In philosophy, calling two things by the same name is “equivocation.”
This is often done accidentally, but sometimes it is done intentionally either to avoid committing oneself (ambiguity) or to conceal one’s true meaning (dog-whistling).
But there is another kind of equivocation that I want to illuminate here, which is fairly unique to academics because it hinges on some pretty academic opinions on the rules of language usage.
You may be familiar with the well-known “motte and bailey” fallacy, a reference to ancient castles that were built with a lower, less-defended village — the “motte” — and a connected, fortified keep — the “bailey” — to which the town would retreat when under attack. A person making a motte and bailey argument will state something fairly controversial, but when confronted, backs off and asserts a more defensible view, perhaps pretending that they never supported their more controversial opinion. When the pressure relieves, they return to their more controversial position.
What I want to call “motte-building” is the linguistic leg-work necessary to make a kind of motte and bailey argument without having to change ones’ wording when confronted. The tricky debater can simply “explain” what he means, rather than having to back-track. They are building mottes strong enough to be their own baileys.
Motte-building does not hide one’s true thoughts but rather advances them openly, using language which can be defended technically but which expresses views that are understood within the broader culture to mean something other than the technically-defensible meaning. It is, if you like, a kind of reverse dog-whistle.
In order to explain how this works, let me start with how I think it has become possible, and why it seems to be a uniquely academic problem.
Let’s return to our original problem: equivocation.
In order to avoid the dangers of accidental equivocation, many writers will borrow fairly obscure terms or even compose new words entirely for ideas they are trying to convey. Nietzsche’s usage of the word “ressentiment,” for instance — rather than the normal “resentment” — pulls the reader’s mind out of default associations and moral baggage, (even though the French enunciation and the standard German/English terms are essentially the same). Fresh words can make the writing more interesting, but the importance is in avoiding accidental equivocations.
For this reason, academics are always putting new labels on categories, patterns, demographics, and so on, not because they love confusing people but precisely the opposite — they do not want to be misunderstood. The true academic would rather appear a bit opaque but be precise than seem clear to many people because they all interpret something different from what has been said.
This liberty with definitions, however, can work in the other way. Academics have (with a bit more responsibility) the right to use more commonly understood terms with new definitions.
The justification for this is that sometimes coming up with new terms is confusing to the reader, and there can be a kind of artlessness to just making up words. If I want to describe a particular kind of love, for instance — specifically, a particular kind of agape love that is distinct from other kinds of agape love — what on earth should I call it? The Greeks were philosophically rigorous enough to break down love into eros, phileo, storge, and agape, but these distinctions may not be enough. Should we go with “agape 1” and “agape 2?” Aside from the ugliness of it, these sorts of distinctions can be difficult to hold in your head as you work over the rest of the material. Sometimes, it can be better to simply say: “when I speak of ‘love,’ I am referring to a particular category of the Greek concept of agape when it extends to those who are dead.” I have just redefined “love” (within the context of my paper), but there is nothing untoward or unscholarly in such a maneuver.
Since many words have multiple meanings, there isn’t much of a difference between creating new words and giving new definitions to existing words. And in any case, logically speaking, the substance of the argument does not depend upon the label so long as everything is defined clearly. If I define a “Carrot-God of Saturn” as a member of homo sappien sappiens, and then say “All Carrot-Gods of Saturn are Mortal; Socrates is a Carrot-God of Saturn, and therefore, Socrates is mortal,” then my statement is sound because I have properly defined my terms, and valid because it contains no illogical leaps. It is an airtight argument.
(The only odd part about it is the somewhat strange use of labels. Why use “Carrot-Gods of Saturn” instead of something more conventional like “man?” But this is not a weighty complaint because it has no bearing on the soundness or validity of the claim, and so questions like this can be waved off as irrelevant.
“Why are you calling Socrates a Carrot-God of Saturn?”
“Because that’s what Socrates is by definition, silly. Now try and keep up.”)
In order to avoid ambiguity, academics sometimes create new words, draw on archaic terms, or revise the definition of a commonly-used word in order to convey their intended meaning to their reader.
This leads to an interesting possibility: could a writer create a new definition for an existing term — or a technical term with a different common or intuitive meaning — with the intent to equivocate?
I believe the answer is a clear yes.
Consider the following excerpt from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre page on Understanding Whiteness:
Racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white (Kivel, 1996, p. 19).
‘Whiteness,’ like ‘colour’ and ‘Blackness,’ are essentially social constructs applied to human beings rather than veritable truths that have universal validity. The power of Whiteness, however, is manifested by the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour. White culture, norms, and values in all these areas become normative natural. They become the standard against which all other cultures, groups, and individuals are measured and usually found to be inferior (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 46-47).
From this, it is clear that they have two goals: (1) combat racism, and (2) blame one particular race — whites — for creating racism.
But have I really summarized what they just said?
In their own words…
To combat racism today, it is necessary to understand the history of the ideology of “race” in order to challenge whiteness as the foundation of racial categories and racism.
