In the wake of Trump’s false analogy between the behavior of the neo-Nazis and the antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, there has been a good bit of criticism of the point. However, the term used in criticism has consistently been that he ‘equivocated’ the two. Here’s the headline at the Daily Beast:
Netanyahu’s Cynical Delay Denouncing Trump’s Nazi Equivocation
Other outlets have used the term ‘equivocation’ for the error, too. CNN has consistently termed the error an ‘equivocation.’ Today:
… the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered …
…Trump’s equivocation earlier this week between white supremacists and those who were protesting them in Charlottesville.
… his initial equivocation, saying there was “blame on both sides.”
…the president of the United States equivocated.
Even at the venerable Economist:
Mr Trump’s equivocation on Saturday thrilled the Daily Stormer…
And so on. In a follow up post, perhaps Friday, I’ll talk about the problems with the slippery slope argument Trump made defending the monuments, so there is a lot of bad reasoning and falsity to criticize. But, my point today is just something small. It’s just this: if people are going to use the vocabulary of fallacy appraisal, it should be used correctly. Here’s the big point: so much power is wielded by that vocabulary. Think of the big-word points scored by folks who use that word — and notice the force it has when you’re criticizing someone. It’s the fallacy-spotting game, and throwing a fallacy name out there shifts the course of conversation. So using fallacy vocabulary (especially when it’s composed of Latinisms), means you’re claiming a kind of informed position on the debate — like pausing and making a point of order.
That’s the reason why you’ve got to be competent when using the vocabulary. In this case, we’ve got a fallacy, and what’s being criticized, again is something just as simple as a false analogy (or false equivalence). There may be an element of two wrongs to the reasoning, too (since T also implicated that because the antifa folks were violent, too, they bear blame, too).
Regardless, what he did not do is equivocate. Here’s why. Equivocation is an error of term-confusion. It happens when you’ve got two meanings for a term, and you reason along only looking at the similarity of the term, but miss the dissimilarity of the meanings in the reasoning. Here’s an example:
Students attend school to improve their faculties.
Their faculties are their teachers
So students go to school to improve their teachers.
Funny? Yeah, and fallacious! It’s because faculty in the two instances meant different things, and so the syllogism looks valid, it’s because the term faculty appears as the middle term, but there’s two different things denoted by those two instances of the term. (In the first, it means the mental functions, in the second, it means teachers.)
Here is a lesson about fallacy-charges. They come with a burden of proof. When I charge you with begging the question, I need to show either (i) how your conclusion is one of your premises or (ii) how one of your premises is, given the argument, more controversial than your conclusion. When I charge you with straw man, I need to show how you’ve distorted my view to look worse than it is. And so on. When you charge equivocation, you have to show (i) that there are two instances of a term in some reasoning, and (ii) show that those two instances of the same term nevertheless mean different things in the two cases.
So what’s the upshot? Journalists don’t use the vocabulary of logic accurately. For the most part, that’s not much of a surprise, but it’s disappointing to a college prof who tries to make it so that the names of things helps us keep them straight, not just that knowing lots of names for things makes it so that you can use them as you like.
Here’s another shot, perhaps a bit more of a sympathetic view on the use of the term. When one says a speaker had an ‘unequivocal’ statement, that means that the statement was clear about its meaning. So unequivocal statements are unambiguous, at least on the level of terms. So perhaps the view is that in being unclear about whether T was really rejecting the commitments of Nazis or their behavior, T equivocated. However, I’m not entirely moved by this line of thought, since many of the cases are those of ‘equivocating between’ not ‘equivocating about’. So, perhaps, there are different kinds of misuse of this term.