In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, counter-protests, ensuing riots, and homicide, there has been a good bit of reflection on (a) the fact that white supremacists are so numerous and open, and (b) the current state of political discourse.  The key here is that there’s a strange tension at the heart of these two considerations.  Here it is in rough form: If you’re for well-run public discourse, then you think that there are no in principle limits on what can be discussed.  And when people want to have “uncomfortable” conversations, there’s no reason why they should be shut out.  And all the sides, ideally, should come out of that discussion feeling like they’ve been heard.  Moreover, it’s important to discuss the issues, and leave the personal attacks out. That’s properly run public discourse.  But when the uncomfortable conversation is that of discussing, say, the status of public memorials of Confederate generals, folks representing the “lost cause” don’t feel like they are being heard. And they feel like they get painted nastily from the start.  (But, hey, when you’re arguing for racist stuff, that’ll happen, right? And therein lies the problem.)

To the protests and the riots, it’s possible to say that one side is right, but still behaves badly in the exchange.  And so, starting with the punch a Nazi meme, and now with the antifa movement, I think it’s possible to say:  I am against white supremacy, but I don’t condone violence.  Moreover, I think violence encourages worse behavior from the Nazis. That is the lesson of every escalation, and just war theory makes an excellent distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. So, one can think that one is unjustly fighting a just war.

Enter the folks at Meet the Press this last Sunday.  Rich Lowery of National Review, responding to a question about President Trump’s tweet:

The key is that Trump noted that it’s violence “on many sides.”  People were (a) surprised and disappointed that Trump did not criticize the white supremacists, and (b) taken aback that he, especially after it was clear that a car driven by a white supremacist ran into a group of counter-protester, seemed to also lay blame on the anti-fascists.  Lowery’s take was to invoke something along the lines of the content-procedure distinction:

I do think he, obviously, should’ve specifically denounced the white nationalists. But there are two sides to this now. This country now has a violent fringe on the right and on the left, both of whom, the white nationalists and the so-called anti-fascists who like violence, who thrill to violence, like the attention that comes with it. And this is going to get worse before it gets better.

So, Lowery is making a point about how the discussion is going and is making a point about escalation.  Again, it has to be possible to say that someone is in the right, but pursuing their case wrongly.  Now, the question, of course, is what’s the more important issue – content or procedure.  Joy-Ann Reid reminds Lowery and the audience of the bigger point, and coins a nice phrase in the process:

I think that both-sidesism doesn’t serve anyone well. This is an unambiguous evil that is plaguing the country . . . . One of the reasons that Donald Trump cannot properly respond to what was an obvious proper response from an America president is the people in his government. Who’s writing the talking points that he was looking down and reading from?…

And Van Jones had a version of this criticism of the ‘both sides’ line on Sunday’s CNN State of the Union

An American citizen was assassinated in broad daylight by a Nazi. A Nazi, who the day before had been marching with torches down American streets saying anti-Jewish, anti-black stuff . . . This is not a time to talk about ‘both sides’. . . .  Both sides are not using ISIS tactics ― mowing people down with cars ― in the streets of America

Both Jones and Reid argue that ‘both sides’ arguments are in error, but Reid’s is about the content of the views as different, and Jones’s is about the different ways the sides have proceeded.

OK, now to the argument-appraisal part.  Here’s how I see Reid’s criticism of ‘both-siderism.’  Reid’s argument is that both-siderism is an error in this particular case, because of the significance of the disagreement.  It’s not just a matter of arguing with Nazis, but with the significance of them being in the White House.   So her criticism of Lowery’s line of argument is that he’s got a red herring, some line of argument that distracts us from the more important issue.  And this does seem right, to a degree.  For sure, if the matter is whether the President failed to distance himself from white supremacists, then this is a perfectly legitimate challenge.  But if the issue is what do we do now?, then I think Reid’s charge is off-base, because a relevant and pressing question of running public discourse (and being a part of it) is not just about keeping an eye on what issues are right and those not, but on the argumentative and deliberative culture we maintain as we pursue those truths.

Jones’s reply to the line of both sides is different, because he challenges whether both sides actually are equally to blame.  Both sides, he concedes, showed up with sticks, helmets, and shields.  But only one side “assassinated” a member of the other side.  So Jones’s point is that both-sidesism gets the facts wrong, or at least implicates something false.  One uses both-sidesism correctly only if both sides make equally egregious errors in pursuing their ends.  If one side is worse in their performance, then they deserve the criticism (and it’s more urgent if they are both wrong and badly pursuing their cause).

Here’s the good thing in these discussions.  We’ve identified a way we can take our eyes off the ball with some discussions, in particular, with the fact that not all of us are angels when it comes to deep, important disagreements.  (I have always worried that the discussions of the tone of public discourse has always been a way to sidestep a difficult challenge.)  But here’s the bad thing.  It’s important, especially when we are deliberating about how to not escalate adversarial discussions, that we be able to recognize that it takes two to tango.

But it’s also important to not get too hung up on this point.  Here’s the reason: the more we police how we discuss things, the more inclined we are to harbor resentment not just about the views, but how we’ve pursued things.  And so, the more there’s a ‘both-siderist’ line to take about Charlottesville, the more there’s a resentment harbored by the Nazis about how they were treated to shabbily by the antifa folks.  And something worse will happen.  (Recall on analogy with just war, one way to escalate a war is to put emphasis on how the other side breaks rules of in bello, which creates motives for reprisal.)


2 thoughts on “Both-sidesism”

  1. A quick update. From the variety of accounts of the event in Charlottesville, it is sounding more and more like the neo-Nazis were the overwhelming source of provocation. So even if both sides must bear a measure of blame for the escalation then and to come, the measure is pretty significantly more on one side. And both-siderism too easily erases that.

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