Friday, December 5, 2008

The Logical Fallacy of Redefining Terms and Other Boobytraps

A friend of mine noted once that a phase from one of my favorite hymns, “Victory in Jesus,” always makes her laugh because “He plunged me to victory” conjures up the image of a toilet plunger for her. About 95% of the time, when we refer to“plunge” in our contemporary society, we use the word in reference the process of plunging a blocked toilet with a red rubber toilet plunger on a wooden handle. Likewise, when the hymn was written in 1939 and during the time that the author was raised, indoor flushing toilets were still somewhat new in very many homes. As a consequence, the first image to pop into the author’s head was not likely a red toilet plunger, but rather this physical dynamic of water alone. The translation of meaning between the era in which the hymn was written and our current era creates ambiguity.

This natural tendency to understand language first in the context of most familiar usage and within societal context presents a serious consideration for those who communicate the Gospel. Ministers in particular must be mindful of how the audience understands terminology and must faithfully communicate only the proper ideas so as help the learner elucidate the truth on a deeper level in a more meaningful way. Therefore, ministers of the Gospel must guard against error in language use, remaining diligent so as guard their flocks against the misrepresentation of the truth. For this reason, Christians invest a great deal of time, effort and resources in keeping our Bible translations current and accurate. As a result, heated controversies arise over how subtly and improperly translated language can lead the unsuspecting translator and reader alike into error. Many point to the Scofield Bible of days past and the new English Standard Version Bible (and study notes) as examples of translations that have changed or threaten to change how people interpret the Word of God through this subtle yet powerful influence. Federal Vision teachings also produced much controversy for some of these very same reasons.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss the issues using one specific teaching promoted within the patriarchy movement, but I would first like to spell out how redefinition promotes ambiguity, a loophole in language that cultic groups capitalize upon in order to promote their often hidden agendas. (Recall Doug Phillips’ saying that “He who defines, wins.”)

The Fallacy Files website has this to say about the propaganda technique of Redefinition:
To redefine a term is, of course, to assign it a new meaning. It is not necessarily fallacious to give a term a new meaning, and it is often done to produce technical terms, but it is a logical boobytrap. There is always a danger of slipping back into using the term in its old meaning out of habit, which could cause a fallacy of equivocation. We may start out reasoning with the term using its new meaning in the premisses, then fall back into using it in its familiar meaning in the conclusion.
The Fallacy Files on Equivocation:Blockquote
Equivocation is the type of ambiguity which occurs when a single word or phrase is ambiguous, and this ambiguity is not grammatical but lexical. [Blog host note: Lexical meaning “as related to a lexicon or dictionary,” pertaining to an error in definition.] So, when a phrase equivocates, it is not due to grammar, but to the phrase as a whole having two distinct meanings.

Of course, most words are ambiguous, but context usually makes a univocal meaning clear. Also, equivocation alone is not fallacious, though it is a linguistic boobytrap which can trip people into committing a fallacy. The Fallacy of Equivocation occurs when an equivocal word or phrase makes an unsound argument appear sound.

Redefinition can affect the meaning of a word through either “low” or “high” redefinitions that either widen or narrow the application of the original, most commonly understood meaning of the term. It is also possible to create more complex redefinitions that include both a narrowing of some aspect of application while broadening others at the same time. Of course, redefnition can also include meanings that have no connection to the original meaning of the term, creating a completely unrelated neologism. The FIC arguments and terminology run rampant with varied degrees of redefined terms, and they capitalize on the power of the connotations that their various word choices imply.

Let me offer an hypothetical and somewhat benign example of a “low redefinition” that expands upon the truest meaning of a word in the context of our common vernacular. Then consider the ramifications of this when a minister applies Redefinitions to time-honored terms that define doctrine.

