Category Archives: Equivocation

I define the terms here

Ross Kaminsky holds that the popular appellation “libertarian populist” (see Ross Douthat’s recent column) is a contradiction in terms.  In short, because ‘libertarian’ is about freedom, and populism has “nothing to do with freedom”.  Now, first, that’s not yet a contradiction.  So when I say that Bill has a brown dog, it’s not an oxymoron, even though being a dog doesn’t have anything to do with being brown.

But Kaminsky’s argument is more for contradiction than for irrelevance.  First, he opens by defining ‘populist’ from the dictionary.

A standard definition of “populist” includes supporting ordinary people over the elites.

So far, that’s perfectly consistent with libertarianism.  In fact, very much consistent with the commitments of libertarians – these elites think they know better than the average Joe, and coerce him this way or that.  So Kaminsky shouldn’t have a problem with the populist brand of libertarian, right?  Wrong.  That’s because Kaminsky means something different by ‘populist’:

Getting away from the dictionary, I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.”

Whuh? Look, I’m no great fan of the dictionary for definitions of controversial terms, but the more controversial term is ‘libertarian,’ not ‘populist.’  Not respecting common usage is the first sign of Humpty-Dumpty Semantics.  Moreover, I still don’t yet see why this new stipulated defintion is inconsistent with libertarianism, either.  How is demagoguery inconsistent with the exercise of freedom?  Isn’t that exactly what demagogues invoke when they talk to folks (especially here in the States)… how we love our freedom? Moreover, why is being an ‘ersatz’ X inconsistent with being an X?  Or how is ‘ersatz X’ an oxymoron?  And, by the way, does he really mean ‘popularizer’?  Seriously, it’s pretty sad when you can’t even stipulate your way to a contradiction.

Contested concept equivocation

I’ve been toying for a while with the thought that there’s a rhetorical device that works in the following pattern: you point to an uncontroversially positive concept and emphasize its importance, and in the process import your own controversial conception of that concept over the course of talking about its importance.

For example, we all think fairness is good and important, so it’s uncontroversially positive.  But we may have different conceptions of that concept. I may think that impartiality is sufficient for fairness, so favor blind lotteries to determine what people get. Others may think that need may determine what’s fair. You may think that equality of outcome is what’s fair.  You get the point.  So even if we all agree that fairness is good, we all have different conceptions of fairness.  And it’d be an error on my part to import my conception without acknowledging that we need to move from concept to conception.  That’s why semantics matters – anytime someone says “it’s just semantics,” they’re intellectually lazy and probably trying to prevent their own conceptions from being challenged. It’s effectively an attitude that equivocation isn’t troubling.  That’s stupid.

Now, we all agree that civic virtue is important.  And we all agree that we should encourage it.  But, not surprisingly, civic virtue is a contested concept.  Some think that individualism and independence are civic virtues – not being a burden on others and ensuring that others are not burdensome. Some think that civic virtue is about making oneself intelligible to others and ensuring that the cultural system of significance is maintained.  Some think that being informed and politically engaged are the central civic virtues. Some think that ensuring that others have sufficient means to survive and thrive are the core virtues. Some think that acknowledging diversity and reasonable disagreement (especially about contested concepts) is a core civic virtue. See? Contested concept.

Michelle Malkin’s new essay over at National Review Online commits this fallacy.  I call it contested concept equivocation.  She starts with the universally acknowledged value of civic virtue and that we are in sore need of more of it these days:

We have forsaken the observance, in any systematic and deliberate public manner, of one of our most fundamental duties: fostering civic virtue in each and every one of our citizens.

She invokes the founders noting the importance of virtue to the fledgling republic:

And Thomas Paine said it best: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

So far, not controversial.  Ah, but then the contested conception comes in:

Calvin Coolidge, profiled in Why Coolidge Matters, a terrific new book by Charles C. Johnson, echoed the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on virtue, restraint, and work ethic. “If people can’t support themselves,” he concluded, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”

Add militant identity politics, a cancerous welfare state, entitled dependence, and tens of millions of unassimilated immigrants to the heap, and you have a toxic recipe for what Damon calls “societal decadence — literally, a ‘falling away,’ from the Latin decadere.” Civilizations that disdain virtue die.

