Oftentimes, people who are sympathetic to socialism (who may or may not be socialists themselves) argue that socialism's meaning is misunderstood. The basic sentiment of this argument is that if people only understood what it "really means," then, socialism would be accepted by all (or many).
In response to this, those who oppose socialism (who may or may not be capitalists) will often retort with a definition of socialism or a quote from a socialist, Marxist, or alike. Using whatever definition they provide as a foundation, they will provide arguments as to why they both understand what socialism is and have good reason to oppose it.
I find this dance very tiresome and circular -- not to mention boring. I think there is another -- perhaps better -- way to go about things that may offer a place we can begin to have a more fruitful and interesting discussion. Namely, we ought to ask, again in an entirely different sort of way: What does socialism mean?
What makes this question different is that when I ask what the 'meaning' of socialism is, I am not asking for a dictionary definition or a convenient quote from Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. What I am asking are more direct questions that are usually excluded from these kinds of discussions altogether. These are questions like: What does it mean for the events we can call 'socialist' to happen? In other words, what does it mean for capitalism to be rejected by so many people at different times for so many different reasons? Where does that sentiment come from? Is it justified? Does it make sense? Can we empathize with it?
Answers to these questions will reveal a different sense of socialism. A weaker sense than the strong, pungent scents of theoretical or historical socialisms. This is what socialism is, I think, in its infancy, its intuitive beginnings. Those early intuitions are the sense that something is wrong with capitalism. Or, to put it more aptly, something is wrong with the human person objectified by the modern, capitalist reduction of persons into objects -- human resources.
I think that those who can agree with this weaker sense of what socialism is, can begin to talk about alternatives that may vary in ideology or political sentiment, but will not be reduced to what John Mayer calls, "slow dancing in a burning room."