John Tennison’s “This I Believe” Essay (June 26, 2007)

This essay can also be found online at

People often use and react to words because of the emotions and behaviors words cause, rather than react to or seek clarification of the meaning of words used by someone.

These reactions can have drastic consequences, such as when politicians manipulate voting behavior by labeling their opponents as “liberals” or “conservatives,” which is often calculated to divert voters’ attention away from considering what politicians actually stand for or what politicians will do once they gain office.

The lack of precision of meaning in our conversations is also evident in the usually meaningless extra words that are inserted into spoken sentences, such as, “like,” “kind of like,” “sort of,” “you know,” and the classic “know what I’m sayin’?” It was sort of, like, you know, kind of like, well, you know what I’m sayin’.

Philosophers have traditionally pointed out the importance of defining our terms BEFORE beginning a conversation, yet most conversations occur with the implicit assumption that participants have the same understanding of words being used. Knowing up front what is meant by words used in a conversation is not just important in academic discourse, but in every single conversation we have. If there is any doubt, it takes only a few seconds more to ask a speaker what they mean by a particular word.

For example, I believe the word “believe” (when left undefined) is an ambiguous word that can potentially confuse the thinking of those whose use or hear it.

For example, stating what I believe could be a statement of my values, such as saying, “I believe in single-payer universal health care.” This is a statement of what I believe should ethically occur. This statement of belief does not involve taking a leap of faith or making any assumptions about the nature of reality that are not based on evidence. Rather it is a statement of what is clearly possible and of what I would like to see occur.

In contrast, another sense in which the word “believe” is used is when someone makes a statement in which they have taken a leap of faith about the nature of objective reality, usually with no evidence to support their claims. Such statements can be as seemingly innocuous as saying “I believe in God.” However, such statements of belief can also be dangerous when they have a prescription for particular behaviors, such as when someone believes their god wants them to kill, harm, or exploit others in some way.

Thus, when I hear someone use the phrase, “this I believe,” I believe I better dig more deeply as to whether they are making a statement of values (such as saying “I believe in the Golden Rule.”), or whether they are referring a leap of faith they have made about the nature of reality, especially a leap of faith involving a prescription for intolerance or behavior that might bring harm to others.

This I believe: “People should know what they mean and mean what they say.”

Know what I’m sayin’?

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