The Most Contemptible Political Argument

Posted: November 17, 2015 in Civil Liberties, Politics
Tags: , ,

We’ve all heard this “argument” over and over. It’s so common that I don’t even need to cite examples. It’s constantly used by left and right, and by religious believers of almost all stripes.

Bring up in conversation some horror committed by a government or religion, and an apologist for that government or religion is sure to say, “But what about…..” and then bring up some horror committed by another government or religion. The basis of this “argument”–“stratagem” is more accurate–is the assumption that human rights violations or other atrocities are excusable as long as the apologist can point to worse human rights violations or worse atrocities committed by other entities.

This “argument” plays straight into the hands of the powers that be, at home and abroad. Follow it to its logical conclusion, and you can justify any human rights violation or other atrocity short of the Holocaust. To the extent that people buy this “argument,” governments and religions have greater latitude to engage in evil–as long as other governments and religions are perceived to be committing worse evils.

That’s how it played out in the U.S. during the Cold War, when right wingers in the U.S. routinely dismissed concerns about racism, civil liberties violations, and widespread poverty,  by pointing to the Soviet Union. The end result of this demagoguery was the weakening of attempts to end these evils in the United States, and demonization of those working to end them.

At the same time, all too many American left wingers were (and still are) pointing to those same evils to excuse human rights violations, including suppression of free speech and imprisonment and execution [in the ’60s and ’70s] of political prisoners, in Cuba. The end result of this has been to legitimize the Castro dictatorship and to sweep its human rights violations under the rug.

Invariably in such apologetics, there’s an underlying false dichotomy: the belief that there are only two choices, that when confronted with two evildoers your only choice is to support one or the other. But a moment’s thought reveals that there is always a third choice. It’s entirely possible to oppose human rights violations no matter who commits them. It’s entirely possible to oppose human rights violators of all stripes–including those on your side of the political (or religious) spectrum.

Why do those who utilize the “But what about…..” stratagem do so? The most charitable explanation is that they use this red herring because they don’t know any better, because they’ve never thought about it. All their lives, they’ve heard this “argument” used over and over again, and have never heard its underlying assumptions challenged. All their lives, they’ve been presented with false dichotomies, and have never heard them challenged. So, they repeat this contemptible “argument” in parrot-like fashion.

A less charitable explanation is that they’re deliberately using a deceptive argument for partisan purposes.

If you consider yourself an advocate of human rights and have used this false argument, have uttered “But what about…..” to excuse evil, please be consistent. Please stop being a  hypocrite. Please condemn all human rights violations and atrocities, and all those who commit them, no matter who they are.

  1. […] The Most Contemptible Political Argument […]


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