The Pernicious Argument of False Equivalence
In a brilliant exposition of Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis that dismantles the commonly held misperception that these authors sought to undermine all attempts at interpretation, invalidating the “What does it mean?” and replacing it with “What does it do?”, Ian Buchanan writes: “Our marvel at psychoanalysis’s ability to penetrate the fug [sic] of things and see the truth lurking beneath or behind appearances becomes in this sense a suspicion that we have simply created a new form of self-deception” [Ian Buchanan, “The Little Hans Assemblage,” Visual Arts Research 39/1 (Summer 2013), 11].
His point, of course, is that psychoanalysis seems utterly reliable at disclosing the operative but cryptic meaning behind utterances and occurrences across a broad swath of cultural and social forms and yet, as Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate, it does so largely through reducing all of these expressions or forms to a few archetypes. What’s worse, psychoanalysis typically ignores the creative input of the analysand (the person being analyzed), preferring to attend (when it listens at all) to the verbal slips (parapraxes) in the patient’s discourse. Thus, psychoanalysis always knows the answer, and the (woefully glib Oedipal) answer is pretty much always the same.
Now, clearly, there is a typographical error in that excerpt. Buchanan obviously intends the phrase to read “to penetrate the fog of things” rather than the “fug of things” and perhaps it is uncharitable of me to pick up on a parapraxis in an article that downplays the interpretive power of the parapraxis. But I find that phrase “to penetrate the fug of things” oddly compelling when thinking about the current political/social climate in the United States.
“Fug” seems an appropriate term for what should merely be fog but has become so much worse. While sounding strikingly similar to a favorite four-letter expletive used to communicate disbelief toward the unfathomable and ridiculous, “fug” articulates our disgust for what must be penetrated — no longer mere fog, the thickening of moisture in air, but rather excrement such as Dante witnesses in the “second pouch” of the Eighth Circle of Hell.
The problem with fug is that we must penetrate it but we would rather imagine we transcend it. I am using the term “transcend” here in a philosophical sense. To provide a transcendent explanation of something is to determine the metaphysical ground that justifies it. The typical example here is Platonic. How do I judge things in the world? According to Plato, I do so because I have an anamnestic (meaning I remember from a time before my birth, when my soul was in the realm of the Forms) understanding of what things are. I know their Forms. The Form is a kind of metaphysical model and I judge things on the Earth through their proximity to that model. The closer they are to the Form, the more Truth they have.
In essence, this is a reductionist mode of thought and we all, perhaps necessarily, traffic in reductions. They make it far easier to have “convictions” because we believe we have an immediate grasp on what is right and what is wrong. The problem is that most everyone believes that he or she has this immediate grasp and that this grasp is the correct one while others suffer from various failings. We require, it would seem, a certain amount of self-deception in order to survive or, at least to thrive, and it invades all arenas of our lives. Witness, for example, the 2014 study that shows that just about everyone considers themselves to be an above-average driver. Clearly, not all of them could be right.
The same thing goes for rationality. We all believe ourselves to be rational beings. Now, you would think that this would mean that we are all open to having our beliefs challenged and that we would more likely than not be able to reach a point of agreement on most things, given a balance of the same basic background knowledge. In the age of the internet, that basic background knowledge is more readily available than ever before. But, of course, we know it is not the case that people agree more now than in the past.
The problem is blatantly apparent. Rationality in the political and social realm is not based on a given set of self-interpretable data. What we are dealing with, more often than not, is a fundamental disagreement over the very terms of argument. But instead of investigating the underlying bases of that fundamental disagreement, recognizing that any attempt at discourse based on such a fundamental disagreement would be entirely incoherent, we parade our convictions in the guise of slogans and catchphrases that do not allow for discussion but rather shut down conversation in advance. Furthermore, studies have shown that it is a seemingly fundamental human trait to become further entrenched in our points of disagreement when challenged rather than truly open ourselves to other views. Celebrated compromisers are relatively rare. We remember Henry Clay as the Great Compromiser but his colleague and friend Martin Van Buren was castigated during his lifetime for lacking conviction when he too sought compromise. We are the victims of our slogans and our reductions.
One of the most pernicious reductions in moral thinking at the moment is the false equivalence. One can almost understand how the temptation to employ this particular reduction would arise. Unfortunately, it arises from the basic underlying belief that we are all rational animals that behave rationally. It is true that we are all rational animals in that we have the capacity for reason; this is, according to Aristotle, our specific difference; that is, it is what makes us human. But, as Pico della Mirandola so exquisitely argued in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, just because we are capable rationality does not mean that we always avail ourselves of reason.
