Strategic Equivocation

People say things they don’t mean to be literally true, but they want you to treat them as if they were literally true.

This is sometimes done intentionally, but usually not, but often consistently. That is, most people doing this do not realize that they are engaging in a common rhetorical tactic; if you ask them about it directly, they will make explicit that they do not mean to be doing it; and then they will continue doing it, because people talk that way. This is a disadvantage of coming from a species of social primates.

This is, by the way, the second of (probably) four posts arising from last week’s discussion of discussing things online. The specific example under consideration here is someone calling something “impossible,” by which they really mean something closer to “I am finding this very difficult, and I am frustrated, and I wish to locate the cause of my frustration in the object of my frustration.” Implicit in this are claims like “this is not my fault,” “you should empathize with me,” and “it is unreasonable and bad design that this is so challenging.”

There are two levels of rhetoric here. Hyperbole is the first and obvious one. Even if they say, “literally impossible,” they are using “literally” as an intensifier rather than meaning “literally,” which is annoying because English has already lost that fight on “really” and “truly,” and pretty much any word that can have a literal meaning will immediately be used figuratively. So you are expected to understand that they don’t really mean what they say.

Except sometimes they do, and they want to be treated as if they do, except where there are consequences. The second level of rhetoric is strategic equivocation, making a large, weak claim and acting as if it were true while only defending a much smaller claim. That is, they will explicitly agree that it is not literally literally impossible, then immediately going back to speaking as if it were literally impossible and needs to be changed, or at the very least expecting an sympathetic response as if they were dealing with something literally impossible rather than being treated as if it is their fault that they are having difficulty. This is trying to get away with a connotation unsupported by denotation.

And then because many people are on the internet, the discussion thread will be a mix of people making the smaller claim (“this is very difficult”), people making the larger claim literally (“this is impossible”), and people engaging in strategic equivocation, along with people making no factual claim and just engaging in verbal expression of emotions. And then there will be people arguing for and against all of these in the same thread, with arguments crossing over each other and no clarity on who is responding to whom or even realizing that there are different people making different but somewhat similar arguments, because three people have the same anime character as their icon.

It is around this point I remember that clear and reasonable discussion may be too much to ask for in a video game forum, but occasionally you hit a gold mine of actually useful conversation rather than angry emoting and status competition. Also, I love my friends on the autistic spectrum who get crap for being overly literal but can be better trusted to mean what they say.

I am not sure that I have much point here except the bit that people say things they don’t mean, except that they do mean them, but not in that sense. People say things that sound like factual claims, and they expect to be treated as if they said something true, except they don’t want to defend a factual claim because they were making an emotive statement. They will react badly if you treat them as if they made a factual claim, or if you point out that their emotional state makes little sense if the factual claim is not true (and sometimes very far from true). Their basic point is that something is wrong with the world because they did not get what they want, and if you do not agree on all points then you are part of that wrongness.

That is uncharitable, but of course you should not take it literally. You should just act as if it were literally true and agree with what I am wanting to express, while not calling upon me to defend the claim or clarify/narrow what I am expressing.

: Zubon

6 thoughts on “Strategic Equivocation”

  1. Subjectivity trumps objectivity. Every time. From my perspective, that is, and I’m only speaking subjectively. Not that there’s any other way to speak. There quite literally isn’t.

    “Quite”, now that I mention it, is a useful modifier in that it restores the literal meaning to “literally”, although, of course, since language literally has no literal value, being a consensus, that’s quite literally impossible to do.

  2. Thinking this could be re-branded the “snowflake argument” in that one person’s anecdotal perceptions trump all known facts. A special kind of generalization fallacy.

  3. I lol’d (not literally, probably more of a chuckle, but I was amused) when I saw someone reply to a “literally”-abusing comment by saying: “Reading that comment figuratively gave me cancer”.

  4. This actually reminds me of one of your (the forum, I can’t remember if it was you specifically) older posts, but eventually lead to this: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/baTWMegR42PAsH9qJ/generalizing-from-one-example
    I know, again, it isn’t equivalent, but it seems similar of several people arguing two different ideas of something. I think you’ve talked about the non-imagining factor a few times more.
    The idea of two sides of an argument having developed completely different meanings, thus leading to both sides unable to understand the other, and frustrated that they aren’t making sense. Perhaps someone literally can’t be figurative.(I’m not serious with that last line. :) )

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