On Bothsidesism

A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

American political culture has a nasty way of inspiring all of us to take something that is true and use or apply it in a way that makes it false. “All lives matter” is a great example. The sentence is 100% true; it is invoked almost exclusively for the purpose of rebuking someone who just said that a specific kind of life (black, immigrant, unborn, etc.) matters. Another good example is Whataboutism: The act of immediately responding to any fair critique with an example of how your opponent, or his tribe, have also failed in this category. Example: “It’s absolutely wrong for a President to talk about women or the disabled in such a derogatory way.” “What about Bill Clinton?!?!”

Bothsidesism is another example. It bears a close relationship to Whataboutism but is its own species. Bothsidesism is what you do when someone points out that a particular party or tribe is guilty of something. Rather than pushing back against the accusation, you simply remind the person making the observation that “Both sides do this,” and present an example of comparable sin committed by either a) the party/tribe generally thought to be the polar opposite of the party/tribe being accused, or b) the party/tribe that you think the person making the observation represents.

This sounds a lot like Whataboutism, but there’s an important difference. Whataboutism is an accusation of moral hypocrisy that implies the original observation is meaningless or the first speaker is inauthentic. Bothsidesism, on the other hand, is not a direct charge of hypocrisy, but rather an attempt to change the subject. “Both sides do this” is often code for, “Now instead of talking about each other, let’s talk about how awful everything is.” Whereas Whataboutism challenges the moral authority of the original point, Bothsidesism challenges whether there’s any moral authority to be had at all.

Complicating all this is the fact that neither Whatboutism nor Bothsidesism are really fallacies. It does matter, for example, that the same media institutions bemoaning toxic masculinity stood up for Bill Clinton and shamed his accusers. It does matter that, while the Democratic Party sanctions the killing of the unborn, the Republican Party has also adopted language and policies about minorities, immigrants, and others that dehumanizes and obscures the sanctity of life. These are fair points, and they have to be reckoned with if our understanding of culture is going to rise above the level of AM radio.

Last night I tweeted (I know, I know):

Isn’t it weird how abortion on demand at 30+ weeks is “complex,” “intimate,” and “hard to talk about without dividing people,” while single-payer healthcare and a wall are “matters of justice” and “the Jesus way”?

I think most readers knew that my point was about left-leaning evangelicals, many of whose prolific Trump-era political tweeting has taken an intermission since the state of New York approved a ghoulish abortion law, and the governor of Virginia offered some similarly ghoulish thoughts about which born infants can be killed. It’s an observation I’ve made many times; there’s a weird overlap between the folks who go straight to the Old Testament to explain why a certain immigration policy is wrong and the folks who seem totally unable to articulate an argument against letting live-born infants die on a medical table. It’s an overlap that has the stench of identity politics and the “age of lumping” all over it.

A friend responded to this tweet by reminding me that “Both sides do this,” by which he meant that the Republican Party and the Trump administration have sanctioned the cruel separation of families and other odious, anti-Christian policies. He’s 100% correct. Both parties are, right now, imago Dei-denying, family-subverting parties. A pox on all our houses.

And yet: Both sides are manifestly not equally OK with infanticide. That’s the point. My tweet was not intended at all to flatter the GOP. It was intended to point out a lethal confusion in many evangelical writers, several of whom have rich book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and influential platforms. It’s the confusion that cannot see a moral urgency to the willful, state-sanctioned killing of a perfectly recognizable tiny human. It’s the confusion that looks at abortion and sees only a “divisive wedge issue” that Christians should “get beyond,” but looks at single payer healthcare and a border wall and sees a clear biblical mandate to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. It’s not that the latter conviction is wrong; it’s that the former conviction is so very very wrong that, yes, it colors everything that comes after it. A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

The problem with Bothsidesism is that it assumes a moral equivalency that doesn’t exist. What matters most is not that both tribes get equally dinged. What matters most is that human life, born or unborn, white or black or brown, healthy or disabled or young or old, is respected as the crowning jewel of a sovereign Creator’s work. However such life is disrespected, it is always a tragedy; but the authorized killing of innocent human life is the worst tragedy of all because it cannot be remedied. It is permanent, forever, and irreconcilable until the resurrection. Bothsidesism is correct to point out faults in both political ideologies, but it’s wrong when it’s invoked to obscure degrees of seriousness in our faults. Without being conscious of those degrees, we cannot hope to remedy injustice.

Bothsidesism feels good in the moment because it feels like taking a wider view of things. But a wider view isn’t always helpful if what you need to see is right in front of you. The bigger failure of evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries wasn’t that they didn’t have a fully realized, magisterial doctrine of human dignity and the political sphere. It was that they either supported or ignored lynching, slavery, and disenfranchisement. They ignored what was right in front of them.

