Wednesday, October 28, 2009

False Equivalence

You're a 10-year-old boy who's walking down the hall at school. Another boy walks alongside you, and he starts to insult you, calling you names as 10-year-olds do. You ignore him, but he keeps it up, and starts to shove you between insults. After tolerating this for as long as you can, finally, you shove him back. You exchange shoves for a few seconds, after which a teacher turns the corner and sees you.

"Cut that out, you two!"

Now you're really fuming, because you've been unjustly judged as equally guilty. I remember this sort of thing happening to me more than once as a child, and it would surprise me if this hadn't happened to nearly everyone at some point. In fairness, adults have a reasonable defense: most of the time, both children will simply point at each other and say, "he started it!" And in the case described above, there's no way for the teacher to know who did what. But, more importantly, most of the time children get the sense that the teacher (or parents) simply don't care.

Parents or teachers may resort to using false equivalence because they don't know, because they don't care, or because they don't want to be seen as taking sides (even if one side clearly has a better argument than the other). Creating a false equivalence allows you appear even-handed, and to avoid getting involved in the dispute.

This notion came to my mind today because it's a very important concept in the world of politics right now. The media is quite addicted to it because of the very two attributes mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph: the media desperately wants to appear even-handed, and wants to avoid getting involved in disputes. But as in the case with the two children, sometimes the facts of the case aren't equal. Sometimes one side is lying, and the other isn't. More often, one side is exaggerating a little, and the other is exaggerating wildly. The media would prefer to say, "there are many who say that both sides are exaggerating." The irony is that such reporting is itself a distortion of the truth, and exactly the sort of thing the media is supposed to avoid. But generally, if the media is forced to choose between factual accuracy and even-handedness, they'll choose the latter.

This post was inspired by a conversation with my wife about the current health care reform debate. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he will try to push a version of the bill that includes a public option for health care that states that don't want such an option can opt out of if they choose. I was explaining to her that this was the more 'liberal' option than others, and might not be able to get any Republican votes. This reminded me that it's common wisdom in Washington that any legislation, especially important legislation, should be seen as 'bipartisan', meaning that it should have the support of at the very least one person in the opposing party, and ideally, more. The problem is that it's very clear, and everyone in Washington knows, that the Republicans have made a considered decision to simply oppose anything that Obama does, whether or not it makes sense on the merits. They feel that if they work cooperatively with him, he'll get the credit for any success in bringing the economy back to health, and while it might benefit those who helped him individually, it won't benefit them collectively; Democrats would continue to control the House and the Senate. But if they resolutely oppose him, and the economy doesn't improve, they hope to ride back to power in 2010 and 2012 by charging that he and the Democrats failed to do what they said they would do. So, they've made a strategic decision to oppose him at every turn.

The problem is, then, that the media often points out that the bill isn't 'bipartisan' or that it 'lacks a single Republican vote' without noting that the Republicans have an institutional strategy not to cooperate with Obama. Granted, those who follow politics understand this, but many reading the paper don't, and failing to note this creates a false equivalence between partisanship now and partisanship thirty years ago (or even ten, when the Republicans were in charge but Democrats often cooperated with them) that unfairly makes Obama appear unconciliatory.

False equivalence also abounds when it comes to judging the media, especially Fox News. Fox News is rabidly right-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts spread lies as if they were facts) and strongly right-leaning in its story selection and emphasis, whereas MSNBC is mostly left-wing in its opinion shows (whose hosts tack strongly left, but do not make up facts) though its morning show is moderately conservative, and its news is straight both in content and story selection and emphasis. Even so, it's very common for commentators to treat them as if they were mirror images of each other. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, it's also the case that the right wing has for many years been 'working the refs', complaining about anti-right bias to a much greater extent than it ever existed. Because they don't want to be accused of bias, media commentators don't like to point to right-wing bias even where it exists. Creating a false equivalence helps them avoid this criticism, and helps them appear even-handed, which the media very much prefers to do. So, as with the children, the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them.

8 comments:

  1. Damien Ashburton-DunningOctober 28, 2009 at 2:52 AM

    This post just reinforces my negative impression of the media and political system of america in general. I mean, the media and politicians are pretty bad all over, I certainly wouldn't come even close to saying it's perfect here in the UK. But when I compare it to the US, it's better at least. I think, in both cases, it seems to come down to the public's attitude.