Human beings, Pico argues, are the envy of the universe because they’re free to choose their own mode of being. The animals are fixed in their station in life, sensitive and desiring corporeal creatures but incapable of choosing their own paths. The Angels, on the other hand, are purely rational creatures, fulfilling their function without their will, assigned their fixed place in the great chain of being. The human being, however, navigates the continuum of Being through free will and self-determination. A composite of the corporeal and the rational, the human being chooses. This is Pico’s reversal of the Scholastic operari sequitur esse (“doing follows being”). For Plato, our Being is bound up in Becoming and that is what makes us imperfect, both ontologically and ethically. For Pico, our lack of fixedness, our ability to manipulate our own position within Becoming, is precisely what defines our freedom and potentially makes us superior to the hierarchical system of Being. Our Being follows our doing; we are the composite of our acts and our potential to act.
That word “potentially”, however, is the killer. Pico acknowledges that the human being very well may choose the life of ignorance, of slovenliness in thought, of wicked self-concern and prejudice. One must choose reason, it is not (contrary to our self-delusion) intrinsic to our being. It’s a potential of which we might avail ourselves or might not.
Neo-Nazis, alt-Right, and white supremacists march the night before the “Unite the Right” rally, on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. (Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS)
If anything coming out of the White House were shocking anymore, I would certainly have been shocked by President Trump’s statements regarding the deplorable events in Charlottesville. Trump initially declared on Saturday: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides… on many sides.” Many commentators were rightly outraged that he failed to call out the KKK, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis by name. But more disturbing to my mind is the assumed equivalence between the two sides of that confrontation — the aforementioned racist groups and the counter-protesters.
Although Trump seemed to demur by Monday, finally naming the groups that are not to be tolerated, he soon returned to his favorite role of the victim of the media, tweeting that despite his “additional remarks” the “#Fake New Media will never be satisfied.” Then on Tuesday (the day I am writing this), he returned and indeed doubled down on his false equivalence: “There is blame on both sides. You had a group on one side that was bad and a group on the other side that was very violent”, and further, “What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt? They came charging with clubs in their hands.”
Trump is merely echoing a broader trope that has appeared in conservative discourse over the past several years that attempts to label groups such as Black Lives Matter as the counterbalance on the left of the racist agitators of the extreme right. The argument, in short, runs: both sides engage in violent rhetoric and demonstrations (witness the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise, or the Berkeley protest against conservative speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter, or, more ridiculously, the “Trump” Julius Caesar in Central Park, NYC) and so both sides are to blame for the reprehensible current political climate. Stalemate. Arguments stemming from moral relativism are generally considered the province of the left but that is precisely what this argument amounts to. Sure, we have racist extremists who act violently and erratically on our side but you have violent extremists on yours as well.
The “what about you?” or “what about this?” gambit is rarely a cogent argument and generally serves as a means of deflection. Now, I want to be as fair as possible here. I am not condoning the shooting of conservative Representatives (although I hardly see that as a wider trend) nor am I condoning the riots that greeted Yiannopoulos and Coulter. Moreover, non-violent speakers should be welcomed at universities, provided there is student interest (and apparently a group of students had interest). Universities are designed for the examination of ideas — good and bad. Yiannopoulos and Coulter are provocateurs and in the grander scheme of things that places them at the level of clowns. They entertain by making themselves ridiculous in their attempt to call out the world as being, at base, ridiculous. They are the classic examples of arguments that seem strong until you give them the slightest nudge and discover they are built on unsound and ludicrous foundations. Students should learn to recognize such pernicious logic. Why anyone should get so upset by such puerile thought is beyond my grasp. So yes, granted, the destruction of property and the injury of passersby during the Berkeley riots is unpardonable violence.
But the larger question is whether or not there is some kind of equivalence between the spirit of those Berkeley protests and the spirit of the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville. Since free speech is the cornerstone of democracy ought all free speech not be protected? Here again we are at the point of a reduction. It sounds perfectly reasonable to claim in the abstract that all free speech (other than yelling fire in a crowded theater and the various other typical exceptions) should be protected. Were we all dependably rational creatures, that would be the case. But we are not. And treating someone as though they are rational when they behave irrationally and erratically is itself irrational.
If there is any core belief that ought to be considered essential to rational social behavior and discourse, it is a Kantian one: one must always treat other people as ends-in-themselves and not as a means to an end. In other words, I cannot use you for my own purposes by manipulating, cajoling, bullying, harassing, or committing violence upon your person for my own pleasure or the furtherance of my aims. I must always respect your autonomy, which I fail to do if I threaten you. This applies even to those behaving irrationally.
