Word washing is when a commonly used definition is implied in an argument and warped in a way that benefits an extreme movement’s goals. First, I provide examples of virtue twisting and word washing that show the logical gaps current extremist movements use for successful manipulation. I also provide some questions to ask if you suspect someone’s manipulating you.
Lenin successfully used word washing when he started the Soviet Union, the world’s most brutal empire. Let us examine an argument Lenin advanced in his pamphlet “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline.”
- We should have a free, equal society.
- Economic activity eventually produces monopolies.
- Monopolies prevent equality.
- Communism removes monopolies, so a free and equal society will flourish with communism.
So where does this alleged word washing occur? No part of Lenin’s argument as I presented it here contains any specific definitions and neither does his entire pamphlet. Joe, you may say, doesn’t word washing imply the use of some definition that gets misapplied into an entirely unrelated concept?
The reality is that word washing is far more subtle and infectious than it first appears. Let’s dig deeper into this argument. As you observed, there are no points where Lenin provides a specific definition. Rather, we see Lenin use implied definitions the reader draws for himself within the context of the work.
Lenin puts “free, equal society” and “monopoly” in opposition in 1 and 3. He explicitly argues that “monopolies” prevent “equality,” and “equality” is connected to the “free, equal society” we had before. So, the reader washes the definitions of “equality” and “free, equal society” together since they’re understood to be synonyms of each other as a consequence of the order they appear in my paraphrase and in the context of the full document. Furthermore, since there are no specific definitions, the reader considers that communism will truly lead to a free and equal society, since it will not have any monopolies. Consequently, Lenin persuades the reader that communism is good.
What makes this technique so insidious and dangerous is precisely the fact that these imperative definitions, definitions that shape entire spheres of culture, are washed away in Lenin’s argument that rests on confusing implications. I will not define “freedom,” “equality,” or “society” in this work, for that is reserved to the ancients who are much smarter than me. Instead, I focus on simpler terms like “communism” and “monopoly.” Where Lenin’s argument precisely fails is where he introduces “communism” as an opposition to “monopoly.” Communism is by definition a monopoly, since the state has monopolistic control over all of her resources in a communist system. Lenin deceives his
reader by washing the true definitions of the words away so that he persuades the readers through this technique. Thus, the argument is persuasive and rests on implied definitions instead leading the readers to the truth.
Questions to test for Word Washing
- What terms does this argument use? Are they defined?
- How do the relationship of terms in this argument create definitions?
- Why should I agree or disagree with a principle based on these definitions?
A Note on Specific Instances
Word washing takes on more specific forms. I simply provided a framework. When I drafted this piece, I initially had virtue twisting as its own, distinct concept but it is in fact a specific version of word washing.
Virtue twisting is when an example of unrelated good behavior, a virtue, is a part of an extreme movement. Here is a common argument that takes a virtue and “twists” it to benefit the movement’s goals. The “twisting” refers to logical gaps where the aforementioned virtue does not have a connection to consequential action. Put simply, the virtue does not connect with its application in real life, and instead is a launching point for people to think that they are correct as it appears that they are good people, acting in accordance with a virtue. Of course, this is an illusion, but the definition of the virtue is misapplied to manipulate the reader.
There are countless other ways people abuse vocabulary to manipulate others, but I think they best fit in this framework. I don’t think I’m the first person to make this observation, but I did slap a fun little word on top of it. What do you think?