August 20, 2017

False Equivalence or Not

equals sign
I've seen quite a few people complaining about "false equivalency" related to President Donald Trump's troubling references to "many sides" following the alleged murder in Charlottesville, VA. Accusations of false equivalence are nothing new and can be found in many contexts. In a surprising number of cases, these accusations are also misplaced. In fact, I have come to suspect that many people who take to the Internet to angrily accuse others of false equivalence aren't entirely sure what equivalence means. I aim to help them in this post.

When we say that two things are equivalent, we are saying that they are the same (i.e., equal). If President Trump were to assert that the counter-protesters in Charlottesville were every bit as bad, every bit as violent, and/or every bit as responsible as the far-right protesters, he could rightly be accused of false equivalence. After all, he would be equating the groups on at least one of these dimensions. On the other hand, if he were to suggest that the far-right protesters were worse, more violent, and more responsible, he could still claim that the counter-protesters were also bad, violent, or responsible. Both of these claims could be true (though I do not happen to believe that they are both true), and this would not be a false equivalency because he would be making no claim that the two groups were equivalent. Both groups would be bad in some ways, but one would be worse.

I cannot read President Trump's mind, so all I have to go on are the bizarre series of contradictory statements he has issued since Charlottesville. From those I have heard, my best guess is that he might not believe the far-right protesters and far-left counter-protesters are equally responsible, but he appears to place far more blame on the counter-protesters than I think is justified. Thus, I don't necessarily see him as being guilty of false equivalency; I see him as being tragically mistaken. Of course, he might believe that the two groups are equally responsible, and that would make him guilty of false equivalency.

Here's another example that may be even more familiar to even more atheists. I believe that all organized religions are false and at least potentially destructive. At the same time, I believe that some religions are worse than others, especially when it comes to their destructive potential and the degree to which that potential is currently being actualized. For example, I consider Islam to be more destructive today than Christianity even though I still consider Christianity to be destructive. It should be clear to most rational adults that this is not a false equivalency. I am saying that one is worse and that both are bad. Not only does that involve no claim that the two are equivalent, but it explicitly refutes such a claim by including the assertion that one is worse.

Perhaps some people do not understand what "equivalent" and "equivalency" mean. That makes me feel hopeful because this lack of understanding can be corrected through education. But there is at least one other possibility that leads me away from optimism - the possibility that these accusations are little more than an expression of Internet outrage not unlike name-calling. We've all seen cases where someone resorts to name-calling when his or her argument falls apart, and unwarranted accusations of false equivalence may be similar. I'm not sure this can be corrected. At least, I'm not optimistic that education can correct it.

The take-home message is simple. When you are tempted to yell "false equivalency" at someone, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether this accusation applies here. Is the other party really claiming that two distinct groups are the same? If the claim is that they are similar in some ways but meaningfully different in others, this is not false equivalence. If the claim is that both are bad, inquire as to whether he or she believes that both are equally bad if that is not clear. Unless that is what is being claimed, this is not false equivalence.

Finally, recognize that most freethinkers value nuance. We live in a complicated world, and we do ourselves no favors by over-simplifying it. Two religions can be morally flawed without being morally flawed in the same ways and to the same degree. Two political parties or two political candidates can be detrimental to a country without being equally detrimental. Two groups of people can be misguided and destructive without being equally so. And suggesting that calls to violence by one group are unacceptable does not mean that one is equating this group to a much worse group.