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The False Equivalency

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Among the many trends ruining our country, the increasing reliance on "false equivalency" must certainly sit near the top of the list.  You know what this is, even if you don't know my terminology.  It's when, in an effort to be fair or in order to minimize bad behavior, we accept the concept that both sides of an issue are guilty of the same thing, even though they rarely are.

There is no doubt that we are a divided nation.  I don't contest that.  What I contest is that we have a broken government, broken system, broken society because both sides are doing the same thing.

But one lie is not the same as twenty lies.  (Well, okay, maybe in Hell.)
One side passing a bill is not the same as the other side spending huge amounts of their legislative capital trying to abolish the bill that passed, putting the abolishment bill to a vote dozens and dozens of times.
Both sides are not being equally obstructionist when two leaders come to an agreement, which one side's underlings talk him out of once he leaves the bargaining table.
A lobbyist who does not like global warming but has no scientific background is not that same as a scientist who studies global warming.
The managers of two political campaigns who both think their candidate won the debate are not engaging in the same "spin."  One of their candidates actually won.
MSNBC is not the equivalent of FOX News.  Sorry, it just isn't.  One pretends to be news; one doesn't.
The tragedy of the rapist is not as tragic as the tragedy of the raped.
As weapons, guns and cars are not equally dangerous.
Bush's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the same as Obama's.  One had questionable motives for getting in; one has struggled with a timetable for getting out.
Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken were never mirror opposites; Rachel Maddow is not the liberal Sean Hannity, even as she steals his audience.

Yes, power corrupts, but are all corrupted equally?  Despite the axioms to the contrary, the answer has to be no.

I turned off CNN in the final weeks of the presidential election.  "Because it was too impartial?" asked my brother, who has tired of my liberal tendencies.  No, because it became obsessed with false equivalencies.  In the interest of presenting both sides of the issues, CNN, like so many other news outlets, would do whatever it could to offer equal time, even if that time was nothing about the issues but just a chance for an opposing party to spew scattershot vitriol.  Even the polling seemed designed to make the two candidates seem like they were neck-and-neck and that the whole thing was going to/needed to come down to the wire.

I remember back in the 80's when I first started teaching and my Southern students hadn't figured out that n----r was not an acceptable term.  I would call them on it.  "Well, they call us 'honkies," a student would say, having been coached by a parent or a society.  When Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X came out, a series of t-shirt showed up around here with Confederate flags on the front of them and a slogan on the back that read something like "You wear your 'X' and I'll wear mine."  Sorry, folks, just not the same.

With the lessons of Easter not completely faded yet, is it worth it to remind ourselves that though we are all flawed, perhaps fallen, creatures, that we still get to work out our place on the continuum of sin, that some of us only dip our toes in the pool of evil, that some of us go all Greg Louganis Olympic-live dive into that same water?  That, fire and brimstone and Jonathan Edwards aside, those are not the same thing?  And that's not to get us out of any detentions or other punishments, but only to remind us that lumping all of us into one big pile does no one any good (or at least does no one with any shred of goodness any good), not when one at least hopes to do better and the other doesn't give a shit, when one ponders the complicated problem of the poor and the other kowtows to the rich, when one sees the problem as something we all have to solve together while the other indulges in self-interest?

The problem with false equivalency is that it lets every single one of us off the hook.  It's like that frustrated point that any of us reach at some point during a political discussion when we conclude that "the whole government is corrupt."  And we nod our heads collectively, happy to reach that common ground. 

Well, actually, no, it isn't all corrupt.  At least not in that absolute way.  There are different visions, different motives, different constituencies, different motivations, different perspectives.  There are politicians and policy wonks and, yes, even lobbyists, at differing stages in their careers where they have different levels of idealism.  If we let ourselves believe that all around us functions with the same base cynicism, we lose everything.

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