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9.2: Identifying Self-Contradictions and Oxymorons

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    Self-contradiction is logical inconsistency within a single statement; one part of the statement is inconsistent with another part. An example would be "This replica of a coin manufactured by the Continental Congress in 1776 is authentic in every respect." Here is a slightly more complicated example: "Sharks were on Earth millions of years before any of the dinosaurs, but a few of the early, small dinosaurs lived before the first sharks." You can just look at that statement and see that the author is confused about sharks; you need not be an expert on sharks.

    Self-contradictory statements are false, but false statements need not self-contradictory.

    When George Bush was campaigning for the U.S. presidency, he said the following about the resignation of eight campaign aides accused of anti-Semitism: "I hope I stand for anti-bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-racism. This is what drives me...." A slip-up. If you are for anti-Semitism, then you must be for bigotry, so Bush contradicted himself. Anti-Bush folks got a big laugh out of this one; many pro-Bush folks believed the press shouldn't have bothered to make such a fuss about it.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Explain the self-contradiction that occurs in this dialogue. Notice that if you take the colonel literally, his hormones are staging a coup d'etat on his brain.

    Colonel: (angry at the soldier he is speaking to): Are you on our side or theirs, soldier?
    Private: On our side, sir.
    Colonel: Soldier, I don't demand very much from my men... just that they obey me like they would the word of God.


    In demanding that the private obey his word like the word of God, he is demanding very much—too much. This is inconsistent with his saying that he isn't demanding very much. What the colonel says is amusing because he is so obvious about being inconsistent. We in the audience are charitable and do not take him literally; instead we note the irony and reinterpret him to mean simply that he is very demanding. The dialogue is from the film Full Metal Jacket.

    I wish I could show you a round square; I cannot because round square is a contradiction in terms. The very meanings of the terms round and square conflict with each other, so there can be no round squares. "Jumbo shrimp” is not a contradiction in terms; it doesn’t mean "large and not large”; it means "large for a shrimp.” A contradiction in terms is called an oxymoron. Debates are often started by asking whether a term is an oxymoron. For example, is artificial intelligence an oxymoron? Jokes are often based in oxymorons, as when someone asks whether military intelligence an oxymoron. Military officers do not believe this is a joke.

    When a communicator unintentionally uses an oxymoron, the mistake doesn’t usually destroy the main point being made. It does, however, cause the audience to lose respect for the communicator. The mistake is a sign of carelessness or lack of sophistication.

    A theologian once said that capital punishment is inconsistent with forgiveness. The theologian meant that if the government kills a criminal, then it cannot later forgive the criminal for the crimes.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Health-o-Meter personal scale says "100 percent electronic spring-free strain gauge technology. Consistent accuracy... up to 300 pounds or 136 kilograms. ” This ad

    a. contains an oxymoron.
    b. does not use consistent in the sense of logically consistent.
    c. makes a mathematical error.
    d. says the personal scale is logically consistent with its description.


    Answer (b). It means "unchanging," not “logically inconsistent” or “factually inconsistent.”

    This page titled 9.2: Identifying Self-Contradictions and Oxymorons is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bradley H. Dowden.

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