There has been an interesting (albeit, predictable) reaction to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s recent rally: A lot of people accusing the Rally of creating a ‘false equivalency‘ between the two opposing sides of the political spectrum. Never mind that the Rally’s point was to shed light on the frequent false equivalencies spouted by ‘the news’ all the time, like comparing Health Care Reform to Hitler’s actions, or seeing Nazism in the Tea Party protests (that Hitler sure gets around these days).
The chief complaint from the Left is clearly rooted in feelings of betrayal. Jon Stewart is supposed to be the comedic voice of leftist reason, not just general reason. How dare he hold an apolitical rally that focuses on the alarmist media instead of the issues, those very alarming issues. Of course, Jon Stewart has a show 4 nights a week on which he regularly makes his political leanings clear and is never afraid to argue his point of view with guests, but that isn’t enough. He’s either with us or against us.
Pointing out false equivalency is exactly what the media should be doing. Their aim on this one is just off the mark.
Shades of Gray
In the news cycle, one of the easiest ways for a reporter or journalist to get across a point is to use shorthand. Talking about the intricate details of the Health Care Reform bill would be far too complex for a 2 column article or a 5 minute news segment (or a blog entry), so major points get boiled down to bullet points and slogans. This wouldn’t be so bad if the readers and viewers were then going on to research the topic on their own to flush out the details further. But, that’s not what happens. Newspapers and 24 hour news channels exist specifically so that the general consumer does not have to investigate on their own.
The result of these simplifications is that bullet points become the details and slogans are substituted for nuanced opinions. The shades of gray get divided into black or white. When two point of views are stripped of all of their details and nuance, it’s easy to make the debate a simple left vs right, blue vs red debate when in fact, one or both sides may be far more complex than the debate makes them appear.
Take the issue of Abortion. An incredibly complex and emotional topic has been reduced to Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice. If you’re just to look at those two terms, the debate is about whether or not something should have the right to live versus another person’s right to live autonomously. Now, that is a facet of the debate, but as the ongoing ferocity of the debate should make obvious, it’s not that simple. There are shades in this debate (it’s not just a life vs death argument, or an individual freedom vs government control debate), and the simplification of both sides of the debate has made the issue almost a parody of itself.
What inevitably happens when complex issues are watered down is that the ability of the two opposing sides to reach any middle ground is lost. Accepting that the line between yourself and your opponent isn’t so wide is tantamount to admitting defeat. A huge chasm is created, separated by ferocious acrimony. Wherever these chasms exist, there will be people willing to stand in the middle. They fashion themselves some type of Switzerland.
Being neutral in these matters is seen as some kind of sign of wisdom. Not engaging in an argument that appears to be unresolvable certainly does seem the wiser course of action, and you’ll never lose any friends for it. I’ve had plenty of friends over the years shake their heads at my tendency to engage in intractable debates that will almost always end up with neither party having changed their mind (at least, from all appearances). I’ve done it with my siblings, with my friends, with lovers and strangers, in person and online. All these Swiss-types sit back and smile knowingly at ol’ Joseph, at it again.
Do you know what I think? I think those people are cowards.
Maybe you don’t have an opinion on abortion, or Health Care, or immigration, or Free Trade vs Fair Trade, or religious indoctrination or any of a million topics that will lead to butted heads. That is fine. I don’t expect everyone to care about every issue. There are issues that I don’t care much about that I will never debate, and I’m okay with that.
But do you know what else I’ll never do? I’ll never step in the middle of two people debating the topic and say, “You’re both wrong.” If I don’t know anything about a subject, I’m going to do the right thing and shut the hell up. (I might speak up on a topic I think I know something about and then find out abruptly that I actually don’t know shit… hopefully then I’ll have enough common sense to back out).
Facebook and internet discussion boards have bred an especially annoying type of troll: The holier-than-though, “I’m neutral on this subject, so my indifference proves I really know more than anyone” troll. In that recent online debate I was engaged in on the subject of abortion, a random person actually interrupted the back and forth to comment, “You’re both wrong.” That’s supposed to be deep?
Granted, if the two of us debaters had been screaming at each other based on nothing more than the stereotypes of a Pro-Lifer and Pro-Choicer, the interloper might have had a point. As it was, though, I was trying to break through the Black-and-White facade to get to the varied shades beneath. There is a certain class of person who feels that any heated debate must obviously mean that both sides are equally fanatical and wrong. This was what Jon Stewart was falsely accused of being.
Quite the contrary, though, two people can rabidly argue a topic without both of them being crazy. The debate over Evolution vs Creationism is a matter of facts versus unsupported beliefs. It’s easy for a disinterested party to stand back and throw stones at two people fiercely arguing this matter, but even the most rational, logical person can be driven to extreme emotion by another person’s obstinate ignorance. Granted, a person should know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, but if we all stand by and casually allow every individual person to believe whatever they want, despite reality, the world will fall apart.
Relativism is the feeblest stance any person can take, and I don’t care if that’s in the topics of politics, ethics or pizza toppings. There might genuinely be a place where two opposing views are equally valid, but there must be a logical explanation for that. Saying, “Eh, everyone is right and everyone is wrong,” is the antithesis of wisdom.
You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Blog Is About You
I know tons of people who pride themselves on being evenhanded, neutral people. I have friends who won’t engage in a debate, on anything. Boring. Get engaged with the world.
It’s not always about Politics or Ethics. There will inevitably be points in your life where you have to choose a side. Between friends or parents, between colleagues or classmates. It might seem like the most selfless act would be to not get involved, to avoid getting in the middle of it. But it’s self-interest that motivates you, a desire to avoid having to actually take a stand and use your judgment.
Take for instance that familiar quagmire: Being the mutual friend between a couple that has split up. We want to try to be as neutral as possible because as with any break up, there are two sides to the story. But, sometimes, one person in a relationship has done actual wrong while the other person simply got shat on. You’re not being a good friend if you ignore that knowledge. For one, you’re betraying the hurt party, and for another you’re not doing your first duty as a friend: Telling them they’re being a shitty person and that they need to fix it or get lost. You can’t pretend to be a decent person if you ignore indecency in others.
“We should not permit tolerance to degenerate into indifference.”
Lacking bias is absolutely admirable, but there is a difference between being fair and avoiding confrontation. We expect our legal system to be fair, but that doesn’t mean we assume it’ll never produce a verdict. Truth exists.
I can respect a differing opinion, especially if the owner reveals him or herself to be invested in the topic, willing to learn more. But, for those people who would rather be everyone’s friend than take a side, well, I have no respect for you.
Shit down, shut up.
One thought on “Neutrality (or, You’re so vain, you probably think this blog is about you)”
This was all very good. I’ve had a lot of these thoughts. You said, “If we all stand by and casually allow every individual person to believe whatever they want, despite reality, the world will fall apart.” I’ve said before, “We don’t have to tolerate stupidity…” er, something like that. And then, yeah, there is a big difference between tolerance and indifference. Sidenote, I think cultures that are new to democracy also have a hard time differentiating between tolerance and indifference.
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