Did you see the move?  The contested conception got introduced with this notion of self-support, independence.  If that’s what civic virtue is, then of course the welfare state and all the other nanny-style stuff the government does will not only fail to encourage virtue, but positively retard it.  And so those who promote the liberal welfare state must disdain virtue.  They are terrible people, rotting civilization from the inside out.

But, you see, the move was from uncontested concept to contested conception.  And those who promote progressive taxation and the social safety net aren’t disdaining virtue; they are promoting their own conception of it.  Surely someone who values liberty should be able to acknowledge the value of that.  Unless, of course, they disdain liberty.

 

True tolerance

Chris Broussard at ESPN said that Jason Collins, the NBA player who’s come out as gay, isn’t a true Christian and is “in open rebellion to God.”  So what?  Well, he got some blowback from a variety of sources.  So what?  Well, he’s now got to clarify things, and when he does, he also needs to clarify a concept for all of us:

true tolerance and acceptance is being able to handle [differing lifestyle beliefs] as mature adults and not criticize each other and call each other names

I don’t think that’s true tolerance.  Tolerance means that even when you think someone else is wrong about something that matters, you don’t exclude them or prohibit them from doing the things that they do.  Tolerance isn’t tolerance if you like what they do.  It means putting up with things you hate.  That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the stoics thought of themselves as the ones who kept the old Republican virtues alive, by the way. But, notice, that doesn’t mean that you have to hold your tongue.  In fact, tolerance without care for criticism and correction isn’t much of anything — it’s more like ignoring each other.  Oh, and convenient that he’s NOW saying that tolerance is not criticizing others.  Again, sometimes inconsistency is evidence of a double standard.

Doctor, but not a real one

A quick lesson on equivocation and how not to charge that it’s occurring.  Charles Cooke has a piece over at NRO about how Jill Biden, who has a Ed.D., has been tweeting under the handle ‘DrBiden’.  The tweets have been about educational issues in the US and updates about her recent work promoting educational initiatives.  Cooke objects to her use of ‘Dr’ as part of her title.  It’s primarily that those who have doctorates aren’t real doctors.

Wherever she goes and whatever she does, Dr. Biden is always referred to as “Dr. Biden.” “Is Joe Biden married to a physician?” wondered the Los Angeles Times in January. “You might have gotten that impression while watching television coverage of the inauguration.” Yes, you might have indeed. Dr. Biden isn’t a physician, of course. She has a doctorate – in “educational leadership,” whatever the hell that is….

One can only wonder what Dr. Biden’s response would be to the urgent question “Is there a doctor in the house?!” Perhaps “Yes! Don’t worry, I’m here! I’m not too sure how to do a tracheotomy, though . . . ”

OK.  So Cooke’s objection is that ‘Dr’ carries with it a lot of weight in this culture, and it comes from the status that Medical Doctors have.  Then there’s a quick lesson about why folks with still get called ‘doctor’.

It’s somewhat by chance that the recipients of Ph.D.s may even presume to call themselves “doctors,” the unfortunate product of a thousand-year-old liberal-arts tradition …. “Ph.D.” stands for “Philosophiae Doctor,” a Latin term that (rather obviously) means “Doctor of Philosophy” in English. The “Philosophy” bit was intended loosely, in the classical sense of “love of learning”; the “Doctor” bit derives from “docere,” which simply means “to teach.”

Erm.  That’s all totally backwards.  So it’s not really by chance that Ph.D.’s are called ‘doctor.’  That’s, like, what the degree means — the one who teaches others about the area, the one who is nobody’s student. It’s actually by chance that medical doctors are the ones who get all the cred for the title.  Cooke’s got the implications of his own evidence entirely backwards.

But now Cooke pauses to concede that sometimes it’s appropriate to use the title ‘doctor’ for someone with a doctorate:

American etiquette books tend to mark this dichotomy, holding that it is acceptable for Ph.D.s to use “Dr.” within the context of their business but inappropriate everywhere else.

Oy.  And what was Jill Biden tweeting about?  Matters regarding education.  Precisely what her doctorate is in.  KA-BOOM.  And now Cooke has provided all the evidence to show that he has absolutely no point at all, other than to complain that someone he doesn’t like uses a term of intellectual distinction.  Good things conservatives don’t do anything like that. (Oh, yes they do.)

