Fallacy of Equivocation

The fallacy of equivocation is where you use a word with multiple meanings such that one meaning applies to one part of an argument and another meaning applies in another part of the argument, but it’s treated as though the meaning is the same.  For example: “Philosophy helps you argue better, but do we really need to encourage people to argue? There’s enough hostility in this world.” Here “argue” is used in two different senses.  In the first, it’s used to mean to present a collected series of statements that support a conclusion.  In the second, it means to disagree with someone in a hostile manner.  Monty Python made a comedy sketch out of that difference:

Another form is to use a word with one meaning while expecting others to apply a different meaning.  Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez used just that form with her recent description of detention centers used to hold people caught illegally crossing our borders until their cases could be adjudicated “concentration camps.”

When you hear the word “concentration camps” what’s the image that comes to mind?  Buchenwald and Auschwitz?  Yeah, me too.  I would also include Manzanar, Topaz et al as well.

What we have at our borders, however, bears as much resemblance to those places as a friendly Golden Retriever bears to a rabid Timber Wolf.

We have certain facilities where folk who have been caught breaking our immigration laws are held.  You might argue that our immigration law should be changed.  In fact, I’d agree with that proposition.  Personally, I could wish for a way to reliably identify folk who believe wholeheartedly in our Founding ideals (which, sadly, our founding practices often fell short of) so we could open the doors wide to them while being much more restrictive on people who don’t. (We can absorb some but too many, too fast, and we end up with an electorate actively opposed to those founding ideals–and we already have too much of the home-grown variety of that.)  But until such time as the law is changed, it remains the law of the land.

What we do not have are people are rounded up strictly on the basis of their ethnicity.  We’re not requiring all persons of certain ancestry to report to “relocation centers.” We are not sending out squads with carte blanch to round up any such folk hiding in folks’ attics.  We are not imposing brutal labor requirements on them while feeding them a pittance.  And we certainly aren’t shoving people wholesale into “showers” where the only “shower” is lethal gas.

We are instead enforcing our laws, as humanely as is practically possible given the realities of circumstances.  The conditions are far better than many of our servicemen and women live in.  And they’re certainly far better than the people in them subjected themselves to in order to illegally cross our border.

Frankly, if I were fleeing an oppressive regime that directly threatened me and mine (after all, “seeking asylum” is a frequent claim–although why they didn’t present themselves at a point of entry and make that claim rather than waiting until they got caught is left as an exercise for the student) then a cot, a roof (even a canvas or nylon one), and three square meals a day would be a godsend.  And having to stay put while they confirm my case would be a small price to pay to escape whatever I was fleeing from.

But by simply using loaded language, the fallacy of equivocation, Ocasio-Cortez attempts to short circuit actual argument of the merits of one approach to dealing with the issue or another.  She claims on one side that the detention centers mean the “dictionary definition” of concentration camps and so she’ll continue to use the term.  But she uses the term explicitly to call up images of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  Indeed, her use of “never again” in this context demonstrates that’s exactly what she’s doing “with malice aforethought.”

And others are coming to her defense on that.

Unfortunately for her she managed in doing so to anger a lot of people who have family who dealt with real concentration camps and they are not amused.  Politically, I expect this to backfire big time.

Oops.

 

7 thoughts on “Fallacy of Equivocation”

  1. I agree with you in the main but the Japanese relocation camps were not concentration camps, but more like open military bases from which you could come and go. Japanese-Americans could go shopping in local towns. Many left for months to harvest crops in other states. Five thousand kids left the camps to go to college.

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    1. Agreed. The roundup and detention of American citizens was inexcusable, but the detention centers were not concentration camps. I’ve been to Manzanar and studied its many exhibits. Life was no beach there (and detention is detention), but anyone who experienced actual concentration (or POW) camps would have traded places in a NY minute.

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  2. My degree is in theoretical mathematics. So, I use the word “argue” quite frequently in the sense of logical derivation. That does occasionally cause a problem because most people do not use the word that way.

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    1. Misunderstandings are one thing, and something to be guarded against, but deliberately fostering misunderstanding in order to push a certain outcome is the core of the fallacy of equivocation.

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        1. I’m not sure where you get the idea that fallacies are honest error rather than deliberate. Ad hominem, attacking the person rather than the content is a deliberate choice. Texas sharpshooter is deliberate. Strawman is rarely because the presenter of the argument honestly misunderstands the other side (if it were they’d accept correction on the point and not repeat it) and so on.

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  3. I laughed out loud when she came up with the “dictionary definition” defense because if you had asked her at the time for a dictionary definition of concentration camp, she would not have had a clue. Had to be some staff member who came up with that one as it’s too clever by half and AOC, basically a mouthpiece, is not by herself capable of even that level of clever.

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