How To: Avoid False Equivalence

Whether it’s politics, storytelling, technology or just our day to day lives, we love to find balance in things. There’s something so tempting about making things equal. It is an especially powerful temptation in our tribal politics. The more polarized we become, the more important it is to avoid being wrong, lest our opponents seize on the opportunity to undermine us. We begin to create equality and balance where none exist, for the sake of our agendas and egos.

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For example, I was recently perusing the Twitter machine when I saw an editorial from Dallas News that suggested that John F. Kennedy launched the era of celebrity presidents that ultimately brought us Trump. Whether you like Trump or hate him, it is important to note that there is absolutely no equivalence in his resume to our 35th President. John F. Kennedy was a decorated war hero after graduating from Harvard, a Congressman for six years, a Senator for a full-term (who was reelected for a second) and a Pulitzer Prize winning author before running for President of the United States. Yes, he was young and good looking, but he was exceptionally accomplished. He was not, in any meaningful way, a celebrity.

False equivalence is harmful because it undermines nuance and critical thinking. It lowers the floor of our discourse, forcibly reshaping our discussions. Instead of evaluating the cause, effect and consequence of each situation, we are arguing if this new situation is like an old situation, like a hypothetical situation or is worthy of discussion at all.

Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to avoid false equivalence even before the discussion begins, so that you can effectively focus on the most important questions: what was done; what’s the scale of the effect, and how will this impact your life?

The first thing you’ll want to do when something happens is compare it to something else. It is an entirely human impulse. It is also a bad impulse. View this situation for exactly what it is before comparing it to something else. Make a list of what you can definitely see, understand and prove about the situation, its origins and its effects before you attempt an analogy to a different situation.

Be able to see the evidence of the situation and determine who is responsible for each aspect. If you can’t explain how a person is directly responsible, remove them from the discussion.

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If there’s a bad bill, then it is the authors of the bill, no one else, who is responsible for that text. If there’s a terrorist attack, then it is the terrorists, no one else, directly responsible for that act. If someone could freely choose to do otherwise, and did not take that opportunity, then they are responsible for what happens. This will keep you from making a comparison to someone under duress or without the opportunity to say no.

It also helps to focus on tangible effects. A lot of false equivalence looks at similarities in process, but doesn’t touch on consequences. This is largely because if we looked at the results we’d find that there is absolutely no equivalence between the two situations.

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Yes, JFK and Trump were both treated like celebrities, used mass media to their advantages and had physically attractive wives. But before coming to the Presidency, JFK had a significant resume that showed that he could keep his calm in battle (and received horrific wounds from it), could win the trust of constituents on a small scale before moving to a larger one, had experience negotiating with equals as a Senator, and could express and explain his own thoughts about his process and his vision for the world through various media, including writing. That’s the resume of a leader, no matter how much people fawn over him or his legacy.

That leads us to the hardest step of all: avoid injecting feelings into analysis. Emotion is a tremendous part of how we interpret the world. We live through love, anger, joy, desperation, dedication, sadness, passion and so much more.

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Politics is how we organize our world. It’s exceptionally hard to stay calm and unemotional when we’re talking about policies, failures, ideas and successes that will reshape human lives, sometimes millions or billions at a time. But to keep from creating false balance, we have to step back from that understandable impulse. Emotions are malleable and easily distorted. People feel righteous for bad causes and worse effects all the time. Because we are loathe to call feelings illegitimate, we choose to focus on how people feel about a situation rather than analyze what is actually happening to people. This is the root cause of most false equivalence today, and it perpetuates terrible behavior. Why behave well when you can just point out that, yes, the effects are horrific, but people like you? Or the opposite: who cares that the effects are wonderful if people hate the person who created it?

False equivalence is an easy trap to fall into! Most of us do it all the time. For example, the vast majority of Hitler comparisons are false equivalencies (there are so many terrible leaders throughout history, it’s impressive that we go back to him every single time). Analogies are meant to illuminate, not distort. Comparisons should start a conversation, not end it. When we try to make sense of our world through seeing what’s similar, we should also accept what is different. That’s where the truth resides.

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