Bothsidesism undermines truth and civil discourse.
We need to take a moment to acknowledge the strangest reality of our lifetimes. White supremacists somehow went through a successful rebranding effort like they’re Reebok or Wal-Mart. And we watched it happen in real time. White supremacists and honest to goodness Nazis cast themselves as a new kind of right wing under the clever name Alt-Right. Which to many of us was deeply insulting. Not just because they’re Nazis, but because alt- things are cool. Alt-country still sounds revolutionary.
And that’s the genius of the rebrand. It gets us away from what it is. It makes people like me think of Uncle Tupelo rather than Uncle Adolph.
At a time when white supremacists figured out that rebranding themselves would boost their credibility, we need to face the hard questions this raises about our world views. Truth, and respect for truth, is now most necessary. Because the way we cast our political landscape right now will not stop Nazis.
Because the biggest culprit in leaving us stuck in our present debates is bothsidesism.
What’s the problem?
It sure seems like the right thing to do. Here, in the heat of the moment, locked in debate. We can’t see a way forward.
- Maybe you’re tired of hearing your friend spout off about the latest controversy the other side is up to.
- Or maybe you see how people have similar ideas and attitudes in the most basic sorts of ways.
You think the time is right (at least that’s what you tell yourself). It’s really that you can’t stand it anymore, and you just throw it out there.
It’s both sides!
You didn’t mean to shout it, you intended to stay composed, but it really leapt out on it’s own.
That’s how I’ve seen it in polite company.
I’ve also heard it from well-intentioned people in halls and journalists in newspapers. At a time when we want a scapegoat, the easiest alternative is to blame everyone.
“Both sides do it,”
This impulse isn’t innocent or natural. It’s a strategy of reorienting the conversation. Let’s call it bothsidesism.
What is Bothsidesism?
To understand bothsidesism, we should look at its spiritual cousin, whataboutism.
Whataboutism is an old Soviet propaganda technique to deflect conversation and discredit its opponents. So pervasive and effective, the technique seems to be a big part of the Russian identity. But the most effective part about whataboutism is that it seems so innocent. Like there’s really nothing to it. We’re just having a friendly conversation.
Like when the U.S. tries to speak about human rights and the Soviets would say
what about your slavery?
It seems like an innocent and natural question, but it isn’t. It’s a deflection and distortion. Right now, we’re talking about your human rights abuses in the present, not our past. The two things aren’t equal or relevant. But somehow, now, they seem that way. Suddenly we’re debating slavery and American hypocrisy rather than the presenting issue: the murder of dissidents / invasion of Crimea / whatever human rights atrocity we’re concerned with.
The most important part of whataboutism is that this seemingly reasonable question shifts the burden from the guilty to the accuser. It shifts the conversation from its most important place to ground more friendly to the defense. It only seems reasonable. But it’s intellectually dishonest because it’s purpose is distraction: it isn’t intending to solve two problems, but to instead avoid punishing the presenting problem.
We came to punish one and now there are two and neither will be dealt with. It’s the quintessential red herring.
Bothsidesism works the same way.
It’s an intentional tactic to disorient dialogue and recast the conversation in a new way. It’s goal is primarily to seek balance after a perceived imbalance has occurred.
People don’t appeal to “both sides” when things are actually equal. When everyone can look at a thing and see that Yep! They both do it! The appeal comes only when equality is not readily apparent. They want us to see it that way.
Of course, there are reasonable ways all people are alike or anyone given a situation is likely to behave. But such appeals aren’t what we’re actually talking about. We aren’t talking about “everybody poops” and “both sides want their party to win.” These statements are fundamentally meaningless.
What is not meaningless is speaking to demonstrable differences and differences in degree.
If I’m president of the United States and got $5 from you and $20,000 from your buddy, which one gets my attention? To suggest that, since I received money from both sides, it’s all the same is asinine. While it’s true that I did receive from both, this statement of equality is meaningless because its effect will not demonstrate equality. One of you will get a personal meeting with me and the other a letter with a photoshopped signature from my secretary.
