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Charlottesville and the Dangers of False Equivalence

By Meredith McFadden
21 Aug 2017

On August 12, white supremacist groups converged in Charlottesville, Virginia, and became violent, causing the death of a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 others. Groups called out Nazi slogans and yelled, “Jews shall not replace us!” The racially charged intolerance was clear even before the violence started.

In response to the hate crimes, President Trump has repeatedly stated that the aggression was present on “many sides” that day, and claimed that there are “fine people” on the side of the violent white supremacist groups that day. Language like this creates the appearance of a sort of equivalence between sides of a debate or issue – because both you and your opponent share a quality, we would be wrong to admonish one side but not the other.

In the case of the sides of the events in Charlottesville, it is clear to most that such an equivalence is false. False equivalence is an informal fallacy, and by relying so heavily on it in discourse of social justice, Trump makes collective progress more difficult.

Fallacies are mistakes in reasoning, and can be formal or informal. A formal fallacy is a mistake in the form, or structure, of your reasoning itself. This means it doesn’t matter what you are thinking or reasoning about, if you try to draw a conclusion of a particular kind from a particular sort of evidence, you will go awry (or only end up having a true conclusion out of luck, not good thinking).

For example, if you know that, “if the shape is a square, then it is a rectangle,” and you came to learn that “the shape is a rectangle,” you aren’t justified in concluding “the shape is a square!” Consider – it could be a mere rhombus or kite. We can see this is a formal fallacy, because we can insert any claims into the structure here. With the belief “If P, then Q,” when you learn “Q,” you are not entitled to believe “P.” To assume “P” is true is to commit a formal fallacy – you simply don’t have enough information. When someone makes a formal mistake in reasoning, it is more straightforward than informal mistakes.

Informal fallacies aren’t bad reasoning just because of the form of the reason. In other words, the form of reasoning isn’t enough to make the thinking reliable, we couldn’t replace the content with variables to show you what to avoid.  Informal fallacies are ways of reasoning that we tend to take to be good, but that often lead us astray, so you have to make sure the context supports the conclusions you are drawing.

A famous example of an informal fallacy is the “slippery slope” argument. Slippery slope arguments claim that if you accept one thing, it will lead you (down a slippery slope!) to an unacceptable result. For example, I could claim that if you accept raising taxes by .1%, you’ll end up accepting raising taxes by five percent. This is an informal fallacy, because the shape of the reasoning itself – that if you accept one thing, you’ll be bound to accept a more extreme version of it – isn’t necessarily flawed, it will depend on the circumstances or context. So though we tend to think it’s good reasoning, it isn’t reliable unless the context supports it. The fallacy of false equivalences is similar to the slippery slope fallacy in that, sure, sometimes things are equivalent, but you need to establish this is the case, as it will depend on the circumstances or context.

In social contexts, drawing on false equivalences has real consequences. Because claims like “violence is wrong,” and, “we should be tolerant of opinions different than ours,” are intuitive, if multiple groups violate such standards, they can seem to be on a par. We can evaluate people or events on the basis of some roughly articulated or intuitive value and find them to be equivalent. If violence is wrong, it can be intuitive that all violence is bad, so everyone who commits acts of violence is wrong or bad. If this seems too simplistic, then you have the hang of the flaw underlying false equivalence.

A famous example from William F. Buckley highlights the importance of context to our moral evaluations. To ignore context is like “saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around.” In this example, we could identify “pushing old ladies around” as the relevant thing for our moral evaluation, but we are missing crucial nuances in the context. If someone claims the two cases to be morally equivalent, we need to engage them in a discussion about what is important. Whether the lady is pushed into the path of a blue or red bus isn’t morally relevant, but whether the lady is pushed into or out of the path of a bus definitely is.

This is why it is so important with informal reasoning to establish the appropriate context for the discourse. The relevance shifts depending on the circumstances of the claim and this often undermines the appearance of equivalence. If a king and a pauper in a novel both tried to gain more money or power, we’d likely evaluate their traits differently, for instance. When someone who holds the majority of social and political capital makes moves to defend and establish power, essentially communicating “I want power,” this has different communicative effects than someone who has historically lacked such social and political capital.

