Equivocation and conflation

Those who have worked with me have said that they can tell when I’m getting warmed up on a subject when I use the words “conflate” or “equivocate”. (Another colleague’s magic phrase was “tease apart”: when he started teasing apart your ideas, it was time to duck!) Although these two words are closely related, they have quite distinct meanings, and it’s unfortunate when people misuse them. ((Not, of course, as unfortunate as the misuse of “uninterested” and “disinterested”.))
To “conflate” is to mix up several distinct issues, often (but not always) with the aim of changing the topic. To “equivocate” is to use a word that has more than one meaning in a way that obscures the distinction between those meanings. Although this can occasionally be inadvertent, it is usually intended to confuse or deceive. Obviously equivocation can be used to achieve conflation, by using a term that is meaningful in each of the issues that you wish to conflate. However the words are quite distinct: one can conflate without using equivocation, and equivocate without seeking to conflate.
All of this was prompted by reading an excellent piece in Balkinization by Deborah Hellman of the University of Maryland School of Law, in which she analyzes an important point in a recent Supreme Court decision concerning race and school admissions policy.

In his plurality opinion in Parents Involved, Justice Roberts closes his opinion with the seeming truism that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The problem with this claim is that it profits from an important conflation between two different senses of the term “discrimination.” Sometimes to discriminate is simply to draw distinctions among people or things. For example, insurers routinely discriminate between potential insurance customers on the basis of the risk each poses of making a claim against the insurer during the policy period. Other times, we use the term “discrimination” in a critical rather than a descriptive way. For example, laws forbidding blacks from sitting in the front of public buses discriminate (read wrongly discriminate) against African-Americans. When we pay attention to the two senses of the word “discrimination,” we see that Justice Roberts’ claim is far from obvious. The way to stop discrimination (i.e. wrongful discrimination) on the basis of race is to stop discriminating (i.e. drawing distinctions) on the basis of race. Is he right?

It’s a good piece, which I recommend that you read. It would have been even better if she had written “equivocation” instead of “conflation”…