The Limits of the “Both Sides Are Bad” Argument

This piece originally appeared in the KY Standard.

For the last 18 years, I’ve studied conflict. The types of conflagrations most Americans know little about, but nonetheless are familiar with—the Balkans, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Syria, etc.

Within the context of conflict, I’ve tried to parse out the definition of objectivity.

It is here where many make the intellectually lazy and morally absolving mistake of the “both sides” argument. The logic goes thusly: both sides are bad, therefore either outcome is equally bad, affecting us the same, thus picking sides is futile.

But, this logic is a deficient attempt at absolving those involved of responsibility. If they refuse to take a side (because both sides are bad), the opinion holder believes they are no longer culpable for the outcome. They can and likely will, however, take the credit for predicting the inevitable failures.

In politics, saying all candidates are flawed is much like saying the sky is blue. We know both to be true…most of the time.

We spent much of 2016 debating the merits of two candidates for the highest office. The public and the media sullied themselves by embracing false equivalency and “both sides are bad” arguments. On one side, one candidate ran on a platform that attacked nearly every racial and religious minority, along with bragging about sexually assaulting women and denigrating the LGBTQ community. The other side had utilized a private email account to conduct government business—a common practice among senior level officials (including the current White House). One side had suspicious ties with foreign entities. Meanwhile, the other side was accused of being an establishment politician.

Objectivity would mean reporting these issues in a fair manner. Equating them, forcing them into the “all sides are bad” argument, meaning each negative is thusly equivalent, is not being objective. It’s like suggesting that the “n-word” is equivalent to the term “cracker.” While some may consider both offensive, for obvious reasons, we all know one is clearly worse than the other.

The 2016 Presidential Election Campaign reminded me of a statement Christiane Amanpour made at an event I attended in late 2011. Amanpour was relaying her experience reporting on the Balkans conflict in the early 90s. As a reporter, she had to be objective and prided herself on maintaining her reputation for being just that. But, she said, what happens in situations where giving both sides equal time, equal shares, equal coverage, one side still comes out looking bad? She paused. Then concluded, if in your efforts to be truly objective, one side is clearly to blame or has been more egregious than the other, then your report isn’t biased. It is the objective truth.

In an article sixteen years prior, she drew the same conclusion, “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”

The Serbians complained her reporting was unfair. But, I’m not sure if the Bosnians or Croats can top the shelling of busy marketplaces or brutality murdering thousands of unarmed civilians at Srebrenica. Surely, there were violations on both side, but when push comes to shove not all violations are created equal.

Calling both sides bad during the 2016 Presidential Race drew false equivalencies between the candidates. One side was worse than the other and our unwillingness to parse the differences and engage and exercise our intellect brought us to where we are today.

The country is worse off because good Americans refused to take a stand. Instead they chose the moral convenience of suggesting both side were bad, clearing the way for racism, bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia and sexism to be allowed back into the mainstream.

All for what? A few extra dollars back in tax returns? To keep immigrants out? To shake up the system? To drain the swamp? To keep a liberal from running the White House for another 4 years? To fill the courts with partial and unqualified conservative jurists? Or simply because conservatives couldn’t fathom casting a ballot for someone from the other party?

None of these things were worth risking our beacon on the hill, unless of course your vision for this country is exactly the one described two paragraphs above.

Our country deserves better.

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