Trump has made multiple statements equating the morality of the behavior on either side of the violence on Saturday. People have taken to social media to illustrate the fallacy latent in Trump’s statements. For example, on Twitter, Elan Gale wrote, “Sure, the cancer was aggressive. But the chemotherapy was also very aggressive. There was aggression on both sides,” and Rafael Casal wrote, “The Ghostbusters sound like a hate group. It’s possible they provoked the ghosts. I think blame on both sides.”  Images of Allied soldiers engaging in warfare against Nazis have flooded social media as examples of aggressive behavior.

By pointing to the fact that there was aggression on both sides, the writers attempt (here for satire) to elicit the same moral evaluation of both sides. This suggests that aggression is the only relevant moral value in these cases. Thus, this is an informal fallacy, because it is possible that aggression could be the relevant moral value. With the string of absurdist counterexamples, individuals put pressure on such a notion – clearly there are other factors besides aggression that should affect the moral evaluation of the parties. And, more clearly, these other factors point to a drastic moral imbalance between the two sides – they are not morally equivalent.

Identifying morally relevant differences can be difficult, and ethical theories diverge on the kinds of factors to look to for identifying morally relevant features: intent, consequences, character, etc. It doesn’t take abstract theorizing to see a morally relevant distinction between the groups in question here, though. The ideology of the protesters calls for the elimination of people that don’t fit their picture of themselves, and they showed up advocating for their beliefs with arms and violence. The counter-protesters’ ideology, aims, and behavior defend the rights of citizens to exist. There are clear differences here, and to elide them is to illicitly claim they are not morally relevant.

Because the flaw in the reasoning here is informal, to bring the fallacy to light we need to establish the relevant frame or context for the discussion. In other words, in this case we need to establish the relevant moral values for evaluating the sides. This can be difficult when the major claims on the table make use of intuitive premises in the fallacious reasoning like, “we should avoid aggression,” and, “we should respect one another’s speech.” In order to move forward out of such fallacies, often concessions and nuances are required, like “yes, BUT”, or, “in certain circumstances, but which ones?”

In healthy moral discourse, recognizing such a fallacy and moving forward could deepen our collective moral understanding and introduce nuance and complexity to our understanding of our values and the positions that different members of our society are finding themselves in. However, we have reason to doubt that Trump’s dialectic is conducive to such development. Analysis in The Washington Post suggests that, “false moral equivalency is not a bug of Trumpism. It’s a feature.” Tracing the tendency to blame both sides as a strategy for exoneration, the false equivalence fallacy that Trump continuously relies on is troubling for a further reason.

Not only is engaging in this fallacious reasoning false and repugnant, it further muddies the water of social justice discourse by blurring the relevant context of shared values and shared reality. The president calling out “fake news” while himself producing a fair amount, has fed into the trend towards doubting objectivity. Emphasizing some quality that all sides of a contentious debate share, as if it were the one of sole relevance, is refusing to do the work of attending to the relevant distinctions between sides. It is refusing to treat moral differences as real, or denying a moral reality in the same way Trump has helped to undermine faith in objective reality.

Since the events in Charlottesville, articles have attempted to draw distinctions between the groups that Trump has painted with the same brush. The New York Times developed a glossary of terms and groups, including a debunking of the existence of a group on the left that Trump deemed to be morally equivalent to the terrorist right. The Atlantic published an article delineating what Trump gets wrong about the anti-fascist group, and further articles try to re-establish the distinctions and relevant factors that will allow public discourse about tolerance and impermissibility to go forward productively after the president’s statement framed the issue in such a destructive and deliberately misleading way.

Meredith is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Riverside, with a research focus in Philosophy of Action and Practical Reasoning and continues to explore the relationship between reason and value. Her current research consists of investigating modes of agential endorsement: how an agent's understanding of what is good, what is reasonable, what she desires, and who she is, informs what she does. Meredith is also committed to public philosophy and applied ethics; in particular, she is invested in illuminating debates in biomedical ethics, ethics of technology, and philosophy of law. Her website can be found at: https://mermcfadden.wixsite.com/philosopher.
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