Equivocation: Flip-Flop Edition

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I saw this silly article awhile back. Its main claim is that there's nothing wrong with flip-flopping: it shows you are growing and learning!

The main problem is that the term "flip-flop" does not, in common use, simply mean "change your mind." If you change your mind due to changing circumstances, including new information, that is not a "flip-flop." That's why "flip-flop" is often reserved for matters of principle, like abortion.

It's not exclusively used for matters of principles, of course. It can also be used for other issues, where someone changes for no apparent reason beyond political, especially when they move back and forth over a relatively short period of time. Hardly anyone accuses John Edwards of "flip-flopping" on the war (he sponsored the authorization, and now is against it), but John Kerry was adamantly in favor of the war (indeed, he said Bush did the right thing by invading, shortly after the invasion) and within a few months was saying Bush was wrong, without any apparent new information other than polls showing Democrats opposed it.

But this article makes no such distinctions. He says Thomas Jefferson "flip-flopped" on the national debt when he made the Louisiana Purchase, but that's nonsense: making an exception to a rule is not a flip-flop, it's simply acknowledging the rule isn't absolute. Jefferson never said we should never under any circumstances have a debt, and he never later said a debt is a good thing. And in this case, anyway, the Purchase was guaranteed to pay for itself in short order anyway, so it was a good investment that clearly mitigated any concerns over the debt.

Similarly, Lincoln never "flip-flopped" on federal interference in slavery. The main reason he repeatedly gave for not interfering in slavery was preservation of the Union. But once the South seceded, that was no longer operative. Interfering in slavery would not threaten the Union more than it was already threatened. That's like saying it's flip-flopping for me to say I am not hungry so I won't eat, but then later, I grow hungry, so I eat.

The author closes his examples with, "Jefferson and his successors learned that changing circumstances sometimes require compromising your principles." Except, of course, that Jefferson and Lincoln in particular did not compromise their principles (not on those matters, anyway).

He does make the point that "not all flip-flops are equal." But calling any change of direction a "flip-flop" renders the term meaningless.

But then again, it's a stupid term, so maybe that's a good thing. slashdot.org

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