How to get to the bottom of category fights

Even if you didn’t grow up in a hippie town like I did, you may very well like to eat natural foods. If I weren’t allergic I would eat natural chicken; everyone says it’s healthy, right?

Image: Truthful Labeling Coalition
Image: Truthful Labeling Coalition

Not so fast! According to an Associated Press report from 2010, The Truthful Labeling Coalition says that chicken labeled “natural” isn’t always natural. What does that mean? It turns out that some “natural” chicken is a free rider, exploiting the ambiguity that comes from the polysemous term “natural,” and the Truthful Labeling Coalition is attempting to play the role of gatekeeper, excluding this “plumped” chicken from the “natural” category. When we look deeper, we find that the Truthful Labeling Coalition is composed of companies like Foster Farms that claim to produce “100% natural” chicken. There are consumers who could be buying Foster Farms chicken, but are instead buying plumped chicken from companies like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, depriving Foster of revenue. Beneath the fight over words is a fight over money.

This example is a good introduction to how category fights work. Not all members of the category are equal. A gatekeeper accuses another category member of free riding and tries to exclude them. Beneath the terminological dispute there is always an underlying dispute over resources. The gatekeeper benefits from membership in the category and is attempting to deny these benefits to the accused free riders.

Just because this is about resources doesn’t mean that it’s not a valid argument. Fairness, after all, is about access to resources. What it means is that the fight is not “just semantics.” It can be semantics in the service of justice.

Let’s define some terms. Homonymy is when two words are pronounced or written the same, like “bear” and “bare.” Polysemy is a special kind of homonymy where a word develops multiple senses, like “since” meaning “subsequent to” or “because of.” Some polysemous words can even split to the point where they’re pronounced differently by most people, like “not” and “naught.”

Ambiguity is when there is more than one interpretation for a particular utterance. Homonyms can be ambiguous, like the famous “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear,” but polysemous words even more so – and in fact that’s how words change their meaning, according to Elizabeth Traugott.

In our example, “natural” has become polysemous. In terms of food, I (and lots of other people) associate it with the absence of industrial methods and additives. As shopper Muembo Muanza told Juliana Barbassa of the Associated Press, “If it says natural, I expect it to be all natural – nothing but chicken.” But Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson claim that it’s still “natural” as long as what gets added – typically salt, water and the seaweed product carageenan – are “natural.” The word “natural” is ambiguous between those two senses.
natural chicken1
In this diagram, the smaller, darker circle is the “natural” of Foster Farms, Perdue and Muanza, while the bigger circle indicates the “natural” of Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride.

It’s an open question whether the executives at Tyson actually believes that their chicken is natural. If they don’t and are being dishonest, it’s a bait-and-switch tactic. If they do believe, it’s a free rider problem – at least from the point of view of the Truthful Labeling Coalition. Regardless, Foster Farms believes that it is unfairly losing revenue because its chickens are in the same category with the “plumped” chickens. The Truthful Labelers want to exclude “plumped” chicken from the category of “natural,” and the other companies want to deny that exclusion.

You can see now how I used the Power of Semantics to get beyond a category fight to the underlying resource conflict. I first identified the category and the players, and the ambiguity at play. Then I reported the players’ stances towards the category and what they wanted.

Who should win this fight? Well, the Truthful Labeling Coalition is hoping that your category of “natural chicken” is closer to theirs; if it is, you probably want to exclude the “plumped” meat from your diet and will support their efforts.

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