Reduce, reuse, recyle

Fig.1: Conservativism

Here is a post for those who think that pointing out the inconsistency between a party’s name and its alleged position on an issue constitutes a decisive refutation of their view.  That “conservatives” fail to “conserve” or “preserve” or anything else along those lines does not mean they embody some kind of contradiction.  George Will has used this line on “progressives,” or his army of hollow men in years pastHere he is the other day:

Progressives are remarkably uninterested in progress. Social Security is 78 years old, and myriad social improvements have added 17 years to life expectancy since 1935, yet progressives insist the program remain frozen, like a fly in amber. Medicare is 48 years old, and the competence and role of medicine have been transformed since 1965, yet progressives cling to Medicare “as we know it.” And they say that the Voting Rights Act, another 48-year-old, must remain unchanged, despite dramatic improvements in race relations.

What kind of move is this?  I think it’s an equivocation–a rather textbook variety.  Clearly “progressive” means something different to “Progressives” (the name a half-hearted attempt at rebranding “liberal,” by the way).  Will’s thought goes something like this:

your name implies you like progress, but here is progress which you don’t like, so you’re not “progressive.”  Your self-understanding therefore is laughably contradictory.

The problem with this is that “progress” (1)–things getting better, more just, etc–and “progress” (2)–things changing–mean different things to alleged “progressives”.  Besides, what is at issue with voting rights is an empirical question: has progress been made on voting rights?  Progressives say, pointing to the recent election, no; (some) conservatives say yes.

*minor edit for clarity.

Adventures in false dilemmas

Here's the title of Howard Rich's post at American Spectator.

Barack Obama: Socialist or Nouveau Fascist?

Rich argues that Socialism isn't quite right about Obama's policies, as he does let many who have done well keep their spoils.  So it's fascism.  But the fascism label, Rich concedes, "isn't perfect".  That's why he calls it Nouveau Fascism. You see… when the term doesn't work, just call it a new version of that! 

Stop contradicting yourself

Check out the image:

Yes, this is exactly what diversity means.  This reminds me of a classic George Will argument (with the same equivocation) against "Liberals."

Although liberals give lip service to "diversity," they often treat federalism as an annoying impediment to their drive for uniformity. Feingold, who is proud that Wisconsin is one of only four states that clearly require special elections of replacement senators in all circumstances, wants to impose Wisconsin's preference on the other 46. Yes, he acknowledges, they could each choose to pass laws like Wisconsin's, but doing this "state by state would be a long and difficult process." Pluralism is so tediously time-consuming.

Got them liberals there George!  Maybe, by way of satire, we could construct the following argument to make the same very immature point: If you favor diversity, you favor it all of the time, if you have diversity all of the time, then you have uniform diversity, so you have uniformity, so if you favor diversity, you favor uniformity.  I should add: stop contradicting yourself. 

 

How equivocations work

Offhand I can think of two uses for deploying the subtle semantic strategy called "equivocation."  The first is to cover up the fact that you're lying about something; the second is to make it look like someone else is lying because of a verbal sleight of hand.  This latter is exactly what "Politifact" did with their now infamous "lie of the year" award.  First the lie of the year (via WashMo):

Republicans muscled a budget through the House of Representatives in April that they said would take an important step toward reducing the federal deficit. Introduced by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the plan kept Medicare intact for people 55 or older, but dramatically changed the program for everyone else by privatizing it and providing government subsidies.

Democrats pounced. Just four days after the party-line vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a Web ad that said seniors will have to pay $12,500 more for health care “because Republicans voted to end Medicare.” […]

PolitiFact debunked the Medicare charge in nine separate fact-checks rated False or Pants on Fire, most often in attacks leveled against Republican House members.

Now, PolitiFact has chosen the Democrats’ claim as the 2011 Lie of the Year. 

It turns out, on the most reasonable account, the lie of the year is literally true.  The whole thing, of course, hinges on the meaning of "medicare."  This single-payer government insurance program covers everyone over the age of 65.  The Ryan plan, about which the lie of the year has allegedly been made, proposed to end the "single payer" part of that equation by eventual phase out, replacing it with a voucher system for private insurance.  All the while, of course, this program retains the name "medicare."  But it's not "medicare". 

