I. What is Equivocation?
Commonly known as “doublespeak,” equivocation (pronounced ee-QUIV-oh-KAY-shun) is the use of vague language to hide one’s meaning or to avoid committing to a point of view. It’s often used by dishonest politicians who want to seem like they agree with everyone. It can also be used in legal contexts, for example where a defendant wants to avoid admitting guilt, but also does not want to lie openly – so they use equivocation to escape the true answer.
The two essential elements of equivocation are:
- Ambiguous language
- An effort (conscious or unconscious) to deceive others
II. Examples of Equivocation
During a school-closure controversy, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel used the phrase “optimize school resource utilization” instead of “close schools.” The ambiguity of his language allowed him to avoid stating directly what his policy entailed. Moreover, this phrase is so ambiguous that, without prior knowledge of the situation, you might actually think that Mayor Emanuel’s policy was the opposite of school closures!
The Faisal-Weizmann agreement of 1919 was a treaty during World War I, signed between Emir Faisal I of Iraq and a representative of the Allies. The text of the agreement states that all Arab lands in the Middle East should be independent and free after the end of the war. However, when the war ended the text was interpreted in such a way that “Arab lands” meant only a small portion of what Faisal thought he was agreeing to. Thus, many territories in the Middle East and North Africa remained under European control. It’s not entirely clear whether the Allies were deliberately equivocating when they wrote the treaty, or whether they simply re-interpreted it after the fact to suit their convenience.
“I want to be absolutely clear with the people of the world: the United States does not torture.” (George W. Bush, 2006)
In 2006, then-President George W. Bush made a famous, and seemingly very clear, statement that the United States does not torture detainees. It was later revealed that the statement was true – but only on a special definition of “torture” not shared by the United Nations or other international bodies. Thus, practices such as waterboarding, mock execution, and nasal feeding, which are clearly defined as torture under international law, were excluded under Bush’s special definition. Because of this misleading definition, the statement was not a lie – but it was definitely an equivocation.
III. The Effect of Equivocation
Equivocation allows the writer or speaker to avoid making a firm commitment to any particular position, which is a useful – though very deceptive – way of avoiding counterarguments or hard questions.
In formal arguments, equivocation can be used to make a deceptively persuasive argument. An ambiguous term like “freedom” or “justice” may be used in one sense at the beginning, and in another sense at the end, so that the argument can establish faulty conclusions with a seemingly valid argument. This sort of equivocation is often unconscious – that is, the writer has not noticed the way his or her definitions change over the course of writing the argument.
IV. Examples of Equivocation in Literature
“None of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (The Weird Sisters, Shakespeare’s Macbeth)
In Shakespeare’s play, the Weird Sisters (witches who can predict the future) reassure Macbeth that he cannot be killed by anyone “of woman born.” Macbeth takes this to mean that no human beings can destroy him. However, he is ultimately killed by Macduff, a man who was birthed by Caesarean section – in Elizabethan culture, this means he was never “born.” Thus, the prophecy is an equivocation, leading Macbeth to believe he is invincible when in fact he is not.
In a famous letter to his son, the Roman philosopher Cicero begins by admonishing the young man not to pursue “honor,” i.e. fame and glory. However, in other parts of the letter he uses the same word to refer to honorable behavior, i.e. just and ethical conduct. This equivocation was probably an accident on Cicero’s part, but nonetheless it has led to some confusion among scholars, who have found it difficult to pin down exactly what Cicero’s stance on honor is.
V. Examples of Equivocation in Pop Culture
In an episode of Futurama, Leela agrees to give her hand to the Robot Devil in exchange for new robotic ears. However, the Robot Devil tricks her – she thinks that she is agreeing to give up one of her physical hands, but in fact she is agreeing to give the Devil her hand in marriage. The Robot Devil is equivocating in his agreement with Leela.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke the Darth Vader “betrayed and murdered your father.” [SPOILER:] It turns out that Darth Vader actually is Luke’s father, and that Obi-Wan was speaking metaphorically. Anakin Skywalker, the good man who sired Luke, was betrayed and “killed” by his own vicious impulses and the dark side of the Force and ultimately turned into Darth Vader. Obi-Wan’s equivocation is perhaps justified by the fact that the desire for vengeance is what initially sets Luke on his path to becoming a Jedi.
VI. Related Terms
To “prevaricate” is to evade or dodge scrutiny. In many cases, this is synonymous with equivocation. However, prevarication is a broader term that can also encompass non-verbal behaviors: for example, imagine an administrator who avoids being in the same room as a newspaper reporter. The two may never speak, which means there are no opportunities for equivocation; however, the administrator is definitely prevaricating and attempting to avoid difficult questions!
Circumlocution means “talking around” something without actually directly addressing it. Writers and speakers may use elaborate constructions to avoid discussing something directly, and if these circumlocutions involve ambiguous language, then they’re also equivocations. The phrase “optimize school resource utilization” is a circumlocution as well as an equivocation – it’s a circumlocution because it’s so long and indirect, and it’s an equivocation because its meaning is ambiguous.
In a pun, you’re using the ambiguity of language for humor rather than deception – but the principle is very similar! A word’s multiple meanings are being played off one another for rhetorical effect.