There’s a nasty virus going around and I’d like to at least identify it, if not help eradicate it. It’s the assumption that fighting is unnecessary and that therefore whenever there’s a fight there’s a simple formula for deciding who’s at fault: All parties equally.
The Fighter’s Fault Fallacy--If you’re not playing nice, you’re part of the problem, not the solution.
I have friends who say the Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault for the mess we’re in. Maybe I just cry, “foul!” because that lumps the team I think is more honorable in with the team I don’t like. It could be personal. I can’t rule that out. We’re all most likely to cry “foul!” when our preferred team is attacked. But here I want to generalize beyond my team allegiance to all cases in which people think they can adjudicate based on who’s fighting.
People infected by the Fighter’s Fault Fallacy are played skillfully by anyone who fights dirty and then double-dirty by lamenting publicly the lack of bi-partisanship. “Why can’t we all just get along” say the guys who started the fight and escalate it. We’re getting a lot of that from Republican leaders these days.
Here are a few reasons we can’t just get along:
Civility isn’t all that’s at stake: There’s how we talk to each other and then there’s what we’re talking about, the real world consequences of our actions, for example on climate change, strictly physical consequences of our actions or inaction.
Assume you believe that climate change is real. Assume that there’s more stridency coming from those who think it’s real than from the gentle souls who think it isn’t. Should the debate be decided merely on civility? Reverse the tables. Assume you believe that climate change is a hoax but your side is more strident in public debates on the question. Based solely on their relative civility should the folks who think climate change is real win the debate solely because they’re nicer? Regardless of what you believe—whether you believe climate change is real, or deny it’s real, you’d want the case adjudicated on the reality you perceive not exclusively on the relative civility of the debaters.
In fights no one can afford to act civil long except as an aggressive strategy: I’ve written elsewhere about a tipping point at which conversation or debate turns into an infallibility contest, a pissing match in which either you’re right about everything or your opponent is. Infallibility contests are easy to start and hard to stop. They can start when someone smug really believes he’s infallible or when someone merely and impulsively jumps down someone’s throat with a sweeping put-down, a “You really believe that?” or a “Duh,” or a “Hello! Earth to Mr. Clueless,” a leap the jumper may later regret but often too late. When we’re dealing with someone who jumps down our throat like that the stakes get all-or-nothing high. Indeed it becomes a winner-takes-all-loser-still-pays contest from which it’s hard to back down.
It is possible to act like you’re trying to de-escalate such a contest, but doing so sends a mixed message, like that bully who, between sucker punches says “Why can’t we all just get along?” crocodile tears streaming down his cheeks. Even if he really does want to just get along, we can’t trust someone who tries to mediate and deescalate an infallibility contest he’s embroiled in and may even have started.
For these two reasons, when a fight starts, it’s hard to tell whether a fighter’s strident conviction that he’s right is a product of his careful considered judgment or of his stubbornness. You can’t tell who should win a fight just by measuring relative civility and belligerence.
But many of us are very tempted to do just that, either grant victory and our support to the one who fights less or say “A pox on both your houses since you’re both fighting.”
Why do we do that? Why do we fall for the Fighter’s Fault Fallacy?
Two reasons, both of which are not good enough:
“Since the debate bores me it must not be important”: We all consider ourselves to be exceptionally attuned and realistic, as though our subjective gut experiences are tantamount to objective truth. One upshot is the assumption that our subjective boredom with a debate translates as objective verification of its un-solvability or irrelevance. An example: I can’t give you many details about the fight between Sunnis and Shiite Muslims. It bores me. I’m likely therefore to say either it’s irresolvable or trivial. Another example: I do scientific research but find quantum mechanics a tad abstruse. Unconsciously, I put a premium on arguments why I don’t have to understand quantum mechanics because debates over it are un-decideable or just too much ado about nothing. “Un-important,” I say, gleeful that I don’t to think about it any more.
We talk a lot about human apathy, but less than we should about the way apathy is fueled by confusion and doubt over how to resolve complex issues far afield from our interests. We use a lazy shortcut when instead of doing the research we pass judgment based on a simple rule of thumb like the Fighter’s Fault fallacy. It would be more honest to say “I don’t know how to weigh in and I’m not willing to take the time to research,” than to weigh in like referees saying “All aggressors are equally at fault.”
The three errant rationales behind the Fighter’s Fault Fallacy: The cultural virus whereby if you’re fighting your just as bad as your opponent is build on three unrealistic moral commandments that build to an unrealistic conclusion.
1. Since it’s the right thing to do, on the count of three let’s all be equally self-doubting and receptive to the possibility that we're wrong.
2. Since it’s the right thing to do, on the count of three let’s all be equally tolerant and open-minded about each other’s counter-arguments.
3. Anyone who doesn’t comply with rules one and two is a pig. As George Bernard Shaw says “Don’t fight with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.” We should not and need not tolerate the company of people who don't follow rule one and two.
From these three combined, many people conclude there is therefore never a reason to fight and all who fight are equally bad.
The problem is that many can't or won't comply with one and two, and we can't always escape the company of those who don't.
All we need is one extreme example to show that these premises don’t cover all cases, and such examples are easy to come by.
You were born into a country suffering at the hands of some totalitarian dictator, who violating rules one and two never doubts himself and is intolerant of dissent. The dictator is killing members of your family. You can’t escape him or the country. He’s a pig but it’s your moral duty to fight. So you become a gun-toting rebel fighter, fighting your country’s dictator and his supporters to the death.
And some outsider who doesn’t have time to think about your cause or case, applies the conveniently simple rule that if you’re fighting you’re equally at fault, just as bad as the dictator, and feels proud of this high-minded pronouncement.
These days we’re getting both the dirtiest fighting and the worst divergences from realism from the right. In my fallible opinion, anyone who, through a weakness for the Fighter’s Fault Fallacy, or based on the evidence says today’s Democrats are as much at fault as the Republicans, isn’t paying attention.