How not?  A fun analogy, from WashMo:

I’ve been trying to think of the best analogy for this. How about this one: imagine someone owns a Ferrari. It’s expensive and drives beautifully, and the owner desperately wants to keep his car intact. Now imagine I took the car away, removed the metallic badge off the trunk that says “Ferrari,” I stuck it on a golf cart, and I handed the owner the keys.

“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.

“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”

That's about it. 

Richie Rich

In the interst of fairness (perhaps) to those who frankly have a lot of money and influence, the Washington Post provides us with a  mythbusting piece about millionaires.  The first myth, you might be shocked to hear, is the following:

1. Millionaires are rich.

Being rich has gotten more expensive. A $1 million fortune was unusual in the early 19th century. The word “millionaire” wasn’t even coined until 1827by novelist (and future British prime minister) Benjamin Disraeli. In 1845, Moses Y. Beach, editor of the New York Sun, published a small pamphlet called “Wealth and Biography of the Wealthy Citizens of New York City.” The price of admission to Beach’s list, which was wildly popular, was a mere $100,000.

By the time the first Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America was published in 1982, the smallest fortune featured was $75 million. There has been so much wealth creation in the past 30 years — much of it thanks to the microprocessor behind modern-day fortunes such as Dell, Microsoft and Bloomberg — that only billionaires are on the list. Today, $1 million in the bank generates only about $50,000 per year in interest. That isn’t chump change, but it’s roughly equal to the 2010 median household income.

That's the whole entry on that point.  You're not rich if you're not the richest.  Also, I guess, by "milionaire" the author means a person having exactly one million  dollars in the (federally-insured) bank, no other job, no other assets.

Might I suggest someone define "rich" for this guy? 

You’re soaking in it!

It's been a long time since I've read Stanley Fish's column in the New York Times Online.  One reason is that I'm semi-boycotting the Times and their paywall; the other reason is that Fish is a terrible columnist.  Thankfully he's no longer the only type representing the humanities, so it's safe to go back there. 

A favorite theme of his is that philosophy and other such things are abstract activities that have little to do with what one actually believes.  He often drives this point home with sophistical equivocations on the meaning of "philosophy," etc.  A quick look at the archive here supports this notion–or rather supports the notion that this is what most bothers me about Fish. 

Equivocations such as his are such an easy thing to spot; and his general view is such a shallow one that you'd think, well, I guess you wouldn't think.

Here's today's contribution:

The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as Andrew Tyler (38) describes it: “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief that binds the believer. (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)

But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt” or “I believe in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).

A little philosophy might help Fish think through this more carefully. 

In the first place, "philosophy" has a lot of meanings, even in the context of contemporary philosophy, so it's not helpful or meaningful to say "contemporary philosophers" as if they shared some single meaning. 

Second, "beliefs vs. philosophies" is an opposition few philosophers would recognize (at least as Fish means it).  Perhaps Fish means something like attitudes regarding particular propositions and attitudes regarding attitudes about particular propositions.  Those are clearly different, one is whether you endorse proposition p, the other is what you think it means to endorse proposition p.  Fish seems to think "philosophy" only regards the latter, the meta view as it were.

But that's not the case.  For many philosophers, the subject of which views are the correct ones is indeed a philosophical one.  Is it morally permissible, for instance, to tax inherited wealth?  An answer to this question might appeal to an abstract principle, in the same way a religious "belief" might do, or it may appeal to something else, in the same way a reglious belief might do.  The particularity of the belief in question isn't the point (as Fish seems to think).   All of our beliefs,by the way, are particular; and indeed all of them might be subject to the same kind of causal explanation he seems to think critical (at least this is what my mother has always said). 

So in the end Fish can't get the idea that some of the stuff philosophy deals with is entirely meta (what is the nature of belief?); some of the stuff it deals with is not meta (looking for an adjective here): is stealing ever just?

Finally, contrary to Fish, philosophy is not optional in the way he imagines it to be.  To the extent that you have beliefs at all you're doing philosophy inasmuch as the little thing that stiches your beliefs together–the inference–is a big deal for philosophers.  It only appears optional to Fish, I think, because he's doing it wrong.