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Beginner’s Doublespeak: Equivocations

Doublespeak is a type of logical fallacy known as equivocation. Equivocation is the use in a logical argument of a word that has two or more distinct meanings. The purpose of using Doublespeak is to evade real debate by confusing or obfuscating.

In any spoken language, words naturally change over time, either in form or in meaning, as the concepts of the people speaking it change. For example, the word “gay” once meant “happy” but today it is used to mean a person who is homosexual. Those who employ Doublespeak, however, are looking to force this change. Because words are automatically associated and do not need to be redefined with each use, the aspiring political activist can use them against an unsuspecting individual. He or she will use a word that people associate positively and which evokes a positive emotion to describe his or her own motives or plans, whether or not these words REALLY describe them.

People usually have no problem keeping two meanings for a single word straight. The reason they can do it is because they have the word in a context. For example, if I use the word “light” to describe a feather, you will probably assume I mean “not heavy.” If I use the word “light” to describe the color of the wall, you will probably assume I mean “pale.” Political activists can change the meaning of a word easily by simply removing contextual information, so that all that is left is the positive emotion. (Ayn Rand calls this context-dropping by the way.) Here are a few examples:

Freedom (from what?)

Liberal (about what?)

Conservative (about what?)

Left (of what?)

Right (of what?)

Missing contextual cues can lead to a lot of equivocations, but many words also have two meanings because one of the meanings is normative, i.e., deals with what OUGHT to be versus what IS. This is especially prevalent in the area of politics because there are two distinct meanings of the word “law” and therefore all the words that pertain to law, like crime for instance.

Law (as it is legislated)

Law (as it OUGHT to be – this is normative.)

Then of course some Doublespeak words are simply changed outright over time so that the past meaning – which some older people will still be using – and the current meaning – the one taught to children – will be different. Anyone who has looked into the history of political party affiliations has no doubt been confused as to what the meaning of Democrat or Republican was at any given time. Words like these are worse yet because they often have no definition at all, they are simply a list of beliefs which may or may not be consistent. (Ludwig von Mises calls this an ideal type, by the way.)

The important thing when dealing with Doublespeak is to simply ask yourself what the definitions of key words are and try to define them. This will usually expose a manipulator or evader for what he is.

In this new series – Beginner’s Doublespeak – I will periodically be exposing a Doublespeak word. If you come across them in your readings, by all means please comment, either here or in any Beginner’s Doublespeak post and expose them.

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  1. [...] Polysemy, of course, if not properly recognized, can lead to the fallacy of equivocation. [...]

  2. [...] word science is actually a great example of polysemy. It is also an equivocation. An equivocation is, specifically, the use of words with double meanings that also happen to muddle [...]

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