False Equivalence: the Fool’s Empty Quiver

This is no revelation: people on social media are incredibly polarized when debating social and political issues. Many debates on my feed begin when someone posts a meme. I often wonder how much thought people put into re-sharing these vaguely evocative images overlayed with simple rhetoric in block text. Once it hits their feed, though, comments follow in one of two modes: vehement disagreement or unwavering support.

In my own feed, I’ve been noticing a particular–and awful–type of rhetoric in these memes: the false equivalence. These are typically expressed as support for some social construct or idea, with the unstated implication being that any criticism of that construct is tantamount to a denouncement. Thus the false equivalence: one cannot be both critical and supportive of an idea or construct.

Policing in America is a current topic of much debate on social media. In my feed, it is not unusual to see posts that feature these sorts of memes:

The implication of all of these posts is that the poster supports the police, as opposed to all of those people who are criticizing the police and therefore do not support them. Memes like this eliminate a rational middle ground where people can hold complex thoughts about social constructs such as policing. When the debate starts with an image like this, it creates two nice little categories: those who support the police, and those who do not. And support must be all or nothing. There is another false equivalence here: wanting to hold individual officers accountable for their behavior, not supporting them when they overstep their limits, equates to not supporting any police officers.

I’ve begun ignoring these sorts of posts, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to passively condone this sort of lazy and polarizing rhetoric. I’ve come up with a stock response that I can post anytime I see a post like this, “This meme supports a false equivalence and reduces a complex social issue to two polarized sides. This post detracts from it’s own argument. I know your point of view is nuanced and not nearly this simplistic.”

Logical fallacies like the false equivalence can be hard for rational people to argue against because they exist outside any sort of reasonable progression of thought. In my experience, the best way to respond is to point out that the argument is a logical fallacy, is false by its own merit, and then disengage. Someone who clings to a broken argument is unlikely to be convinced, no matter how strong the evidence or counter-argument.

I’m disturbed by how readily people re-share these sorts of posts. I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself. It is too easy to think, “I agree with this” and to feel it reinforce my own personal narrative and thus conclude it is a sound argument. I’m pushing myself to try to engage in a more meaningful form of discourse. At the same time, I’m raising the standard to which I’m holding others. People can delete/unfollow/unfriend me if they dislike it. I hope, though, that they’ll instead respond with thought and consideration.

We’re smarter than the sort of simplistic, black-and-white, us-or-them debates that we have been engaging in. In regards to the issue of policing, as usual Jon Stewart said it wonderfully.

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How do you respond to polarizing memes in your feed?

Leave a comment and let me know.

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7 thoughts on “False Equivalence: the Fool’s Empty Quiver

  1. In the case of policing and many other things the polarization is caused by the simple fact that the underlying complaint is largely a lie. It is then exacerbated by the behavior of the mobs who are against the structure.

    There’s no middle ground when one side’s position is based upon a lie – e.g., that the police have responded wrongly to Black criminals – and that side is filled with – and supports violent insurrectionists.

    • Well, I strongly disagree with you.

      In fact, in all of the cases of police overreach in the news, they haven’t been dealing with black criminals at all. Those people are suspects at best. It takes a trial and a guilty verdict to classify someone as a criminal.

      It’s pretty evident to me that you have a strong bias and your blog shows no compassion for any narrative other than your own.

      • A very poor argument at best. All or almost all of those who died at the hands of the police did so after either attacking the police or resisting arrest with violence. Hence, they were criminals. Indeed, almost all of them had prior convictions anyway.

        I do, however, find it intriguing that you so quickly shifted from “brutality” to “overreach” when your audience seemed to change.

        Overreach and “mis-reach” combined with poor training and worse intel is a problem of the police that could actually be argued if it could be separated from the convenient lies of special interest groups and the “Black Community.”

        As for compassion – You’re quite close to right. The only point where you’re wrong is your assumption that I have compassion for my own narrative.

        • I didn’t switch from brutality to overreach. I never once mentioned brutality in my post or comment. I did say overreach and refer to overstepping limits a few times, though. So, my language was consistent. Thanks for trying to misdirect the conversation, though. Good tactic.

          I have no desire to debate social issues with someone who has no desire to move towards compassion. See my reasoning for not engaging with flawed logic.

          • My apologies. The “misdirection” wasn’t intentional. I confused your post with someone else’s I just read. You didn’t use the brutality. I must learn to comment slower before the coffee kicks in.

            As for compassion – It is more often the cause of flawed logic than anything else is.

            • Really? Because I think the desire to be right is one of the major causes of flawed logic. I’m not talking about emotional reasoning here, I’m talking about desiring to see everyone else as human. Compassion means admitting that the lives of others are valid even if we don’t understand them and can’t relate to them. It means admitting that our point of view and our own narrative is just that: our own. It is not fitting to judge another person based on our own experiences and circumstances, but rather based on their experiences and circumstances, if we must judge them at all.

  2. For any readers of the comments, I just want to address jonolan’s unsubstantiated opinions.

    Claims that all or almost all of the black people killed by police are criminals or had prior convictions are completely unsupported. Even if it were true, though, that still does not justify police killing these citizens.

    There are white people with prior convictions. There are white criminals. The issue here is that black people in the same situations are much more likely to be killed in their interactions with police. Here are two sources to back up this claim:

    http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/blacks-are-killed-at-a-higher-rate-in-south-carolina-and-the-u-s/

    http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/aug/21/michael-medved/talk-show-host-police-kill-more-whites-blacks/

    Obviously, police should seek to stop killing people, regardless of race. The point, though, is that there is another problem altogether when black people are killed so disproportionately. This is just basic statistics work.

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