The myth of false equivalency

scalesThis is the story of my first and last brush with campus activism during my college career. It’s been decades, so some names may be slightly askew — but the sequence of events is still crystal clear.

I crossed paths with 1960s counterculture often as a tot, and I’d always romanticized the activism it inspired. So when I entered college, I was eager to man the ramparts for social justice.

A cause of the moment was registration for the draft, which had been reinstated in 1980 by Jimmy Carter. Like any aspiring young progressive I knew, I was opposed to registration as a half-step away from conscription. (I’ve long since tempered that opinion; I now believe that conscription is a potent tool to make the powerful think twice about committing their own children to war.)

At the time, however, it seemed like a righteous cause to start my career as a student activist. So I was excited to attend the first meeting of a group called (IIRC) Students Against Registration and the Draft and attended by about 30 of the most visible leftist students on the UCSD campus.

I was full of ideas about how we could bring the student body together to tackle this issue. One thing I’d noticed: The libertarian group on campus had expressed their opposition to draft registration as well. If we were to make common cause, surely we could make inroads educating other students about draft registration.

The response was quick and icy; we certainly weren’t going to work with right wingers of this stripe! Instead, we were going to start with a key decision — whether to endorse Jesse Jackson for president in 1984.

First of all, I was unconvinced about Jackson as presidential material; his recent remark about “Hymietown” alone was enough to make me uneasy. More immediately, I was perplexed by the relevance of a presidential endorsement to our goal. (Who would care where we stood on the presidential primary when we were out pushing for resistance to draft registration?)

My enthusiasm dampened, I missed the next meeting but returned for the third. In the meantime, the group had renamed itself the Progressive Students’ Union and had adopted a whole raft of positions on everything from President Jackson to economic reforms to South African divestment.

Thus ended my flirtation with UCSD’s self-identified progressives. I picked my protests based on specific issues, but I never signed up for anybody’s army.

I’ve thought of that episode often when I encounter political purity tests of any flavor. And I thought of it again when I read this Salon piece accusing Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” of  compromising a progressive agenda in the interest of false equivalency.

In one passage, authors Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny take issue with Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s event critical of the stridency of contemporary politics: “[S]oon it became clear that the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear — Fear being Colbert’s contribution — was entirely an exercise in satire and not at all an exercise in activism. In fact, it appeared to have been solely created to draw a false equivalency between grassroots efforts on the left to combat corporate greed and corruption and the Dick Armey-funded Astroturf campaign called the Tea Party.”

Except the rally wasn’t about the righteousness of a slate of positions, left or right, but about the tenor of the discourse. The authors themselves quote “The Daily Show” ‘s invite, apparently without having read it closely:

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

The agenda seems manifest to me: However honorable your goals, hyperbole and shouting are not productive. I’ll go further and say that (even if you want to subscribe to a strict left/right divide), neither side has an absolute monopoly on obnoxious characters or crazy conspiracy theories.

It’s not just a matter of tone, though — it’s also a matter of substance. When it comes to most issues, I have to choose my positions a la carte. I simply can’t draw a straight line connecting abortion, Israel and fracking; I need to consider each on its own merits, which means evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of opposing positions. My upbringing and my social circle influence my thinking, to be sure, but I try hard to correct for both when weighing pros and cons.

I reject the label of “false equivalency.” Rhetorical excess, cheap shots, crazy theories and borderline personalities should be shunned by both sides. (Whether one side is more prone to these behaviors is almost impossible to prove and in my opinion a distraction — they’re common and destructive, and they should be stopped.)

There are (at least) two sides to every argument. Again, that’s not false equivalency; that’s definitional. You’d better be able to articulate your opponent’s position in terms s/he’d recognize if I’m going to believe you understand your own reasons for believing what you do about an issue.

False equivalency has become a handy tool to shut down discussion across ideological lines and stifle calls to mute the dramatics and focus on the issues. It makes it easier to dismiss as intellectually shallow and lacking conviction those people who seek hard conversations without raising their voices.

I’ve always despised bullies — and this charge of false equivalency is a bullying tactic, plain and simple. It freezes conversation by cowing people who seem to be straying from the party line. It’s a great tool for people who want to keep their base of support hardcore, but it leaves out the masses of us who don’t believe in enlisting on others’ terms.

And frankly, I would much rather find common ground with an ideological opponent than submit to strong-arm tactics from a supposed ally.

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