I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the fallacy of equivocation. To commit the fallacy of equivocation is a somewhat formal and precise way of saying you have made an error in the way you used a word, specifically with regard to the sense in which you treat its denotative meaning. You might think that this sort of thing is of importance only to intellectuals dwelling among the clouds in firmly shuttered ivory towers, but you would be badly mistaken in this opinion.

If we render it in terms more familiar to the large segment of the population concerned with things like getting enough money to make the rent, or whether or not that cute person is going to call you back, it is most simply expressed by saying that it is a form of lying. It can occur through apathy or by being unclear on what a word means, but most often the cause is that on some level the person who is equivocating wants either to avoid the discomfort of saying something right out, or evade the consequences of speaking plainly–usually manifesting themselves as someone telling them to take their opinion and place it where the sun does not shine.

In other words: the fallacy of equivocation is usually a deliberate misrepresentation intended to get someone else what they want out of you without you objecting to it. This is, as all fallacies are, either the result of intellectual dishonesty or ignorance, either of which is to be pinned down and gotten rid of with a quickness.

The easiest way to avoid accidentally engaging in this fallacy is be sure of your definitions, and be sure you do not use a word in more than one way at a given time. The rule of thumb is: when in doubt, look it up. It matters not at all how smart you are or the degree to which your erudition regularly attracts the adulation and approval of your peers–if you are not sure, look it up. If you are writing anything of consequence, your work will not suffer irrecoverably with the loss of five seconds spent consulting with the Google. If nothing else, catch it  when you edit.

Some examples of this fallacy in action can be found at:

To avoid being fooled by this sort of language, ask a question to pin down the meaning of the statement. The easiest way to do this is by asking for or providing and asking for verification that the sense of the word you are thinking of is what is intended. If the person readily provides you with a more specific meaning, it was probably a mistake–even if it takes them awhile to figure out what specifically they meant to say. However, if all you get is weasel words and ambiguity, or the person tries to change the topic, you have most likely caught them with their hand in the Equivocational Cookie Jar.

This sort of thing is not just for eggheads: you should care about being clear and specific because this kind of thing leads to false expectations, anger, and misunderstandings that can potentially damage or destroy trust and relationships. If you have ever been disappointed by  politician, frustrated by someone who says one thing but does another and squeaks by on a technicality, or misunderstood because someone just assumed they knew what sense of a word you were using–this should matter to you.

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