As do we.

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Should We Blame the Pro-Life Movement?

There is a strain of thinking among some evangelicals that I cannot get my head around. Here it is: The Republican Party’s collapse of virtue and embrace of sub-moral strongmen can be attributed, at least in part, to the well-intentioned but naive single-mindedness of the pro-life movement.

James K.A. Smith’s brief Tweet thread seems to repeat this point, albeit with some slippery and vague language. His complaint is seems to be that pro-lifers who wish they had a friend in the Democratic party are refusing to let go of their mistaken assumptions about the proper relationship of pro-life advocacy to a holistic political engagement. Smith declines to articulate precisely what they should do instead, which makes his analysis difficult to parse. But it’s an idea that has been repeated with more clarity enough times to make me confident of where the argument is going.

Of course, the main problem here is that the absence of concrete correctives means how one interprets this messaging largely depends on your preexisting beliefs. If you think abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, Smith’s tweet-storm should make a lot of sense to you. On the other hand, if you think abortion should be illegal in just about every circumstance, then the suggestion that you “untether” yourself from what the GOP “taught” you about abortion is less clear.

What does “untethering” oneself from the pro-life pedagogy of the Republican party look like for a person who genuinely believes that aborted unborn bodies are human persons? What is the proper response for a person who wants to be a responsible agent of human flourishing in all areas of life, yet watches doctors legally skim through hands, feet, eyes, and brain matter with the indifference of a junkyard dealer?

Put it another way. Why, in this way of thinking, is the burden of proof on the person protesting the legal dismemberment of human beings, instead of the people not protesting it? Why is it up to the pro-life advocate to be less single-minded about one issue, instead of it being up to our political parties and their leaders to not exploit their bases through ideology?

It’s extraordinary to me that in the situation Dr. Smith imagines of a pro-life voter being drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s the pro-life voter’s fault for not embracing a more pragmatic strategy for public policy. The Democratic Party’s ruthless campaign to exile anything that resembles pro-life sentiment from their ranks is not even worth mentioning apparently. For some unthinkable reason, the dysfunction and polarization of American politics becomes attributable not to politicians who cling on to pseudoscience and judicial fiat to enforce a violent ideology, but to those poor souls who actually think this issue might be the most important, the most pressing one of the times.

It’s possible that what Smith and others are saying is that we oughtn’t be ham fisted, single-issue voters. If that’s the case, then the proper way to make this argument would be to appeal to pro-lifers that the best means to end abortion is to embrace a wider political strategy, one that can build coalitions and pass laws and galvanize communities toward pro-life law without using it as a wedge issue. That’s a fair take, and voters who would identify as single-issue voters when it comes to who they won’t vote for would do well to ask themselves whether their practice of political engagement is one that is likely to build pro-life alliances, or likely to reinforce existing polarizations. Let’s have that conversation!

The problem is, sadly, that this is not actually what Smith says. What he actually says is that pro-life voters must recalibrate their entire philosophy of civic engagement when it comes to abortion.

Pro-life voters, Smith says, are “demanding purity” and “naively” neglecting “political reality.” In a final parenthetical, Smith even suggests that abortion should not be considered an especially egregious injustice, and that it might fit suitably alongside “lots of injustices” from which our two-party system has thus far not offered an escape.

There’s no way for me to read this line of thinking without believing that it ends in “safe, legal, and rare.” Whether “single-issue voters” are being taken advantage of by a corrosive Republican party is a much different question than whether pro-life voters are simply wrong to make this issue a test of political acceptability. It’s not clear to me at all that there would even be a viable pro-life witness in American public life if it weren’t for the willingness of some brave advocates, politicians, and citizens to insist that as for them and their house, they will protect unborn bodies. Should the shooting of unarmed black men be sorted neatly alongside “lots of injustices” that we must live with, or is there something to be said for insisting that civic servants acknowledge the inherent value of human life and demonstrate their willingness and competency to defend it in those situations?

These kinds of analogies are helpful not because abortion and racial justice are identical issues, but because they force us to acknowledge our tendency to relegate abortion to the “culture war” and then demonstrate how far above we are such skirmishes. The fundamental problem of abortion law is always, “Is this a human person?” No pragmatism, no “shaping of our political imagination” that does not explicitly give this question somewhere to land, can be remotely considered pro-life.

Planned Parenthood’s human factories are not going to close themselves when people finally start realizing that tax policy matters to poor people, too. The Democratic Party is not going to acknowledge the humanness of the fetus until it is politically forced to, and that political force is going to come, first and foremost, from voters—voters who are willing to be scorned, but not willing to be fooled.

(photo credit)