The Berkeley riots were, in my opinion, irrational in result (the destruction of property did no damage to the actual objects of disdain and think of the bragging rights the protesters provided the provocateur idiots — the protesters made an event out of these non-appearances instead of treating them with the indifference they warrant) but they were not based in spirit on the notion of treating people as other than ends-in-themselves. In fact — again, in spirit — the protests were against what was deemed “hate speech” and thus against the speakers’ attempts to treat others as less than ends-in-themselves. The “in spirit” qualification is not meant to be hedging. Remember we all have the potential to be rational but often fail in that effort. The basis of the Berkeley riots was an attempt at rational objection (there is no need to give bigots a platform for their bigotry) that quickly devolved into irrational anti-social behavior. It was misguided in realization, to say the least. There is a useful distinction to be made between hateful speech (of which both Yiannopoulos and Coulter are guilty) and “hate speech” per se (which both are canny enough to mostly avoid) — but that is a separate topic.
The white supremacist protests were based on the notion that other people are “less than”, unworthy of respect, and inherently not part of our country. Rallying around a statue of a Confederate general with torches (even if, ludicrously, they were tiki torches), replete with riot gear, shields, and insignias and flags that denote the racial superiority of one group over others, is an explicit threat of violence designed to intimidate, harass, and create fear.
I have an Ibsenian distaste for crowds and most mass protests are going to devolve into irrationality. Social and political thought cannot and ought not to be reduced to slogans and that is pretty much the best that mass protests can do. In certain (rare) cases, they may effectively bring to light voices that are ignored, suffering that goes unnoticed. At worst, they calcify both sides. Remember that people tend to double down in disagreements when confronted directly. Hindsight makes things easy and I am hardly attempting to disavow the intentions of the counter-protesters. But these demonstrations only give the neo-Nazis the attention (and in their minds, the legitimacy) they seek.
To say this, however, is not to draw a moral equivalency because at the basis of the neo-Nazi message is hate and the basis of the counter-protesters is concern. And so we return to Dante with the question of how to respond to hatred and anger, or as it appears in the Inferno, wrath. In the Fifth Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil are on a boat traversing a bloody and slimy body of water in which the wrathful swim and tear each other apart. A man that Dante recognizes, Filippo Argenti (a real-life enemy of the poet) grabs the side of the vessel and when Dante asks who he is, he answers, “I am one who weeps.” Throughout the book, Dante shows great pity toward the damned, often to the chagrin of his guide Virgil, but in this instance Dante takes delight in the suffering of this soul. He rejoices in beholding a group of sinners begin to consume Argenti and indeed Argent even commences tearing at his own flesh with his teeth.
The question is often asked: is Dante not here guilty of wrath as well? Why should he take such pleasure, indeed thank God, for the tortures endured by this lost soul? There are several things to notice. First, other than wishing him ill, Dante makes no attempt to bring harm to Argenti; he merely consigns him to the fate he has earned through his wrath. Second, and importantly, not all wrath is the same, not all anger is equivalent. Implicit in the text is that Argenti was antisocially wrathful, that his hatred for others was so extreme that he was a disease in relation to his fellow man. Wishing him punished (indeed punished in part through his own hatred, turned upon himself) is not a further act of violence. It is the condemnation of violence. Even if we accept some form of moral relativism, that does not mean (cannot mean) that all moral positions are equally defensible. Antisocial violence is inherently irrational.
Eventually, Dante leaves the Inferno behind. He penetrates the fug, so to speak. And importantly, he arrives at Purgatory, the most philosophically rich book of The Divine Comedy. The Inferno is a harrowing thrill-ride of outlandish imagery but Purgatory is a book to be reflected upon and savored. In that book, Dante posits a world held together by Love. Love is the force that binds. Virgil proclaims to Dante: “My son, there’s no Creator and no creature who ever was without love — natural or mental…The natural is always without error, but mental love may choose an evil object or err through too much or too little vigor” (Canto XVII, 91-96, translation by Allen Mandelbaum).
There are three types of sinner that choose an evil object: one who “through abasement of another hopes for supremacy”; one “who fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor”; and one who grows greedy for revenge and “seeks out another’s harm”. These are examples of the perversion of love and of its destruction; they are acts of hatred toward one’s neighbor. To thrust away from the self, to push the neighbor aside, the refusal to understand but simply to deny — these are acts of fear. And rational people have nothing to fear from each other — provided they are willing to behave rationally. Rationality, in the moral sense, is an act of love because it is an attempt to bring the world closer, not drive it away. But there is no guarantee that we will behave rationally and too often we are blind to our own acts of irrationality, unwilling to see them, recalcitrant in our refusal to acknowledge them. The fug of things can indeed be penetrated by reason… but we have to choose it.