At a time in which wrestling with the truth is this essential to the future of our democracy, we can’t succumb to bothsidesism.
Bothsidesism and Nazis
Seeing Nazis marching on the campus of the University of Virginia was chilling. But it’s most important that we actually acknowledge that these people are not representative of Conservatism. Not that they aren’t conservative in ideology, they are. But their primary affiliation is not the Conservative movement or the Republican Party.
They wore Nazi and Neo-Nazi symbols and chanted Nazi chants. They came as Nazis. And they came to create terror. They came to Charlottesville armed. And they attacked unarmed protestors.
So we toss these moments into the usual funnels, which filter them out into our two boxes: Left and Right. But this filtering is ill-equipped to handle a moment like this. Particularly because it exposes how ungrounded in reality that filter is and always has been. These individuals aren’t representative of conservatism, but they do want to be seen that way. And they want to turn conservatism toward white supremacy.
This, in itself undermines the Left/Right sorting machine which is so dependent on a static understanding of liberalism and conservatism. An understanding that those on the Left believe A, B, and C while those on the Right believe Z, Y, and X. This understanding doesn’t make room for the differences in the system or the nuances between the actors.
So the sorting machine is already broken. But many of us can’t let it go. We need to whatabout and bothsides the situation to distract from who came to start a riot. Or we don’t want to think about it, so we kick dirt on the drawing or flip over the table on our game and say “everybody sucks” because we’re afraid of naming imbalance. It has to be equal. It just has too.
So we go looking for Nazis on the Left.
If it exists on the one side, it must be represented on the other. But we can’t find any.
We can find radically different groups. Groups with which we don’t agree, perhaps. And maybe we’re just as afraid of them. But that doesn’t make them equal.
Black Lives Matter isn’t a terrorist organization. They aren’t Nazis. And the Left aren’t “the real fascists.”
It’s as if we desire this mirror, that both sides are identical. For so many, this is such a fundamental truth that the world would fall apart if they had to admit that one group is more polarized than the other. Or that there isn’t a Nazi-equivalent on the Left, equal in severity and evil.
Similar is the horseshoe hypothesis, which has the Left and Right fixed system, only it bends it around so that the fringes look more alike than they do the centers of their parties. This is based on the same mirror image, and the same preoccupation with balance.
But it isn’t balanced.
Hate and Love
I’m reluctant to build a new paradigm to make us feel better. I don’t want to explain away imbalance to settle our minds into a sense of order. But if we must, it is far easier for me to see, not mirrors and equal sides, but inverse reflections.
- One group invites us to recognize that our minorities don’t get an equal voice while a second group seeks to prioritize white voices.
- Another group protects the freedom of speech for all people while this other group seeks to suppress the speech of people they don’t like.
- One group wants to restore a more accurate view of history and another wants to maintain a whitewashed fiction known as the Lost Cause.
If we’re going to insist that these groups represent bothsides and equal responsibility, then we have to recognize they aren’t the same.
And this is why bothsidesism is so deadly to democracy.
Because it doesn’t allow us to name difference, articulate severity, or encourage a broad understanding of our present conversation or our history. It prevents us from seeing the whole story while distracting us with false equivalence.
While we’re busy trying to explain why a coalition founded in love and respect for all people isn’t a hate group and isn’t anything like the white supremacists who sought to start a race riot, our attention is drawn away from the problem. And it’s drawn away from it in hopes that we can go back to our easy Left/Right sorting machine, tossing every new event into its respective boxes, always coming up with equal numbers in each.
And when we do, we create a false view of the world. A world always at balance, always in equal fault. So we never have to call our own people out. Just so we’re not biased. That one side’s hate must be reflected by the other’s (never another’s) hate.
We seem so unwilling to see how the champions of love offer a different way. One which is never balanced by dualism. Nor as centrism, which still relies on the Left/Right sorting machine. But as a genuine alternative. Something we can never see when we silence each other with bothsidesism.