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Argument Clinic: Fair and balancedvs. real and unreal, true and untrue

The kind of faulty reasoning that Stanley Fish writes about so incisively in the New York Times ("So's Your Old Man") derails meaningful discussions in politics and film criticism all the time, and it's so transparently bogus that I wonder how people keep getting away with it. I've railed against it in Scanners many times over the years, but Fish dissects it beautifully here:

We saw it in spades a while ago when Democrats lamented the incivility of public discourse and blamed right-wingers for proclaiming over and over that President Obama was a foreign Islamic usurper working to undermine American values. The right replied by rehearsing the litany of things said by democrats about George Bush -- he was a tool of corporate interests, a warmonger and an enemy of civil liberties. So what gives you the high moral ground, those on the right asked, when you were equally vile in your accusations?

I want to say that this is a bad move (and a cheap trick) because it deflects attention from the substantive claims being made and puts the spotlight instead on propositional consistency. The better move (by either party) would have been to insist that Obama or Bush was in fact those things and to back up the assertion with the marshaling of evidence. The better move, in short, would have been to take a stand on truth rather than shifting the focus to a calculation of reciprocal fairness. What gives someone the high moral ground is that he or she is right, not that he or she is fair.

This reminds me of the persistent myth of "objectivity" as applied to public discourse of all kinds -- which, I think, often involves a misunderstanding of what that word means. Fish continues:

Back in the heyday of the culture wars, conference organizers were often faulted if those invited to participate did not represent the full variety of views in the field. Many responded by adding a token something or other to every panel. Again the better move would have been just to say that we've gathered here to elaborate what we believe to be the right position, and to require us to give time and space to positions we reject and think worthless is to require us to value process over substance; and we won't do that.

In 2004 I wrote a piece ("Politics, celebs and movie critics") about complaints that certain documentaries (for example: "The Corporation," "Control Room," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," "The Yes Men," "Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and Selling the American Empire" (2004)...) were not "objective" but were, in fact, "biased" toward one argument or another:

It's worth remembering that all of the docs mentioned above have been offered as commentary on, and counter-arguments to, prevailing biases (and myths) in contemporary American journalism and culture -- the "conventional wisdom," you might say, whether it's the pervasive advertising and public relations efforts of multi-million-dollar corporations or official statements from the White House. They are meant to be seen in that context -- as counter-arguments. They encourage debate; they don't seek to stifle it.

As [Jamie] Whyte writes in Crimes Against Logic: "You are entitled to an opinion, in [the] epistemic sense, only when you have good reasons for holding it: evidence, sound arguments, and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is the kind you earn.... If someone is interested in believing the truth, then she will not take the presentation of contrary evidence and argument as some kind of injury." [O, the unfairness of the truth!]

[...] The filmmakers are building a case -- and raising questions they feel need to be asked, even if the answers are still unknown....

There's a misconception that "objectivity" means reporting "both sides" of an issue (and perhaps the worst misconception is that there can be only two sides -- black or white). "Objectivity" does not mean he said/she said reporting without good, old-fashioned fact-checking -- which is where the major news organizations have failed us so badly in recent years. If somebody says, "It's 72 degrees Fahrenheit in this room," and his opponent says, "No, it's 43 degrees Fahrenheit in this room," you don't just report each statement and leave it at that. You check a thermometer.

Whenever I see phrases like "equal-opportunity offender" or "skewers all sides" or "something to offend everyone" in a movie review, I fear what it really means is that the filmmakers are spineless flip-floppers, pandering to the audience with desperate attempts to please everybody by insulting everybody.

Or that they're afraid to take a stand. Or that they haven't bothered to think something through very thoroughly.

Which is not to say that there isn't enough criticism to go around, only that saying so does not constitute "fairness" or any kind of valid counter-argument. ("Oh, and some people who agree with me about this are also wrong about other things, too...")

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