Language Corner

Stop misusing the word ‘equivocate’

August 28, 2017
Wikimedia Commons

A post to a group of freelance writers and editors asked, “Have any of you noticed how many TV journalists are misusing ‘equivocation’ following Trump’s ‘many sides’ pronouncement?”

Another poster answered, “I think their use is in reference to their opinion that he uses ambiguity to disguise his true feelings toward both sides of the Charlottesville event.”

The original poster replied: “That’s a reasonable guess, but that’s not how they’re using it. They’re really using it in place of ‘equivalence.’”

Television journalists aren’t the only ones doing it.

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In an editorial, a newspaper cautioned against the use of “false equivalency” in moral debates. Pointing to President Trump asking whether statues of Washington and Jefferson should be next to fall, the editorial continued, “Trump’s statements last week are provided as just one of the latest examples of this false equivalency that is corrupting the political dialogue of our political system. It might be a risk of committing false equivocation ourselves to say ideologues on both the right and left commit these disingenuous arguments, but there are enough examples that we feel safe to call it a fact.”

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This war of words continued. After President Trump tweeted that Senator Lindsey Graham “falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists,” another newspaper said: “The Republican president’s statements have been widely criticized as equivocating between white nationalists, including Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis, on the one hand and those protesting against them on the other.”

Though “equivalence” and “equivocation” are etymological cousins, they are separate and unequal.

“Equivalence” means effectively the same. A one-dollar bill has the “equivalence” of 100 pennies, or of four quarters, or 20 nickels, or 10 dimes. There is no substantive difference between them, except, of course, for the weight.

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In recent weeks, “moral equivalency” has been used side by side with “false equivalency” in discussing whether Trump’s statements on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, gave equal weight to people advocating hate and people protesting that hate. “Moral equivalency” is a polemical term meaning there is no moral difference between sides, that neither is more good or more evil than the other. When Jeane Kirkpatrick was the ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s, she spoke and wrote frequently of the “myth of moral equivalency,” challenging claims that the United States and the Soviet Union had no significant moral differences. That “myth of moral equivalency” has also been invoked frequently with the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, where each side claims moral superiority to the other.

“False equivalency” wouldn’t just mean arguing that George Washington’s statue is as bad as Robert E. Lee’s statue. In journalism, “false equivalency” is often used to mean that too much weight is given to, say, climate deniers in an article discussing climate change. The question of “objectivity” in journalism has often become an argument as to whether coverage has “false equivalency.

“Equivocation,” though, means evasion. An “equivocal statement,” as Merriam-Webster says, is “subject to two or more interpretations and usually used to mislead or confuse.” Someone who is being “equivocal” is not only not saying that two sides are equal, they’re deliberately avoiding alignment with either side. To “equivocate,” M-W says, is “to avoid committing oneself in what one says.”

“Equivalent” dates from the mid-15th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, with “equivalence” and “equivalency” showing up about 100 years later. “Equivocate” is older, with “equivocation” showing up in English in the late-14th century, the OED says. And while they both share the Latin root “aequiv,” or “equal,” that’s where they part company. “Equivalent” states a relationship; “equivocation” refuses to acknowledge one.

Without a doubt, President Trump has made statements that are “equivalent” and “equivocal,” but the same statement cannot be both.

A rabbi at the New York synagogue of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner knew that, and was able to use them both in a single statement about Trump’s Charlottesville statements: “While we always avoid politics, we are deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in his response to this act of violence.”

Now that’s hitting from both sides.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.