Tag Archives: Equivocation

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.

You keep using that word

An Illinois State Senator who voted against legalizing gay marriage in Illinois had this to say on the matter (via TPM):

To redefine marriage is discriminatory towards those who hold the sincerely held religious belief that it is a sacred institution between a man & a woman.

What a dolt.

Moral feelings

I posted something the other day about Pastor Rick Warren's comparison of homosexual acts to violent assault.  Seems like not really an apt comparison.  Now comes Antonin Scalia with an even better, I mean, worse, argument (from the Huffington Post):

"I don't think it's necessary, but I think it's effective," Scalia said, adding that legislative bodies can ban what they believe to be immoral.

Scalia has been giving speeches around the country to promote his new book, "Reading Law," and his lecture at Princeton comes just days after the court agreed to take on two cases that challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Some in the audience who had come to hear Scalia speak about his book applauded but more of those who attended the lecture clapped at freshman Duncan Hosie's question.

"It's a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the `reduction to the absurd,'" Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"

Scalia said he is not equating sodomy with murder but drawing a parallel between the bans on both.

Then he deadpanned: "I'm surprised you aren't persuaded."

I'm perplexed by the first bolded claim, as Legislative bodies in the US are limited by the Constitution as to what they can ban–they can't ban acts of religion can't they?  Anyway, I don't have the full quote or context so whatever.

The other claim, the reduction to the absurd, is rather odd.  I imagine no one doubts the possibility of having "moral feelings" against homosexuality.  The question, of course, is whether such feelings are (a) morally or rationally justified and (b) legally enforceable.  I suppose the latter question is the one that ought to concern Scalia.  So there is an equivocation in Scalia's claim over "cannot."  You can have all the feelings you want against anything.  Some of those might be morally justified, some might be legally enforceable.  No law, however, can take away your ability to disapprove of things.

As if this were not bad enough for a big mind such as Scalia's, this equivocation is then used as a lever to push the little cart down the slippery slope: if we cannot ban homosexuality, then we cannot ban murder!  That's not reduction to the absurd, it's just absurd. 

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! 

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? 

Corporations are people

No, Mitt Romney, they're not really.  They're completely unlike people in almost every way.  They may, however, involve people, real people, at some stage in the process.  But this doesn't mean the corporation simply is the people who work there.  That would be, er, communism or socialism.  In a recent add, Romney says:

At just over the halfway mark, Romney declares: "Businesses are comprised of people. I'm talking about repair shops, and gas stations, and beauty salons, and restaurants. I'm talking about Apple computer, and Facebook, and Microsoft. I'm talking about businesses that employ people. It's really astonishing to me that the Obama folks would try and argue that businesses aren't people. What do they think they are? Little men from Mars? But when they tax business, they tax people."

Well, this is different from "corporations are people."  But it's still equally wrong.  It's wrong now because repair shops and gas stations really don't belong in the same category as Microsoft, etc..  More to the point, the problem with this new formulation is positively Clintonian–it depends on what the meaning of "is" is.  Corporations involve people; sometimes lots of people, transnationally.  But they are certainly not identical with them in the narrow sense of identity Romney seems to suggest.  Anyway. 

On this same point, here is an epic Iron Man (by a liberal commentator, of course–it's a disease they have) of Romney's argument:

Matthew Zeitlin has a nice New Republic post on the Romney “corporations are people” clip and the very real “hack gap” between Democratic and Republican parties.

The title of my own comment on this imbroglio, Separating the wheat from the gaffe, telegraphs my view. What Romney said is obviously true, and everyone who thinks seriously about economic policy understands it. Taxes on corporations fall on the owners of corporations and on other stakeholders. On the specifics, this particular attack on Romney is devoid of substance.

So the taxes fall on their "owners" (who sometimes aren't even actual people), but this doesn't mean corporations are people too.  It means, at some level, they involve people.  No one denies that.  They object to the way they involve those people.

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.