I found truly fascinating was not just the claim that anyone who disagreed with how the Labour Party framed the data “doesn’t care about the housing crisis” but also as “globalists”. I first saw this in a PA comment, and I was struck, going “Huh?” Then Bryce Edward’s started to characterise the difference in views in such terms:

What is going on here? Answers on a postcard, please.

In the end, I think the problem with the analysis of the housing crisis rides on two issues, the denial of the seriousness of which leads to people thinking there is some duplicity or conspiracy on the part of senior members of the Labour Party. The first is the data, which has been put forward as fact when it is nothing of the sort. Rob Salmond’s analysis is a piece of evidence, and it is highly contested evidence at that. A fact is something which is provably true, and Salmond’s analysis has not produced any factual claims (something he admits to, but others seem to mistakenly believe is true of his analysis). Rather, it is evidence of something, where that something is up to interpretation.

The second issue is our old friend institutional racism. It is true that a lot of people became experts in racism last week, but it’s also true a lot of people only became experts in racism because they reached for a dictionary. The standard dictionary definition of racism goes something like:

The belief that members of a race possess characteristics, abilities, et cetera specific to that race which distinguish it as inferior or superior to some other race or races.

The standard dictionary definition doesn’t capture the notion of institutional racism, however, and I’m sure none of us are simple enough to think that you can win a debate on dictionary definitions alone.3 Yet many people went “But the framing of the debate doesn’t make out the Chinese are in anyway inferior, so it can’t be racist, you liberal bigots!” That ignores the structural or institutional form of racism, however, and just how easily Labour’s framing of their story (and it’s foolish indeed to claim it’s entirely the fault of the reporting newspaper in this case, given the defence of the story by Messrs. Little, Twyford and Salmond) plays into the systemic othering and denigration of people who aren’t “real Aucklanders”.

In short (since I realise I said I had little to say on this but have written one and an half thousand words since then), whatever we think of the problem the Twyford Allegations are pointing to, the actual substance of those allegations is nowhere near as strong as senior members of the Labour Party would have us believe, and the defence of those allegations looks at the best, fishy and, at worse, like someone thought it might be good for business to alienate people who easily pass as not looking like really they belong here…


  1. A great film title if ever I heard one.
  2. There’s no math involved; my talk is entirely in talk of probabilities without the need to delve into fancy equations.
  3. Especially since there is a lag between dictionaries capturing common use and languages evolving.