Friday, October 19, 2012

Rhetoric: Ambiguity

Sometimes a word has two (or more) meanings. This is good in some ways, because it gives language a rich texture which can be used for poetry and humor (for instance, puns rely on ambiguity).

But ambiguity can also create problems. It can cause confusion about what somebody is saying.

In particular, if you put together an argument that uses the same word more than once -- but with different meanings -- it can result in an invalid argument (that is, an argument that doesn't prove the truth of the conclusion).
PREMISE 1: An albino hippopotamus is light.
PREMISE 2: Things that are light don't weigh very much.
CONCLUSION: Therefore, an albino hippo doesn't weigh very much.
The culprit in this flawed argument above is the word "light", which can mean "doesn't weigh much", or "is bright or white in color". An albino hippopotamus would be light in color, but not in weight.

Not all ambiguities are this obvious, but the point remains the same: just because a word is used twice doesn't mean it's used to mean the same thing.

"She always finds a way to make something good happen, to make people feel empowered, to buy people into the process, to make democracy work the way the Framers intended for it to work. Now, if you don’t believe that we can all grow together again, if you don’t believe that we’re ever going to grow again, if you believe it’s more important to relitigate the past, there may be many reasons that you don’t want to support her. But if you believe we can all rise together, if you believe we’ve finally come to the point where we can put the awful legacy of the last eight years behind us and the seven years before that when we were practicing trickle-down economics and no regulation in Washington, which is what caused the crash, then you should vote for her."
-- Former President Bill Clinton, March 21, 2016, referring to his wife, Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton later clarified that the "awful legacy of the last eight years" her husband referred to was the hostility of Republicans to President Barack Obama.

Comment: This is "rehashing the past" rhetoric. Why is it wrong for people to criticize Hillary Clinton's past? Why is it OK for Bill Clinton to criticize – "relitigate"? – the past of the GOP? Plus, President Clinton's remarks about the "awful legacy of the last eight years" were ambiguous in their reference; many thought he was saying that Obama's presidency had been awful.

If the Republican National Committee is worried about the possibility of a contentious contested convention, one of its top officials showed no signs of concern Wednesday, even after the party's front-runner warned of possible riots in Cleveland if he is denied the party's nomination.

“Well first of all, I assume he’s speaking figuratively," Sean Spicer, the RNC's chief strategist and spokesman, told CNN. "I think if we go into a convention, whoever gets 1,237 delegates becomes the nominee. It’s plain and simple.”
-- From a March 16, 2016, story by Nick Gass of Politico, regarding statements by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Spicer is arguing that Trump's violent rhetoric – "riots" – is to be taken figuratively rather than literally.

The GOP said Tammy Duckworth doesn’t ‘stand up’ for vets. The problem? She lost her legs — in Iraq.
-- Headline from a March 8, 2016, story by Else Viebeck of The Washington Post, referring to comments made about Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who lost both legs while serving in the U.S. Army.

Comment: "Standing up" is an ambiguous term: it can mean literally getting up on your feet; or, metaphorically, it can mean advocating a cause. Obviously, the Republican Party was using metaphorical language when they said Duckworth was not "standing up". This would be akin to saying, of a blind person, that "they don't see what's wrong with their position". The choice of words may be unfortunate, but need not be intentionally derisive.

AGUILAR: If there’s somebody who is a hard worker when he goes to Washington, it’s Paul Ryan. Not only works with the Republicans but Democrats. You know very well that I work on the immigration issue, trying to get Republicans to support immigration reform. Paul Ryan is somebody who has supported immigration reform, has worked with somebody like Luis Gutierrez. Luis Gutierrez is very respectful, speaks highly of Paul Ryan. This is somebody who’s trying to govern.

HARRIS-PERRY: Alfonso, I feel you, but I just want to pause on one thing because I don’t disagree with you that I actually think Mr. Ryan is a great choice for this role, but I want us to be super careful when we use the language “hard worker,” because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like. So, I feel you that he’s a hard worker. I do, but in the context of relative privilege, and I just want to point out that when you talk about work-life balance and being a hard worker, the moms who don’t have health care who are working —

AGUILAR: I understand that.

HARRIS-PERRY: But, we don’t call them hard workers. We call them failures. We call them people who are sucking off the system.

AGUILAR: No, no, no, no.

HARRIS-PERRY: No, no. Really, ya’ll do. That is really what you guys do as a party.

AGUILAR: That is very unfair. I think we cannot generalize about the Republican Party.

HARRIS-PERRY: That’s true. Not all Republicans. That is certainly true.
-- Pundits Melissa Harris-Perry and Alfonso Aguilar, October 26, 2015, discussing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his prospects to become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Comment: First, Harris-Perry is accusing Republicans of deriding people for leeching off the system (I assume when talking about welfare and related programs). Harris-Perry says she's not generalizing about all Republicans, but she still says that Republicans "as a party" engage in this sort of demonizing – which they don't – and as such Harris-Perry herself is demonizing Republicans. Second, Harris-Perry is pointing out an ambiguity in what counts as being a hard worker: however hard you work, there's probably someone else who works harder, and maybe even a whole segment of the population – past, present, even future – that works much harder than you. So, who are you supposed to compare yourself to in order to determine whether you're a hard worker? To slaves from the 1850s? Or to the other people working in your industry today? It's arguable, but it's unfair for Harris-Perry to suggest there is some sort of bigotry (or even code words?) at work in Aguilar's use of the term to describe Ryan. Who does Harris-Perry believe is a hard worker? Anyone in the U.S.A.? Herself?

