In this New York Times run-down of last night’s dueling presidential town-hall meetings, the reporter accuses the President of equivocating on the subject of support for mask-wearing. Equivocation is another in the long list of fallacies we see committed by political candidates, one that takes advantage of ambiguity in language in order to mislead.
“On the masks, you have two stories,” Trump responded to a question regarding his lack of support for masking as a strategy to control Coronavirus (even after his own infection by the virus). While the Times reporter was probably using “equivocation” to describe the President’s ambiguous position on the matter of mask-wearing, there is also ambiguity surrounding his use of the phrase “two stories” since those words can be used to describe two things that might both be true, might both be false, or one true and one false.
If the President wants to make the case that the benefits of mask wearing are uncertain, or that the costs outweigh the benefits, he needs to present arguments in favor of those positions, rather than imply that the existence of two sides in a debate (or “two stories”) means we have no way of adjudicating which side is correct.
To illustrate the concept of equivocation with a less-subtle example, consider this headline that appeared in the Guardian newspaper in the UK in 1982 when Britain was at war with Argentina after the latter had invaded the Falklands Islands (territory near Argentina, but claimed by Britain): “British Left Waffles on Falklands.”
The story under that headline talked about how left-wing political parties in England were pulled between patriotism on one hand and ideological distaste for both war and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the other.
This tug of war left the Left turning this way and that, unable to decide what to do next, an indecisive state commonly referred to (in Britain anyway) as “waffling.”
Now that the Falkland war is history and the political leaders (both Left and Right) who argued over it retired or dead, it’s easy to read the phrase not as a description of politics surrounding an armed conflict, but rather as a far sillier aftermath involving the British leaving behind their breakfast.
One of the ways equivocation works is by taking advantage of ambiguity – the fact that words have more than one meaning. The most obvious example in the Guardian headline is the word “waffle” which was originally intended as a verb but can be read as a noun in the sillier forgetting-breakfast interpretation. On careful inspection, however, every word is playing a different role between the two interpretations.
“British,” for example, is serving as an adjective modifying “Left” in the serious interpretation, but as a noun in the silly one. In contrast, “Left” is a noun in the serious version, but the silly version uses that same word as a verb. The phrase “Falkland Islands” serves as a noun in both versions, but in one version it refers to a set of Islands (silly), in another to the Falklands War (serious). Even humble little “on” is being used to mean “about” (serious) vs. “in a specific location” (silly).
As much fun as ambiguity can be when it comes to jokes that play off mistaking one definition of a word for another, when it comes to critical thinking, such ambiguity can easily lead to the fallacy of equivocation.
For example, when Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris responded to questions regarding “court packing” at the recent Vice Presidential debate, she attempted to redefine the term to cover any attempt to fill court vacancies with judges who adhere to a specific political philosophy, regardless of their qualifications. But the question she was being asked had to do with a very specific (and well-understood) definition of the phrase “court packing” as adding additional justices to a court (specifically the Supreme Court) in order to dilute the power of sitting justices.
Most of us understand when the nuances of language are being used to pull the wool over our eyes (at least when the wool-puller is someone we already don’t like). But as critical thinkers, we need to keep in mind that the arguments we are choosing to believe or not believe are only as strong as the language that makes up those arguments’ premises and conclusions.
The subtlety of language is a wonderful thing and our art and humor would be pretty bereft without nuance. But when such ambiguity rises to the level of an equivocation fallacy, we are dealing not with beauty but with deception which must be avoided if we want to take ownership of our own thinking.