Hiding Behind the False Equivalency Excuse
Yancey is a professor of sociology at Baylor University. He is the author of several academic and Christian books dealing with race relations and anti-Christian bias.
When I critique those with whom I share similar faith values, I have more influence than criticizing those with different belief systems.
You may have missed this story about Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland. He admitted failure in his handling of Antifa. His approach had been to deescalate the situation by holding back the police as much as possible.
To Wheeler’s dismay, but not to the surprise of anyone who understands human depravity, the situation did not improve. Indeed, it got worse. His kindness to Antifa was interpreted as weakness. When bullies sense weakness, we all know what will happen next. They do not back off when shown kindness; instead, they lean in to deliver an uppercut.
I think I can imagine Wheeler’s thought pattern. Being a progressive himself and interpreting Antifa as a radical group on the progressive spectrum, he probably figured that they would not respond as bullies. They would be reasonable, and when they saw his efforts to reach out, they would reduce or stop the violence.
But rioters tend to be empowered when they are in large groups, and they use that empowerment to push others around. This is true regardless of whether the rioters have motivations based on conservative or progressive political ideals. Wheeler learned the hard lesson that sharing political values with those bent on destruction does not make them any less destructive.
What if the Proud Boys or MAGA supporters had been rioting in the streets of Portland these last several months? How long would Wheeler have tried to deescalate the situation before calling in whatever police or military force he needed to get things under control. I think we would measure his wait time in nanoseconds.
And if this observation had been brought to his attention before his realization that pacifying Antifa will not work, he would utter those words I hear so often when progressives are confronted with bad behavior from other progressives – false equivalency. How dare we compare those in MAGA to the Antifa. After all, one group is about fighting fascists while the other group is fascist, right?
But no matter what you think about the motivations of those in either group, the fact of the matter is that when you pour people out into the street to engage in violent protests, the results are going to be the same. People will be hurt or even killed, property will be destroyed, and chaos will be the order of the day. That is not a false equivalency. That is human nature.
I find the illusion of false equivalency to be dangerous. It is an illusion I find more common among progressives than conservatives, but it is a dangerous belief. It allows us to ignore problems from people we like. That belief allowed Portland to burn for several months longer than it should have burned.
Relying on assurances that our group is always better than other groups leads us to minimize the evil done in the name of our causes. We find excuses why atrocities done by people who believe like us are not as bad as the atrocities done by our ideological opponents.
As a Christian, I feel that my first responsibility is to work on those from my own “team.” This does not mean that I do not critique non-Christian groups. But my stronger concern is about Christians misbehaving. That is why during our recent presidential campaign, I have been more critical of nearly unqualified Christian support of Trump than critiquing Biden, although I have done both.
When I critique those with whom I share similar faith values, I have more influence than criticizing those with different belief systems. We listen to our supporters more than we do our detractors because we assume that they have our best interest in mind.
To be clear, there are times when our side may be less guilty of a particular phenomenon. As Bradley Wright has pointed out, Christians who attend church weekly are less likely to commit adultery, use illegal drugs, or have abortions.
So, when someone points to an evangelical Christian who has engaged in such actions, we can honestly make a false equivalency claim. But is that the right thing to do? Or is the right thing to do is work to make certain that our group is even less likely to engage in those evils, even if we decide to challenge our critic to look at the problems within his or her group.
What if we were more worried about the failings of people we support than those we opposed? What if we put at least as much effort in calling out our allies’ hypocrisy as we do our opponents? We have more influence with those that we support than those we decry. We have more of a chance to impact their actions and attitudes. Would we not make the world a better place?
The next time you want to dismiss complaints with “false equivalency” try to step away and consider if those accusations are true. And even if this is one of those situations where there may be more guilt among others than among your group, is it wise to minimize or even ignore the problems of your tribe? Are you going to make our society better by downplaying the shortcomings among your allies or worse?
These are questions we all need to ask. The right answers can create more introspection in a society that badly needs it. The wrong answers only contribute to the ongoing polarization that plagues us.