Critical thinking matters: “both sides” are not equal

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There is a deep, very troubling and dangerous flaw in putting “both sides” of the Charlottesville protests on the same plane. Doing so commits the logical fallacy known as “tu quoque” (Latin for “you also”), conventionally called “whataboutism”. This is a common, simple error that can lead to wrong conclusions. An error that quickly became the center of a national debate after the Charlottesville protests, about the moral equivalency of the far right protesters and the opposition counter protesters.

The fact that so many are making this error — apparently including the U.S. president, though I find his statements sufficiently incoherent and self-contradictory that I really can’t tell what he believes — goes to the heart of why it is so important for educated citizens to learn the skill of critical thinking, which is the foundation of the liberal arts university education that was invented in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. [1]

First, let me say that I abhor violence, and that I am not going to claim that violence by one set of protesters was more justified than by the other set.  For the purpose of this piece, let’s just set aside the violence — either agreeing that anyone who engaged in violence during the lawful, civil protest that day is wrong and should be punished, or if you don’t agree with that, then simply leaving the discussion of violence for another day.  Those who perpetrated violence were in the minority, in any case, so we can focus on everyone else present.

What concerns me is that so many are arguing that the purpose and legitimacy and moral standing of the two groups of protesters is somehow equivalent.  This is a serious error, the type that critical thinking helps us avoid.

Yes: the far right protesters have the same right to free speech as do any others, and their march and the non-violent part of their protest, in a public place, was lawful.  Absolutely.  Part of our very special democracy is that, as our Supreme Court stated in Matal v. Tam just this past June, “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”  And the counterprotesters have the same right to express (in speech — not violence) their hatred of that speech.

But the fact that “both sides” had the right to speak does not make them morally equivalent on that day — or any day. The far right protesters organized and gathered to advocate for things that are morally repugnant, and unconstitutional.  They called on well-known symbols of the Nazi party to attract participants, such as posters that mimicked Nazi propaganda posters.  (Here’s an article posted by Fox News — generally viewed as conservative — making this point: http://fxn.ws/2igNWg9.)  At the protest, many wore Nazi paraphernalia, carried flags with swastikas, and wore shirts quoting Adolf Hitler — and all were marching alongside Nazi flags. One of the oft-repeated chants during the march was “Jews will not replace us.”  Another was the core slogan of the German Nazi party, “Blood and Soil!”.  They were advocating for white supremacy, racism and anti-semitism: hatred of human beings because of their skin color or their religious beliefs.  One of their leaders present, Richard Spencer, has called for ethnic cleansing in America http://bit.ly/2ihciXl). They want to oppress other humans, and deny them the rights they are guaranteed by our constitution.

The counterprotesters had a very different purpose: to oppose racist and anti-semitic views, to oppose oppression.  They are working against bigotry and denial of basic, constitutional human and civil rights.

“Both sides” are not morally equivalent.  One advocates hate-mongering, oppression, denial of constitutional rights and ethnic cleansing.  The other opposes these goals.

What does this have to do with critical thinking and education?  Those claiming moral equivalence between the racist neo-Nazis and the protestors against bigotry are using whataboutism, one of the Soviet Union’s (and now Russia’s) favorite propaganda techniques: picking out some aspect of the behavior that is similar across the two groups, and claiming that makes them morally equivalent. [2]  But that’s silly, uneducated and dangerous.  You need to compare them on all the criteria that matter.

For example, the defenders of the far right protesters say “both sides” were there to exercise their First Amendment rights to express their views.  Yes, and they have the right to express those views.  But exercising your rights does not make you a fine person.  Legally expressing racist, anti-semitic, oppressive views in our society — founded on the principle that all persons are created equal — does not make you morally equivalent to someone who opposes such views.

One of the great contributions of university education to a civil society is its commitment to developing critical thinking skills in our students.  We need citizens who consider all sides to an argument, rely on verifiable facts, and use sound logic. Whataboutism fails this test.

University libraries are playing an increasingly important role in information literacy education: helping our students learn now to find relevant information, critically evaluate its reliability and quality, and use it to reason soundly.  I’m proud to be part of a centuries old institution that is dedicated to thinking carefully about the hard questions facing us, so that we avoid the superficial but very dangerous errors that can lead people to think that hate-mongering racists and anti-semites are no worse than those who protest their hate.

(Thanks to Tiffany Grandstaff for her editorial wisdom.)

Footnotes

[1] There are two words in that sentence — critical, and liberal — which in common usage have different meanings that when they are used in the phrases “critical thinking” and “liberal education”. Let me be very clear so that — hopefully — the use of these concepts does not generate unwarranted political opprobrium. “Critical thinking” does not mean “negatively critiquing” or being opposed to the views of another. Critical thinking is the disciplined process of actively analyzing and evaluating information to determine its reliability and meaning, then reasoning soundly to reach a conclusion. It might as well be called “good thinking”: considering all sides to an argument, relying on verifiable facts, and using sound logic. “Liberal education” is not a political term: it doesn’t have anything to do with the liberal-conservative spectrum in politics. Rather, using the definition of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, it is “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.” Source: https://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education.

[2] That there are human rights abuses in the U.S., does not absolve a regime that built the gulags — forced labor concentration camps for millions of its citizens.

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