The first two paragraphs quoted were not written by the ACLRC; they were written by academics, Jewish-American author Paul Kivel and York University professor Frances Henry, respectively. What I am interpreting as a reference to racially-white people is actually a very interesting word: “whiteness.”
There is a lot that has been written about “whiteness,” but the gist of the definition is essentially the following:
Whiteness, within sociology, is defined as a set of characteristics and experiences that are attached to the white race and white skin.
Thus, whiteness is intrinsically connected to white people (the race), but is not the same as the people.
What follows from this within the field of sociology is a unanimous moral condemnation of “whiteness” as oppressive, privileged, unempathetic (indeed, incapable of empathy) towards others due to white-normalcy, and outright dangerous. In short, “whiteness” is thoroughly and irredeemably evil… but they’re not being racist against whites, because they are not talking about white people. Just the experiences and characteristics attached to their skin…
The somewhat less careful ACLRC tries to put this in its own words:
As with the term “race,” it is important to clarify the differences between “white” (a category of “race” with no biological/scientific foundation) and “whiteness” as a powerful social construction with very real, tangible, violent effects.
There is a bit of the lady-doth-protest-too-much going on here. If race has no biological or scientific foundation, then what could “white” as a racial category be referring to? There could be no basis for establishing a pattern distinguishing people who possess “whiteness” from those who do not without some biological referent to the color “white.” This is explicitly related to skin tone, which actually has been pretty thoroughly established as genetic (and therefore biological) in nature. Expression can skip generations and combine in unexpected ways, but you will never get a Swedish-looking baby from Ethiopian parents.
The point here is to observe the incredible effort put into building a motte so supported by self-referential terminology and redefinitions that the arguer never needs to retreat to the bailey.
Thousands of trees were killed to write tens of thousands of papers and essays and articles and books over decades to differentiate “whiteness” from “whites.” This distinction allows “whiteness” to be attacked in the name of fighting racism despite themselves pursuing an openly racist mission.
Indeed, most people, upon hearing this kind of hair-splitting definitional game simply throw up their hands, beaten back by the sheer complexity of the language. The motte has been reinforced so heavily that it appears like a proper bailey — an actually defensible position.
But it really isn’t. The reinforcements are just a rhetorical illusion. An equivocation.
“White people” as a racial category has been killed off, without a lot of clear justification (and in the face of social anthropology’s scientifically rigorous cousin: physical anthropology). In its place is conjured a ghost — “whiteness.” In application to flesh-and-blood people, this ghost just happens to coincide with the old racial category in every way.
To this new definition are added moral qualities of every negative variety. It is these negative qualities that are the true nature of “whiteness,” as these sociologists describe.
The picture of “whiteness” is of a people that are powerful and unempathetic in their power. They are abusive and oppressive, conquering other peoples who are their equals or even their superiors (at least their moral superiors), and uniquely possessed by the evil and false idea that science points to genetic differences between human populations.
They say that there is no inherent racial — let alone chromatic — quality to this character. That is, in fact, part of the very concept of “whiteness.”
And yet they call it “whiteness,” an inherently racial label.
They could have called it “sociological power,” or “cultural privilege,” or “social dominance,” or “Sigma,” or “property 1,” or any number of other terms. But they chose the racial one, the one that allows them to overtly attack white people with the moral permission of supposedly serious academic thought.
There is no plausibly innocent explanation for this choice of terms.
Everyone in the field of “whiteness studies” is engaged in sophistry — the intentional usage of fallacious arguments to deceive. They have spent decades building up their motte, brick-by-brick, designed to fend off the majority of the public.
Unfortunately, though this strategy is poor philosophy (logically and ethically), it does seem to be fairly effective in terms of swaying public opinion. Once an equivocation of this sort becomes established, there is a danger that it will become a kind of organic-feeling general knowledge: “yeah, whiteness is basically just oppression.” New definitions get added to the dictionary, and the equivocation becomes effectively permanent.
Fortunately, motte-building operations like this can be derailed if they’re caught early, when the equivocation doesn’t have the cultural momentum to keep going even after serious criticisms blow it out of the water.
And there is always the alternative path; if someone breaks a word, just make a new one. That’s how language changes anyway, even without rhetorical manipulation. Words come in and out of use, and words are used poetically to conjure feelings and associations of other things, which then changes the meanings of those words. It is an organic process, and language never sits static. We cannot expect to forever preserve certain words or our language in its current form. The best we can do is try to identify when it is being used deceptively.
The words may change, but the underlying forms of logic will remain.
Being a white male myself, I am particularly invested in the whole “whiteness” thing. It also happens to be perhaps the largest and most culturally-influential motte to have been built-up in recent decades (at least that I can think of). But perhaps even more, I am bothered by the mechanism; how sloppy thinking can be engineered in such a painstaking, un-sloppy fashion and injected into the general culture. Learning about such things can sometimes leave me wondering if I have any sloppy-thinking injected into my head by some clever sophist, and towards what end…
It’s an unnerving thought.
Perhaps that’s the best reason to study logic and philosophy.