The Fallacy of the Golden Mean
(A “Both Sides” Reader)
The bad argument’s natural habitat is the political talk show. (Well, it’s one of its natural habitats, anyway.) Nourished by a steady supply of moist bullshit in the studio and the heat of the 24-hour news cycle, bad arguments flourish, thrive and proliferate. Many a breed of bad argument can be spied, but one of the most common and pernicious inside Beltway blather pits is the fallacy of the golden mean (also known under other aliases). Basically, it entails that in any dispute between two parties, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle (generally roughly halfway).
Obviously this could indeed be the case, but the problem is that this conclusion is repeatedly forced onto situations where it doesn’t apply, facts be damned. (It’s a socially predetermined conclusion versus a logical deduction.) Calling things accurately to the best of one’s ability and letting the chips fall where they may seems to be a foreign concept. Moreover, the fallacy of the golden mean – often expressed as “both sides do it” or “both sides are equally to blame” – and preferably delivered with a sage, thoughtful look or amused, knowing cynicism – is almost unfailingly invoked as a means of shutting down greater scrutiny and deeper discussion. It’s a beloved, go-to move of lazy pundits who don’t want to spend their time studying those pesky facts or who desire to appear worldly and above it all. (It’s also a useful maneuver for party hacks seeking to avoid accountability for their side. In such situations, it’s not unusual to also see the superficial brand of tu quoque arguments beloved by conservative rearguard action specialist David Brooks.)
This position conveys the image of wisdom, but closer inspection almost always reveals it to be shallow and overly simplistic. One party could be mostly right and the other mostly wrong. Both could be mostly in agreement and also mostly wrong. One could take a position that’s 40% corrupt but 60% useful, while the other position might be 10% useful, 50% corrupt and 40% insane. Other valuable points of view, beyond the binary opposition of establishment figures in the two major parties, might be excluded. (For instance, back during the Iraq War and the run-up to it, many news outlets represented the full range of opinion from the pro-war New Republic to the pro-war National Review, as Atrios and others noted.) When the goal is discussing real problems and actually trying to solve them, versus conjuring bullshit to fill air time, an amazing world of facts, substance, nuance and complexity opens up.
In the U.S. context, the fallacy of the golden mean is particularly misleading because the Republican Party has grown so extreme, in both its policy positions (see DW-NOMINATE scores) and its unwillingness to compromise. (It bears mentioning that prominent conservatives have long held similar views, but merely lacked the power to impose them.) “Centrist” and “moderate” tend to be viewed as positive labels among the pundit class, but what each actually entails tends to be defined in relative terms as a midway point between shifting poles. (For instance, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, appointed by Republican Gerald Ford in 1975, came to be regarded over time as one the most liberal members of the court, if not the most liberal. Yet he’s never seen himself that way, remarking, “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. . . .I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.” He didn’t change much; the power dynamics in his party did. )
It’s hard to watch the news for long without spotting misleading false equivalencies, and the shallow, knee-jerk nature with which they’re offered can be maddening. Recently, Roy Edroso chronicled the remarkable phenomenon of conservatives calling for Obama’s impeachment, then pivoting and claiming they never did any such thing – it was Obama’s fault! From “Rightbloggers to Obama: Why’re You Impeaching Yourself?”:
And here’s where the real “sordid sort of genius,” to steal from Douthat, comes in: As crazy as rightbloggers may seem to you and us, when their thinking correlates this perfectly with the conservative-Republican mainstream, there will always be thumbsucking MSM types who will look at it, pull their chins, and think, hmm, both sides seem passionate, and that the obvious solution is to split the difference and call it a draw. Thus, nutcases whose credibility should have been shattered around their three-hundredth call for impeachment are ridiculously afforded a place at the table, leaving advocates for common sense at a massive disadvantage, since most of their energy must be devoted to restraining themselves from screaming, “this is fucking bullshit.”
Driftglass has been exploring the “both sides” dynamic for years, and a recent post, “Both Siderism Remains The Last Refuge of The Morally Bankrupt,” quoted an older post from 2005, addressing the media (emphasis in original):
In your weird fetish to be “objective”, the Republicans learned the little trick that makes [the media] dance like organ grinder monkeys. Whatever goofy-assed idea they came up with, you’d reflexively cede them half the distance between the truth and their goal.
