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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Trumpism Brings Fear to My Doorstep

As Donald J. Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for president, his candidacy is already having a frightening impact on the people I love the most. For the first time in my life, I hear real fear in the voices of my parents. Caused in part by Trump’s tropes about Muslims in reaction to horrific terrorist attacks, the 2016 presidential election has caused them a great deal of concern.

“Of all these years I’ve been in the US, I’m not sure I’ve been as scared as I am today,” my father admitted during one of our many phone conversations.

For what it’s worth, he’s been here for over 50 years, coming from Iran to learn English and falling in love with the country. My father lived through the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, the Iranian Revolution’s hostage crisis, and 9-11.

I was shocked by his admission. Normally positive and upbeat, he seemed almost mournful at the uptick in vitriol and hate speech. The country that had given him so much hope is beginning to scare the daylights out of him. Most of our conversations since then focus on the fear and apprehension he feels.

My mother, for her part, tries to stay positive and steer clear of the political minefield. But when she does talk about the current state of affairs, she can’t hide her feelings.

“I just don’t want to have those conversations with people,” she told me recently. She’d rather stay home and read books than have to engage Trump supporters.

It’s not just those interactions that she’s worried about. Anytime she hears Trump and his followers spewing their Islamophobic hatred, her thoughts immediately turn to my siblings and me. Pandora’s Box has been opened, she worries. Even if Trump loses, the tension and vitriol will continue.

My own actions, my father pointed out to me when I recently visited my hometown in Kentucky, had even contributed to his sense of apprehension.

“If you think by speaking out against the racism, Islamophobia, hate speech, you are making me feel safer, you aren’t,” he told me matter of factly.

It was a jarring indictment of my own attempts at advocacy. I was forced to reevaluate my approach to the rising tide of Islamophobia throughout the country, within my hometown and even within my friend group.

How am I supposed to open their eyes to what their Islamophobia means? How do I show them that their racist, bigoted, hate speech is both unacceptable and dangerous? How do I show them that their conveniently held beliefs that Muslims should be banned, placed under extra surveillance, have their patriotism questioned, targeted for violence, etc. directly affect their own friends—people with whom they’ve broken bread, played soccer, shared life altering experiences? How can I uncompromisingly walk them back from their position of exclusion? How can I make my parents feel safe again?

Fear, we can reason, is a natural response to extreme discomfort. My father’s fear stems from the realization that those he’s spent a lifetime teaching the finer points of advanced mathematical computations will be unforgiving in their own calculations deciding that he and his children are in fact the enemy.

My mother’s fear is much the same. The people she built bonds with through various professional and social avenues could very easily turn their backs on her simply because her former husband is Muslim and her children are half-Iranian. Those same people could then also target her children and grandchildren.

The embrace of Islamophobia by some of my friends, some of my father’s former students, some of my mother’s acquaintances, is aided, in part, by demagoguery on the right, which has a long history of invective and innuendo that Muslims and Islam as a culture (as if a monolithic Islamic culture exists) are America’s greatest threat. Their conclusions, however, disregard the many contributions Muslims–and Islam, for that matter–have made to our country. And they ignore the positive impact my father has had on our community.

My father, always the philosopher, channeled the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, when he said, “Every time we reason, our conclusion is a function of the information we have.”

Some of us have nearly unfettered access to information and interactions with other cultures; most do not. But no single person has all the information, all the time. Additionally, information can be denied through subterfuge, which is both internal (a stubborn refusal to seek alternate sources of information) or external (politicians using invective to push constituents in a certain direction).

Our last conversation on my visit home was steered in part by my father’s daily reading of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. That day’s passage, among other things, discussed the labyrinth of information, which is constrained by both our own willful exclusion of facts and the purposeful exclusion of facts by others. This is the vector through which propaganda enters, leaving us with a sense that we’ve made up our own minds when we haven’t.

If the rise in Islamophobia—and racial tensions, overall—is more a function of access to diverse sources of information than innate bias, it would indicate that bombarding Islamophobes with information would be sufficient to make them walk back from their irrational positions. But some people, as columnist Ross Douthat recently pointed out, view openness (or cosmopolitanism) as yet another mechanism by which elites can rule the land, excluding the world views of those skeptical of inclusionary politics. Thus, they decide exclusion is the antidote to the corrupting power of the elite.

If that is true, how do we bring the Islamophobes in from the cold? How do we convince them that inclusion is far more agreeable and more effective in preventing terrorism than exclusion? How can we open their eyes to the fact that we, as the United States, are supposed to be the beacon of hope rising above the morass of despair in so many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East? How can we show them their position plays into the hands of our enemies? How can I do this without making my family any less safe than they already are?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is the more I push, explain, attempt to engage, and even lose my cool at times, the less traction I seem to get and the more apprehensive and afraid my family becomes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I go home, I choose not to spend too much time in public. To be honest, I’m fearful too. The myopia of many running rampant in my beloved hometown (and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for that matter) is a far cry from the welcoming cosmopolitan spirit that embraced my parents when they moved there in 1973.