RUSH: Bob in Pensacola, Florida, up next on the phones. Hi, Bob. How are you, sir?

CALLER: Hey, Rush. When you had that first segment and you were talking about the news about the events on Mars --

RUSH: Yeah?

CALLER: -- it struck me right off the bat: When a scientist is describing what happened to make the water disappear as "catastrophic," I don't know. To me the word "catastrophic" implies some sort of qualitative judgment, good or bad. In my opinion, in the absence of any human activity or man at all on the planet out in the middle of nowhere, geologic events are neither good nor bad. They just are.

RUSH: That's exactly right. It's a great point. How can something be "catastrophic" when there aren't any people around to feel the catastrophe?

CALLER: Exactly. That tells me that science is corrupted when they're using terms like that about just a purely scientific observation, about something that happened who knows when.

RUSH: Exactly. Not just corrupted, but politicized.

CALLER: Well, it seems that way.
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, September 28, 2015.

Comment: This is “politicizing” rhetoric. The caller has a point that the word “catastrophic” often involves a judgment about good or bad, but does it always? Is the term ambiguous in that sense? For instance, couldn’t a supernova – the explosion of a star – be described as catastrophic simply as a way of emphasizing how gigantic the event is, even if it doesn’t affect us negatively?

QUESTIONER [unidentified]: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. He's not even an American.

TRUMP: [laughing] We need this question. This is the first question.

QUESTIONER: We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question. When can we get rid of them?

TRUMP: We are going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying bad things are happening out there. We are going to be looking at that and a lot of different things.
-- Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, September 17, 2015, being questioned at a town hall event. The questioner was referring to President Barack Obama.

Comment: Obama is Christian, not Muslim, and he was born in the U.S., but Trump never corrected the questioner's distortion and demonizing (either about Islam being bad, or about Obama not being American). There is also an ambiguity in the dialogue: when the questioner asks about getting rid of them, does "them" refer to training camps or to Muslims? What is Trump agreeing to look into?

The gay rights movement cannot abide a middle ground and a free exercise of religion for a simple reason — homosexuality is not normal in nature, in historic relationships, or in the sacred texts of almost all religions. The gay rights movement must therefore censor and subjugate dissent. Any who point out the lack of historic or religious acceptance or the lack of its ready existence in nature or, for that matter, the lack of scientific evidence showing homosexuality is a birth trait as opposed to a choice or external factors, must be shut up.
-- Pundit Erick Erickson, March 31, 2015. His remarks concerned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA, also known as Indiana Senate Bill 101).

Comment: The claim that being gay is not normal suffers from ambiguity: does "normal" in this context mean typical? Or does it mean acceptable? Or does it mean something else? At any rate, it's questionable to reason from the presence or absence of homosexuality in nature and religious scripture to whether homosexuality should be legally or morally acceptable. More, how is it that the entire gay rights movement is opposed to the free exercise of religion related to the RFRA? Nobody supports both gay rights and religious freedom at the same time in this instance? That seems like an exaggeration or a distortion.

"There is a constitutional scholar, if you can call him that. … His name is Cass Sunstein. … He is so offended by the Bill of Rights, he's so troubled by the Bill of Rights, so bothered by it, that he renamed them. He called the Bill of Rights the charter of negative liberties. hen I first heard that, I said, "How in the world is liberty negative?" But I soon found out I was not looking at it the same way Cass Sunstein and practically every other leftist looks at it. … the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments, limit what government can do. Because the Founders knew the only thing government's gonna do is take away rights, limit them, get in the way. And the first 10 amendments were specific in what the government cannot do. … How do you look at that and see it as a negative, as Cass Sunstein and his fellow left-wing constitutional scholars do? I admit when I first came across it, I was baffled. How in the world can something as beautiful, as meaningful, as unique, as brilliant as the Bill of Rights be seen as a negative? Well, if you happen to believe that the government is all-powerful, the government is the center of the universe, the government determines everything, then the Bill of Rights you would hate. You would look at the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments as some of the biggest things in your way, if you believe in big government. If you believe government has the answer to everything, for everybody, then the Constitution is a problem. That's why these people call it a charter of negative liberties, and I'm telling you, this is why Obama is animated and does the things he does. He does not like the limits the Constitution places on him. He doesn't like the limitations in the Bill of Rights on him as president. … So the first 10 amendments is a charter -- the whole Constitution, actually, but the first 10 amendments becomes a charter of negative liberties because, from the standpoint of liberals, it's negative 'cause it tells Democrats and liberals what they can't do to people. That's why they hate it, and that's why they are forever trying to erase them, obscure them, water them down, 'cause they don't like the limitations on them. They don't like the limitations on the size of government, the power of government, the reach of government. They want to have more power than your freedom."
-- Pundit Rush Limbaugh, February 13, 2015, on his radio show.

Comment: Limbaugh is distorting both Sunstein and President Barack Obama's views, effectively demonizing them as being opposed to liberty. The term "negative" is ambiguous in this context. It is common in discussions about moral and political philosophy to make a distinction between negative and positive rights, or negative and positive obligations. That is, to say I have a negative right to freedom of speech is to say that others MUST NOT restrict me in expressing my political views. Similarly, to say I have a positive right to health care is to say that others MUST provide me health care. The positive/negative distinction comes down to whether people are obligated to DO something or NOT DO something. But "negative" also can mean "bad", and Limbaugh is (falsely and derisively) making it sound like Obama and Sunstein are saying that negative rights (such as freedom of speech) are bad things.


Examples from 2012.


Examples from 2008.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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