There was a book I loved when I was a little driftglass called, “Half Magic” by Edgar Eager, about a talisman that granted the user exactly half of what they asked for. Wish to be ten times stronger that Lancelot, you’ll get five. Wish for a million in cash, you get 500K. In the Mainstream Media, the Right Wing of the Republican Party found their Half Magic Charm. And each time you met them halfway, they moved the goalposts another twenty yards again…and you jogged right on along behind them, ten yards at a time.
Fred Clark offers a similar diagnosis in “Third Way-ism and Hegel’s Bluff”:
Most of the time, when someone invokes a “Third Way,” they’re simply committing Hegel’s Bluff:
Simply find two extreme views roughly equidistant from your own along whatever spectrum you see fit to consult. Declare one the thesis and the other the antithesis, and your own position the synthesis. Without actually having to defend your own position, or to explain the shortcomings of these others, you can reassure yourself that you are right and they are wrong. Your position, whatever its actual merits, becomes not only the reasonable middle-ground and the presumably correct stance, but the very culmination of history.
Hegel’s Bluff is usually an exercise in self-reassurance. It’s a way of telling oneself that one is being reasonable. It works for that, well enough — well enough, that is, that Third Way-ers applying this bluff seem genuinely confused when others fail to perceive them as being as eminently reasonable as they perceive themselves.
But persuading others isn’t really what the Third Way of Hegel’s Bluff is designed to do. It rarely persuades. It fails to offer a persuasive argument mainly because it fails to offer any argument at all. That’s not really what it’s for. Arguments are made in support of particular conclusions, but this bluffery is more about just trying to reach that state in which any given dispute is concluded. That’s what it values most — that the unsettling argument be settled, not that it be resolved. It’s more about conflict-avoidance than about conflict resolution.
Having said all of that, please don’t misunderstand me as saying that no truth can ever be found “somewhere in the middle.”**
Back in 2000, Paul Krugman coined the phrase “Views Differ on Shape of Planet” to mock these dyanmics. In a 2011 op-ed, “The Centrist Cop-Out,” he applied it to the media’s unwillingness to call out Republican extremism and inflexibility on the debt ceiling. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but his general critique remains sadly relevant:
The facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren’t complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats — who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether — have, in fact, gone a long way toward meeting those Republican demands.
As I said, it’s not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.
Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault. . . .
Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing. . . .
So what’s with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it’s coming from people who recognize the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it’s not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labeled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.
But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.
Lastly, here’s one of my cracks at the subject, from 2012:
Both Sides Do It
As we’ve explored before, in most cases:
…saying “both sides do it” is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says “both sides do it,” “both sides are to blame” or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.
Among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults, the following are taken as givens:
- Neither major party is entirely pure or entirely corrupt. You can find despicable and honorable people in both parties.
- There is an inherent level of bullshit in politics. All politicians lie to some degree.
Naturally, the same crowd also holds that:
- Nevertheless – actually, because of this – it’s very important to take a closer look at politicians, parties, and their policies, and try to make an informed, comparative, qualitative judgment. Responsible citizenship and basic voting depends on it. Policy matters.
Strangely, most Beltway political commentators will endorse #1 and #2, but reject #3. The same media figures who sagely inform the public that politicians lie, as if this a revelation… will also refuse to fact-check their political guests. Instead of #3, they tend to hold the following views:
- Wisdom lies precisely between the parties. One side cannot be significantly better/more correct than the other. It’s impossible that one side can be overwhelmingly better!
- It is rude to call out liars, or not invite them back after they lie.
- Giving both parties a fair hearing necessitates judging that both arguments have equal merit.
- Anyone saying harsh things about conservatives/Republicans clearly is closed-minded, hyper-partisan and not a Serious Person, regardless of the evidence.
All of this also entails:
- Policy doesn’t matter.
- Social: The old maxim is that, in polite conversation, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. Beliefs on them can be strongly-felt and deeply personal (and sometimes irrational), so it’s easy for people to fight. When this happens, a host or other peacemaker might offer “both sides do it” as a way to change the subject, de-escalate the situation and placate whoever’s agitated. The person (more) in the right on the political dispute is expected to play the adult and let the matter drop in the name of comity. Strictly speaking, “both sides are equally to blame” is almost always bullshit, but it has its place in friendly social situations, where it can be well-intentioned, defensible, and useful.
All that said, politics and religion can be discussed among honest, sane, reasonably intelligent and well-informed adults. It has to happen somewhere, and at gatherings whose express purpose is discussing politics (or religion), it’s pretty ridiculous and childish to try to shut down adult conversation by insisting that “both sides do it.” The issue is knowing the venue and the participants, and how candid and in-depth one can be.