    In the US people seem very easy to get riled up. When it comes to elections for instance, they go crazy about it. In the UK, we simply don't. Now I'd be the first to say a lot of the public here should pay more attention to what the government is up to, so it would seem something to praise the americans for at first. But then I look at it, and realise that in general they have no better grasp of the issues than the public here do. They support who they support because they're a republican, or because they're a democrat, not because they've studied the issues. This is much the same here with Labour and Conservative parties. They're just a lot more vocal about it in the US than we are over here. I can't find any advantage between ignorant enthusiasm, and ignorant antipathy.

    This being the case, the media in america seems to be able to excite and inflame the public substantially more than the media here (while equally reprehensible in its own sensasionalist biased way) is able to. Not being a US citizen, nor having any particular ties to the US, I haven't been following the healthcare debate that closely. I have been appalled by some of the viewpoints offered though, because they offer some truly hideous, and quite patently untrue, 'examples' of it being a bad thing, based on the NHS in the UK.

    Not to sound prejudiced against the US, but when you say 'the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them' I can't help but think that while it's equally true pretty much everywhere, I'd be hard pressed to find anywhere that it's more overtly obvious than in the US.

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  2. When Damien said:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    ... but when you say 'the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them' I can't help but think that while it's equally true pretty much everywhere, I'd be hard pressed to find anywhere that it's more overtly obvious than in the US.
    <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

    I just wondered ... is that because they can get away with it in the US? While reading Semprini's post, and then yours, I just can't help but feel that the biased partisan approach in the USA is exaggerated - like so much else?! - because all the various parties aren't held to account.

    Sometimes it just seems to me that the USA is so 'over-engineered' when it comes to things like laws and their enforcement that no-one dares come out and spank the kiddies when they misbehave. Everyone is too scared of the lawyers, of being politically incorrect, and so forth. I'm told 70% of the world's lawyers practise in the USA. :-(

    It's just a gut feel. Be it a matter of 'law', of policy, or simply of the general demeanour of the citizens (like Damien said, the Americans don't seem to be that 'reserved' or considering in many matters), it just seems that all of these different parties can get away with huge excesses over there.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    So, they've made a strategic decision to oppose him at every turn.
    <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

    That's simply horrible. They've given up all pretence of helping to run the country, of legislating for progress, of allowing the nation to prosper and grow ... just so they can get back in power at a later date. *am very angry*

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  3. Re: It's more overtly obvious in the U.S. that facts take a backseat to preferences.

    I think it's only obvious because U.S. news and media is overrepresented abroad relative to the news from other countries. I don't think it's actually more prevalent in America. It's simply talked about so much that one gets the impression that it's more common.

    Also, Americans are hypercritical of themselves in a fashion which I rarely see in other countries. There's a lot of self-hating going on among Americans because they're constantly having their worst attributes reflected back at them. America seems to be the only country in the world where being a patriot is seen as a devastating character flaw. In other countries, it's okay to love being a member of your nationality. For Americans, it's seen as an ugly thing to be glad to be an American.

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  4. >>>>>>>>>>>>
    America seems to be the only country in the world where being a patriot is seen as a devastating character flaw. In other countries, it's okay to love being a member of your nationality. For Americans, it's seen as an ugly thing to be glad to be an American.
    <<<<<<<<<<<<<<

    Do you really think so? When I lived over there I saw quite a few houses with American flags draped outside - I'm pretty sure - but that practically never is the case here in Australia. Nor the UK, from my time there.

    Isn't it the American Republican party that tried to push the "if you're patriotic you should support the war in Iraq" thing and so forth?

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  5. (I wrote this from the office, where there's no internet, so this is only in response to the first message.)

    >I mean, the media and politicians are pretty bad all over, I certainly wouldn't come even close to saying it's perfect here in the UK. But when I compare it to the US, it's better at least. I think, in both cases, it seems to come down to the public's attitude.

    As most things eventually do. The U.S. public is more radicalized, which I think is due to a combination of factors: one of the highest income gaps in the world, the pervasive money (for attack ads) in politics, and the fragmentation of the media by ideology (especially a popular right-wing media outlet, Fox News, that agitates one of the two extremes more and more). Oh, and the toxic mixture of religion and politics that exists in America.

    >But then I look at it, and realise that in general they have no better grasp of the issues than the public here do. They support who they support because they're a republican, or because they're a democrat, not because they've studied the issues.

    Or worse, because they saw the attack ads each campaign runs against the other. We do have a lot of independents, though.

    >I have been appalled by some of the viewpoints offered though, because they offer some truly hideous, and quite patently untrue, 'examples' of it being a bad thing, based on the NHS in the UK.

