The Truth About False Equivalence

Of all the errors that reporters and voters make in political communications, the most prevalent and dangerous may well be the error of false equivalence.

False equivalence – also recently described in a terrific Washington Post piece as “the symmetry of sin” — works like this: Candidate A has made an error. Candidate B has made an error. With little or no exploration or thought, the errors are judged to be equally egregious, and therefore the candidates are equally damned.

The problem is the errors committed by Candidate’s A and B are almost never equally egregious. The errors are only treated as equal because reporters and voters are too lazy, uninformed, dim and/or self-righteous to form and express an opinion about which error is more significant.

What types of errors am I talking about?

 Candidate A votes with a particular interest group 5% of the time. Candidate B votes with the same interest group 90% of the time. Therefore, a judgment is made that “they both vote with that interest group, and are therefore equally bad.”

 Candidate A makes an argument that is correct at it’s core, but contains a relatively small technical error. Candidate B makes an argument that is at its core is completely, knowingly and demonstrably false. A judgment is made that “they both are liars and equally untrustworthy.”

 Candidate A has been fighting for Issue Z as part of a political institution. Candidate B has been fighting against Issue Z as part of the same political institution. Therefore, a judgment is made “that the candidates are equally blameworthy because they are part of the institution that failed to enact Issue Z.”

By the way, I’m stating these as abstruse hypotheticals in a probably futile attempt to focus on the method of reasoning, and not get bogged down on the factual basis of particular debates.

As a frequent practitioner of false equivalency, I can tell you it feels darn good. It makes us feel wise, noble, and above the fray. It makes us feel more mature and measured than the people with those messy opinions. It makes reporters feel “balanced.” It liberates us from the brain cramps and pulled Googling muscles associated with digging below the surface rhetoric.

But the error of false equivalence may be the most dangerous phenomena facing our democracy, because it frees us from the burden of thought, robbing democracy of its most essential fuel.

- Loveland

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7 Responses

  1. Joe, right on the money. Absolutely.

    And thanks for highlighting the reality that we are ultimately to blame, for allowing it to happen, ignoring it when we see it, and feeling smug as we use it.

    May we crosspost at http://betterdiscourse.wordpress.com ?

  2. This is the heart of why many people don’t trust politicians and are frustrated by the political process. The truth doesn’t matter. The spin matters. The party you prefer winning is what matters. Getting an advantage over anyone seen as the “other side” matters. For the media, it’s getting the biggest “gotcha” faster than any other media. The people, the country, the truth or the greater good is irrelevant to the way this process happens.

    And, people wonder why Congress has such a low approval rating. Politicians use 5% fact and 95% spin in every statement they make. Then the media goes with the most sensation sentence fragment possible and makes it the entire speech. The average person have to dig through a mountain of spin and positioning to get to the real facts on relevant issues. It’s a lot of work and far more work than most people have time for or interest in digging.

  3. A week or so ago, I heard an MS/NBC reporter explain a bit about the phenomenon Max describes above. It was after that discussion about service on Sept. 11, in which McCain had about 45 minutes to speak with the two interviewers and then left the stage for Obama to take his 45 minutes.

    The reporter explained that it was good for that level-headed, thoughtful, deep discussion to take place and be visible on a national scale in prime time. We (campaign-following reporters) see more of this just about every day during events on the campaign trail, especially the smaller events.

    Unfortunately, she continued, major news stories and hour-to-hour cable news coverage are filled up with stories of bickering over lipstick and pigs and BS arguments over whether military service or community organizing is being honored or disrespected. She said this as if she’s just stating a simple matter of fact, a universal truth about which she and her colleagues were rendered helpless.

    I almost vomited.

  4. Would love to have seen the 9/11 coverage. Unfortunately, I didn’t Tivo that…assuming somebody aired it. Probably would have been the best coverage of the 2 candidates and the most real look at both of them this year.

  5. My point: When we say “all of those politicians are all the same and they all suck,” that’s a gigantic cop out. Saying that makes us feel like superior beings, but it’s corrosive. Our job as voters is to dig in enough to be able to say at the end of the day “that politician is better the other ones, so I’m for her.”

    Comedian George Carlin had some profound words on this point. ““You may have noticed that there’s one thing I don’t complain about: Politicians. Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says, “They suck”. But where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. No, they come from American homes, American families, American schools, American churches, American businesses, and they’re elected by American voters. This is the best we can do, folks.”

  6. Yup. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

  7. […] Too often, conversations too often dead-end when conflict averse friends make assertions of false equivalence, or what has been termed “Fake Equivalence Conflict Ending Strategies […]

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