Critical Thinking: Definitions: Vagueness, Ambiguity, Euphemisms, Emotional Language, and the Fallacy of Equivocation

Many a philosopher has argued that “happiness” is the or one of the most important elements of human life.  Some even go so far as to say that an action is moral to the degree that it brings about happiness.  Whether we accept such assertions will have much to do with what is meant by “happiness.”

If all that is meant by “happiness” is that momentary good feeling you can get from eating cake or doing crack, then we will probably be less inclined to accept happiness as a measuring stick for morality.  If we mean by “happiness” something closer to Aristotle’s “eudaimonia” (i.e., human flourishing), then we might be more persuaded to accept the assertion.

So, how does this all fit in with critical thinking?  As you may have guessed how terms are used has much to do with whether we find a premise or conclusion acceptable.  So, in this next segment we are going to look at how to evaluate the way in which a term is being used and how that evaluation fits with how much we accept a premise.

Interpretation 1:  Context
By now, you should be alert to the role of context in interpretation.  Regarding a word’s definition, context can impact our interpretation in several ways.

The first is time.  A word’s meanings change over time.  For example, if we are reading an 19th Century book and a character describes all the guests as being “very gay,” it probably doesn’t mean the same thing it would mean today.  It does not make sense to impose our current meanings of words that had different meanings in the past.  We must be sensitive to temporal context.

The next is audience.  For example, “theory” means something very different in daily conversation than what it means in a scientific context.  The colloquial meaning is something closer to “hypothesis,” while the scientific meaning is an account of nature that has been verified and supported through (often) multiple lines of independent evidence, and from which we can make accurate predictions.  So,  I should interpret “theory” differently depending on the context identifiable through the audience for which the argument is written.

Euphemisms and Emotional Language
euphemism is the substitution of an offensive or disturbing word with a more polite or socially/politically acceptable word.   We might say of a child that he has behavioural challenges instead of telling his parents that their kid is a little sh*t.   The 80s marked the beginning of what some people thought was politically correct overkill.  People would joke that now we have to call anyone who is short, “vertically challenged.”

Yesterday, I took my dogs to the vet and “had their anal glands expelled.”  This sounds much nicer than what actually occurred.   Long story short, people use euphemisms to express ideas in less jarring and/or offensive ways.

Like most things, there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of euphemisms   In a legitimate use, the primary idea contained in the word remains intact.   In an illegitimate use, important content is obscured.  Consider the US military’s term “collateral damage” to indicate accidental killing of innocent civilians.  The important content of what actually occurred is lost/obscured by the sanitized term.

An example from the corporate world might be “downsizing.”  It sounds pretty harmless but when we look at the essential features of downsizing (many people losing their jobs) we can reasonably claim that the term is misleading.

The most fertile ground for illegitimate euphemisms is in politics.  As one of my political science professors once said, if a country has “People’s Republic of…” or “Democratic Republic of …”, you can pretty much guarantee that they are anything but what their titles profess.

Determining whether a euphemism is legitimate or illegitimate will not always be obvious, but with a little critical thinking you should be able to identify instances.

Emotional language uses words that are intentionally chosen to evoke or present an emotional bias.  Taking their cue from Nazi propaganda, politicians often use emotional language.  For example we commonly hear phrases like “militant homosexual agenda” (but I thought gays weren’t allowed in the military until recently…); “bleeding-heart liberal”; “religious fanatics”; “hysterical” or “bigoted” opponents, etc…

In the context of critical thinking, the use of emotional language should be a red flag.  Essentially, anyone who uses strong emotional language is assuming that their position is right and accurate.  But as we know by know, there is a tremendous difference between assuming something to be true and arguing for its truth.  If something is so obviously true, then we would reasonably suppose there’s an argument for it too!

Let’s take the example “militant homosexual agenda.”  Both “militant” and “agenda” are emotionally evocative.  But we need to ask: if they’re so militant, then surely there must be evidence to support this assertion…and we should demand it before accepting the assertion.

“Agenda” also has a negative connotation.  Does every group who wants equal right have an “agenda”?  It really depends on what side of the political spectrum you sit on.  “Bleeding-heart liberals” will argue that the NRA has an “agenda” too.  Instead, we should ask for clarification on what is meant by “agenda” before we evaluate whether it’s desirable or not.

Another of my favorite emotional words is “activist judge.”  This is another one where it really depends on what side of the political aisle you’re sitting on.  If a judge interprets the law in a way that rules against your “team,” then they’re activists.

Euphemisms, Emotional Language, and Argument Construction
Returning back to our theme of being good critical thinkers, we can also take this information into account when we construct our own arguments.  That is, if we think that something is obviously good or bad or true, then we should provide an argument for it, rather than use euphemisms and emotional language.  A good argument gets the point across without relying on either of these.

Vagueness and Ambiguity
When a definition is vague it has no specific meaning for the intended audience.  Here are a few examples of vague definitions from the goldmine of pseudo-wisdom that is Depak Chopra:

Happiness is a continuation of happenings which are not resisted.
To think is to practice brain chemistry.
A person is a pattern of behavior, of a larger awareness.

Notice that none of these definitions give us any clarity as to what the defined term actually means.  If you were an outer-space alien and asked for a definition of “happiness”, “thinking”, and a “person”, your knowledge would not in anyway be improved over your current position of ignorance. 
Vagueness can apply to both individual words like “happenings” as well as to entire phrases, e.g., “a larger awareness.”  It should be noted that Depak isn’t the only entity that employes vagueness as a means to appear to say something meaningful.  
This is also a favourite technique of advertisers.   How many times do we hear “new and improved!” with no description of what is new and improved?  Or that something “‘boosts’ your immune system”?
Terms are ambiguous when they have more than one plausible interpretation.  (“Ambi” means “two”).  Ambiguity comes in two flavours: syntactic and semantic.   Semantic ambiguity is when a word can have two possible meanings.  For example, suppose a store has a sign that says “Watch repairs here.”  We could interpret this as “this is a venue in which we can view someone doing repairs” or “timepieces are repaired here.”  Generally context sorts outs semantic ambiguity (but not always).
Syntactic ambiguity is when the sentence structure offers more than one plausible meaning.  For example:  I tackled the thief with my pyjamas on.  We could interpret this as meaning the thief was wearing my pyjamas or that I was wearing pyjamas when I tackled the thief.   Again, context can usually help us sort this out, but not always. 
Fallacy of Equivocation
The fallacy of equivocation is when a key term in the argument isn’t used with a consistent meaning through out the premises and conclusion.  That is, the meaning changes from one premise to another or from the premises to the conclusion. 
Example: Scientists say that energy can neither be created or destroyed, therefore it’s impossible for there to be an energy crisis. 
In the premise “energy” is being used in the general scientific sense which refers to a closed system (i.e., the universe).  In the conclusion, “energy” is used in the natural resources sense (i.e., oil and coal).  Also, the earth isn’t a closed system, but an open one.  Because the meaning of the term “energy” isn’t held constant from premise to conclusion, this is an example of the fallacy of equivocation. 

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