    Very true; surveys have shown that Brits are pretty satisfied with the NHS, but you wouldn't find that out by watching American TV. One problem is that in the U.S., if someone says something untrue on TV, usually it's just ignored, and not followed up on by the media, even the outlet that aired the misinformation. Because it came out of the mouth of a guest commentator, not a newscaster, they think they're not responsible for it. (Though, to be honest, I have no idea how the British media does in this regard.)

    >when you say 'the facts of the matter take a backseat to the preferences of those judging them' I can't help but think that while it's equally true pretty much everywhere,

    Definitely so, which was one of the main points I intended to make with this post. People are people all over the world; it's mainly the degrees that are different, and that depends on many factors, such as local culture.

    >I'd be hard pressed to find anywhere that it's more overtly obvious than in the US.

    Not an unreasonable thing to say. The U.S. is kind of a more 'extreme' country, and that has its good points and its bad points. When it's good, it's really good, and when it's bad, it's really bad.

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  6. To Brad: I just talked to Orchid (my wife) about this, and she said that she meant what she said about being a patriot as being seen negatively was referring to interacting with people from other countries, not other Americans (she realizes she should have been more clear). In other words, if you tell them that you're an American and you love your country, they'll assume you're a mindless jingoistic flag-waver. To other Americans, there's nothing strange about it, and is often a good thing.

    I wouldn't say it quite that way, though I would go so far as to say that George W. Bush did such damage to America's reputation in the world that many informed people worldwide may have reached the conclusion that many Americans are like Bush. (Some are, but not 'many'.) Orchid said she used the word 'patriot' as shorthand for 'loves one's country', but I do think there are different connotations. To be honest, if an American told me that he was a 'patriot', *I* would tend to assume he was a mindless jingoistic flag-waver. If he said he 'loved his country', I wouldn't assume it, but I would consider it a real possibility. I'll probably do a post about patriotism in the future; I'll just say here that I'm deeply suspicious of it. I judge my country as I would any country, and the fact that it's where I came from has nothing to do with it. If anything, I'll judge America more harshly, because I have higher expectations of it. It has been great in the past, and could be again.

    Yes, a lot of people in America hang out flags. Orchid and I differ on how many do it from a mature and profound love of country (for what I would consider the right reasons) and how many do it because they believe their country's shit doesn't stink. (Excuse the vulgarity, but some phrases are just right for what one wants to say.)

    >Isn't it the American Republican party that tried to push the "if you're patriotic you should support the war in Iraq" thing and so forth?

    Yep. Though, to be fair, any country in history that went to war has asserted more or less the same thing. The Republicans just do it especially shamelessly, mostly as a way to attack anti-war Democrats.

    >I just wondered ... is that because they can get away with it in the US? While reading Semprini's post, and then yours, I just can't help but feel that the biased partisan approach in the USA is exaggerated - like so much else?! - because all the various parties aren't held to account.

    Yes, I think that's true. Again, I don't know to what extent it happens in other countries, how well their media holds them accountable. But yes, and it's to a great extent the false equivalence embraced by the media that enable this sort of thing. Under false equivalence, holding people to account isn't done fairly or correctly, and oftentimes isn't done at all.

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  7. Oops, forgot one thing...

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    So, they've made a strategic decision to oppose him at every turn.
    <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

    >That's simply horrible. They've given up all pretence of helping to run the country, of legislating for progress, of allowing the nation to prosper and grow ... just so they can get back in power at a later date. *am very angry*

    I hadn't noticed it until now, but I just realized that this strategy has a strong similarity to something I wrote in Ring of Reduction. Undersecretary Trent decides to oppose Harry and Hermione's going into the Ring for no other reason that he stands to benefit from his decision if they die, and wizarding society is threatened by the return of Voldemort. Both have the similar aspect of the politicians realizing that they can benefit more by the opponent's failure even if society should be rooting for their success, so the politician sets himself up to benefit should that happen. If Obama succeeds, the downside is small--the Republicans are already out of power--but the upside is big if he fails. Same with Harry and Trent. I suspect politicians have been doing this for as long as there's been politics.

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  8. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Undersecretary Trent decides to oppose Harry and Hermione's going into the Ring for no other reason that he stands to benefit from his decision if they die, and wizarding society is threatened by the return of Voldemort.
    <<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

    Yes, that was just the same as the real-life scenario you've been describing. And I feel just as disgusted. :-(

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