The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 4: Deceptive Language

Continuing our discussion of  Crimes Against Logic …

Empty Words – Language is often empty, vague and obscure. Still precise terminology (or jargon) is sometimes needed for clarity and precision, as in the sciences. But other times jargon disguises simple ideas under a barrage of verbiage, often to sound impressive.

One way language misleads is with weasel words—words that appear to make little or no change to the content of a statement, but actually drain all or most of the content from the statement. Typical weasel words are may, can, could, might, might, arguably, etc. Other devices for deception are hooray words—justice, life, freedom—and boo words—murder, taxes, Hitler. Politicians love to use such words because then listeners believes the politician shares their concerns. Also the use of quotation marks—to show that what some word means is only alleged—leaves you unsure of the author’s meaning.

Deceptive Language – Language is often used to persuade and confuse people. To see this consider that words have cognitive meaning and emotive meaning. For example the terms bureaucrat, government official, and public servant may not be that different cognitively, but they elicit different emotional reactions. Con artists, advertisers, and politicians manipulate our desires and beliefs by appealing to these emotions.

Recent examples are endless. Why was the name of the US “War Department” changed to “Department of Defense? Do you think that was accidental? If you want to get rid of the “Clean Air Act,” don’t call it the “Dirty Air Act,” call it the “Clear Skies Initiative.” If you want to get rid of health care, don’t call it The Affordable Care Act, call it Obamacare. And don’t say torture, say enhanced interrogation; don’t say insanity, say battle fatigue; don’t say we attacked first, say preemptive action; don’t say occupation forces, say coalition forces; don’t say terrorists, say freedom fighters, don’t say freedom fighters, say terrorists (this is not a typo); don’t say war, say “Operation Desert Shield” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or “Operation Awesome!” And in addition to political and military doublespeak, there is legal, bureaucratic, and governmental, and doublespeak—language that deliberately obscures. (To understand this better read George Orwell.)

Inconsistency – I can’t say “every adult in France drinks wine” and then say “every adult in France doesn’t drink wine” without contradicting myself. Both statements can’t be true. Contradictions may be easy to spot if you state them explicitly like this, but often the inconsistency is harder to spot. Suppose I make the following argument:

  • Everything denounced in the Bible should be illegal
  • Abortion is denounced in the Bible, thus
  • Abortion should be illegal

To be consistent, I must denounce and praise everything the Bible denounces and praises. Independent of the fact that there is no clear Biblical prohibition against abortion, if one consistently followed the Bible on moral matters one would have to condemn, often under penalty of death: working on the sabbath, eating shellfish, approaching an altar with poor eyesight, getting haircuts, touch the skin of dead pigs, planting two different crops in the same field, contacting women during menstruation, cursing, rebelling against parents, and more. Thus, to be consistent, you can’t pick and choose to suit your prejudice.

Equivocation – In logic an expression is used equivocally in an argument when it has two different meanings—it is used in one place one way and another way in another place. For example, if I say that clubs don’t hurt because I joined one and I’m fine, whereas you say you were hit by one and they do hurt, then we are equivocating on the use of the word club.

Similarly, the words Mormon or Republican or Marxist have many different meanings. For example, suppose I say that being a Mormon makes you a moral person. Suppose that you respond that Mormons killed a number of people traveling through Utah in the late 19th century. I might then say “but those weren’t real Mormons!” The problem here might be that we are equivocating on the term Mormon; we are using the term differently.

One of us might be referring to the acceptance of Mormon doctrines—Joseph Smith was led by an angel to dig up and interpret gold plates with the use of a magic hat, etc., whereas the other might mean “not being murderers.”  To defend my claim that the killers weren’t real Mormons, I would have to show that being Mormon isn’t just accepting the stories in the book of Mormon, it also involves not murdering. But then I have changed the definition of Mormon. Now it means accepting the story of Smith and not murdering.  Of course on this definition, all it means to say that being a Mormon leads you do good things is to say that being a Mormon leads you to do good things. Needless to say the statement has now been emptied of its significance.

In the above case the definition of Mormon has been changed, and emptied of all meaning. If you do this continually, you can never be refuted. For example, if you were a government who wanted to torture people you could simply change the definition of torture to mean something you don’t do. If government critics say “you do torture by the standards set out in the Geneva Convention” then you could say “we don’t torture,” because by torture we now mean “by our standards which are worse than those conventions.” (Unfortunately such equivocation has awful real world consequences.)

Equivocation is used to deceive people, to make them draw unjustified conclusions. We could use any word—wealthy, criminal, democratic, free, great—to describe a person or a country and mean many different things.

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