Monday, February 2, 2015

Raise your standards, don't lower them

From time to time, I find myself rereading Ken White's brilliant piece entitled "Ken's Law". It's about the idea that awfulness among ones opponents does not excuse awfulness among ones allies.

As I reread this four-year-old essay, I find myself struggling to live up to its lessons.

In modern debates, proving the hypocrisy of one's opponents is a cheap and easy way to feel that you've won a debate. It's very tempting to see political opponents whooping about a gaffe cast by your side and tell them that if their side did it they would be making excuses.

It's tempting alright, but we have to fight that primal urge. As Ken wrote:

We're conditioned by culture, both popular and political, to frame everything as white hats vs. black hats. This leads us into embarrassing contortions, hypocrisies, and violations of previously closely-held principles when we are called upon to defend Our Guy (or gal). He/she was provoked! The other side did much worse! Yes, he/she kicked a puppy, but nobody said anything when the other guy/girl killed a kitten! 
And yet we know, on some level, that this is a foolish way to look at life. We know it when we deal with our children — an apt comparison, as politicians and people who care about them are usually childish in a charming-sociopath-with-questionable-personal-hygiene sense. When one of the kids runs howling into my room at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday about what his/her brother/sister did, it is almost always the case that the howler did not have clean hands in the dispute. 
But somehow we go about acting as if One Guy Is In The Right, and that ifs, buts, nuances, and shared responsibility are signs of weakness, apostasy, and "concern trolling."

For a while, I told myself to stop trying to score political points by assuming that the other side would act hypocritically if the situation was reversed. What if my assumption was wrong? I swore off saying "If my guy was in that situation, would you act the same way?"

But after further thought, I've decided that this way of thinking is only half right. It is indeed wrong for someone to give an ally a pass for something they would condemn an opponent for, but it is only proper to ask an opponent to consider calling out their own kin for being in the wrong, and a good way to show them that is to ask what they would do if their own opponent behaved that way.

Think of a two by two matrix. There are good opponents, bad opponents, good allies and bad allies. In all cases we should all call out bad opponents and allies, and treat good allies and opponents with courtesy and the benefit of the doubt.

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