- Bullshitting: When someone says “both sides do it” or the equivalent on a political show, it’s nearly always bullshitting. This does come in different flavors, however. Cokie Roberts will say “both sides do it” to fill time and collect her paycheck; it’s insipid Beltway conventional wisdom, but to her fellow travelers and a certain audience, it sounds smart and will receive approving nods. The benefit is that you really don’t need to know anything (certainly not any policy details) to say it, so it’s a wonderful gift to lazy pundits. Thomas Friedman says “both sides do it” to affect the persona of a Very Serious Person and Sensible Centrist. It supplies the illusion of being independent and thoughtful to middle-information voters, even if anyone who knows the subject well knows you’re talking out of your ass. (More on Friedman’s shtick here.) Meanwhile, David Brooks and other conservative propagandists will say “both sides do it” as a rearguard action to minimize the damage to their party. The conservative movement and Republican Party have become so extreme and so irresponsible, it’s hard to justify their actions. (This increasing extremism is why Brooks’ hack arguments to defend his side have grown more obviously ridiculous, and have become more widely mocked.) The best tactic for this type of bullshitter is to hit the false equivalences hard, cherry-picking and pretending some minor incident or minor player in the Democratic Party is as bad as some glaring offense by conservatives/Republicans. It’s possible to find Democratic hacks doing similar spin on individual news items, but they’re simply not operating on the same scale. The rules of polite Beltway discourse, mirroring some of the “social” motives mentioned above, dictate that it is terribly rude to point out that Republicans are the (chief) problem.
- Serious Analysis: This is the rarest form of saying “both sides do it,” but it does exist, most often as a criticism of both the Republicans and Democrats “from the left.” A good example is Matt Taibbi’s work investigating Wall Street corruption and reckless greed, and political complicity with it from both major parties. Taibbi has been criticized for occasionally going slightly overboard in blaming both parties equally. (After all, the Dems passed relatively weak Wall Street reform in a climate where the Republicans wanted none at all, the Republicans have steadfastly opposed the Consumer Protection Agency and related appointments, conservative justices delivered the horrible Citizens United decision, and Republicans have twice blocked campaign disclosure requirements designed to minimize some of the damage from Citizens United.) Still, Taibbi and similar figures are qualitatively different from the bullshitters in that they want to stop corruption and encourage good policies and responsible governance, and they are willing and able to discuss detail and nuance. While saying “both sides are equally to blame” may be sloppy and overstated to make a point, for this group, it’s normally meant as the start of a deeper conversation, not a trite conclusion to end it.
This mindset, whatever you want to call it – faux centrism, “sensible” centrism, centrist fetishism, establishment groupthink, bourgeois authoritarianism, the world view of Very Serious People, the Emperor’s New Clothes, the ol’ ruling class circle jerk – is absolutely fucking imbecilic. The people who shill it are often highly educated and have sterling pedigrees by Beltway standards, but they are shockingly shallow.
Saying “both sides do it,” “both sides are equally to blame,” or anything similar doesn’t always spring from the exact same motives, however. There are three general categories (a future post may delve into more detail):
Another important note, related to bullshitting and serious analysis on political shows: pointing out significant hypocrisy in a politician or party generally isn’t the same as a serious “both sides do it” assertion, although bullshitting pundits on the same panel will try to twist it as such. For instance, Paul Krugman has often pointed out that Republicans are not serious about deficit/debt reduction. The David Brooks of the world might pretend otherwise, but this does not mean that neither party is serious about deficit/debt reduction. (Pointing out bad faith, bad policies and bullshit in one party does not magically transfer those to the other party, just to make anxious wannabe centrists feel better.) While some individual Dems might be fairly criticized, colossal bad faith on the deficit/debt is a distinctly Republican failing – in fact, it’s one of the defining traits of the party. If Krugman brings something like this up, it’s to have a deeper, more accurate conversation, whereas a Brooks will try to shut it down.
Here’s another way to break it down:
If you argue that wisdom often resides outside of conventional thinking, I’ll agree with you.
If you argue that wisdom lies precisely between two poles of conventional thinking – which are moving, no less! – I’ll say you’re a fucking moron.
(It’s terribly uncivil to say all this, I know, but I still think there’s some truth to it.)
Batocchio 8/19/2014 06:00:00 PM