Do We Have a Problem Defining Our Problems?

Recent changes in the definitions of social ills show we're still struggling to combat them

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In January, the FBI announced that it is finally updating its ancient definition of rape to conform to a more thorough understanding of sexual assault. While many states have already adapted their criminal codes, decades of national statistics on sexual assaults have relied on the FBI’s definition dating back to 1927 that rape was essentially a property crime against a husband, or “carnal knowledge [penetration of the vagina by a penis] of a female, forcibly and against her will.”  That means that for almost a century, male victims of rape have not been counted in the federal government’s national database. Neither have many of the mentally disabled or impaired, nor victims of both genders who have suffered rape by anal or oral penetration.

(MORE: Ruth Davis Konigsberg: Scampering Around the Word Rape)

We’ve been redefining other things, too. This month, the American Psychiatric Association is arguing for a stricter definition of autism in the upcoming edition of the mental health profession’s gold standard text, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V.) If implemented, the proposed change will undoubtedly result in fewer diagnosed cases of autism. While many experts welcome the greater specificity of the new definition, some parents and clinicians worry that autistic children could be missed under the new criteria and thus be ineligible for necessary services.

Both examples point to a vexing constant in our society: we often have trouble defining our problems.

This is not just a question of semantics or becoming more “politically correct.” How we define a problem affects how we measure a problem, which affects how we deploy resources to combat a problem. With more and more sophisticated ways to collect information, we sometimes forget that data collection is not a neutral or objective act. Definitions reflect societal values and priorities, and they require a consensus that something — air quality or hypertension or rising sea levels — should be recognized or minimized in the first place.

(MORE: Our Concern Over ‘Indecency’ Is Misguided)

Take definitions of poverty, for example. We might assume that there is a standard way to measure the level of poverty in the United States. But poverty lines have changed frequently since statistics were first collected in the 1960s, when the definition was based on the price of food, a household’s biggest expense at the time. Some have suggested that the U.S. Census Bureau estimate of 2010 poverty (approximately 15% of all American households) is inaccurate because it doesn’t properly account for the disproportionate rise in housing costs or expenses associated with having a job (such as child care and transportation) that are particularly hard on low-income families. And many millions of “near poor” — defined as a family of four with an income around $25,000 in the Northern Plains states and $50,000 in Silicon Valley — have only recently come to the attention of our Census Bureau. One could conclude that we previously never had a problem of “near poor” Americans; those tens of millions of people appeared not to exist.

(MORE: Touré: If I Were a Middle Class White Guy Writing About Being a Poor Black Kid)

Sometimes we may overreach in defining a problem: No Child Left Behind labeled a large percentage of schools “failures” without offering a realistic way to ameliorate them. When this became an impossible burden on school systems, with as many as half of all public schools receiving failing grades in some areas, states responded by applying for waivers to buy time to rectify the problems. So were the schools actually failing to begin with or failing after the waiver or neither? Or both?

That our definitions of problems are fluid is not always a bad thing. One strength of our country is its flexibility and willingness to adapt. It’s important that definitions change to reflect the living, breathing nature of a dynamic society. But this elasticity sometimes comes at the price of having a good reading of our nation’s pulse. It’s easy to forget that definitions matter not only for how we see ourselves, but also for how we treat others.

(MORE: Changing the Definition of Autism Is a High-Stakes Game)