Imagine that I have a very old kitchen with an old faucet that creates lots of functional problems for me. My husband goes to the hardware store and buys a new faucet, the model of which has been affectionately named by the faucet company as “The Fountain.” My husband installs it, and my family and I are overjoyed. One of my children notices the name of the model on the packaging, and we start calling the new faucet “The Fountain.” If a friend comes over, and I ask them to go into my kitchen to see my “new fountain,” some ambiguity will follow. Though the word fountain can have several possible interpretations, most people using our current vernacular will most likely think of only one commonly held concept: that of a garden fountain of some type. They will always defer first to the most commonly used representation of the word, washing over their thoughts with that most common meaning first.
Technically, the faucet is a type of fountain in some sense and the model is called “fountain,” but I have several other fountains in my kitchen. I have a cat drinking fountain that promotes my cats health by encouraging their water intake, a device that circulates water by means of a submersible pump. Over in the collection of houseplants, I have a small water fountain that someone gave us as a gift a number of years ago, touted to promote relaxation through it’s soothing sound and aesthetics. And in the winter, my kitchen also features a small, artful humidifier that looks like a vase, spilling over with thick vapor that looks like that generated by dry ice when it placed in water. The visitor will most likely picture a garden fountain in their mind when I invite them to look at the fountain, and the chances that they will walk directly over to my new kitchen faucet are doubtful. They’re far more likely to point to the cat fountain or the table top fountain that sits with the houseplants because these objects correspond more closely to the traditional picture of a garden font. If I ask them to “draw some water for me from the fountain” (referring to a glass of water that is suitable for drinking), there’s a possibility that my visitor might bring me a bowl of the cat’s water drawn from the cat’s drinking fountain.

The FIC and the patriocentrists capitalize on this “doublespeak,” conveying more than one possible meaning of their terms, capitalizing on this ambiguity of new and novel definitions of terms. “Normative” which describes that which typifies the norm becomes understood as the ideal standard, though the term itself, outside of the context and use in Vision Forum and related circles does not carry any ethical value. The manner in which the word is used repeatedly, the way the whole group responds to the term and the vaguely stated, fuzzy logic used in conjunction with the word conveys the meaning, though it is never directly defined as a term with ethical implications. Likewise, through usage of the reciprocal term, the target audience soon learns that “non-normative” is consistent with sin. “Multi-generational faithfulness” also can and does have multiple meanings. Sanctification as used in Ephesians 5 alludes to the promise of redemption in the Hebrew language, actually speaking prophetically of Jesus. Based upon how many in the FIC use the term sanctification however, many are innocently lead to believing the doublespeak message that men serve as intercessors for their families, actually serving to making their wives holy. Because they do not state their conclusions or all possible conclusions regarding their terminology, they can claim that they are innocent of promoting this error. The group that promotes these ambiguous terms can claim that they never taught questionable doctrines, but because of the common and traditional understanding of the terms used in unique ways, the target audience learns to understand the unstated conclusions and the many duplicitous meanings conveyed through redefined terms.

Also take note that manipulators and ideologues take full advantage of the momentary confusion that arises when a person encounters these inconsistent messages because the process chips away at the resolve and critical thinking resources of the listener. The listener becomes confused when the message seems somewhat incongruent, throwing them into varying degrees of cognitive dissonance because the new meaning “does not compute” with their presuppositions. When information in a sermon comes at the listener rapidly so that the listener is denied time to scrutinize the message, and in a social setting where they are expected to conform, the listener becomes predisposed to agree with the speaker. The rapid introduction of false dichotomy after false dichotomy overwhelms the listener which greatly increases the likelihood that the listener will just agree with the speaker to reduce his stress level and sense of confusion. Under the pressure of this dissonance, most listeners shift into states of consciousness that make them much more easily to manipulate. However, under other circumstances when the listener has the ability to slow down the rate at which he takes in the information and is not affected by the social pressures in a group setting, the listener will likely reject the inconsistent ideas presented to them.

The post to follow will examine the very problematic FIC redefinition of husbands and fathers as prophet, priest and king for his family. Under the New Covenant, Jesus serves as our only Prophet, Priest and King. The “low redefinition” of this application to include mere men on their family’s behalf subtly yet powerfully predisposes them to acceptance of idolatry, actually believing that it is Biblical.