“The truth is somewhere in between” as a way to avoid thinking

Here is a diagnosis of a certain malady in our body politic: the “both sides have a point” reflex. It stems from a desire for fairness and from the recognition that real issues are more complex than their advocates often allow, but leads to a pathological bypass of healthy brain function. Sometimes it also appears as the “the truth is somewhere in between” reflex or the “See? I am balanced” reflex.

“Both sides have a point,” as a habitual thought, often leads people into the illusion that they are above having an opinion on a subject (since people with definite opinions, by the “both sides have a point” logic, fail to recognize the truth in those opinions they disagree with). This leads to an avoidance of the meat of the questions at issue. People with this malady often fail to discover those points of specific difference in matters of fact and philosophy, because they think there is no point in exploring the debate themselves, relying on others to form definite opinions, which to them merely add up to a tableau to look at. They think their role is to “let people make up their own minds,” forgetting that they count, too.

Sometimes it is true and both sides of an argument have a strong basis in reality. Perhaps it is even true most of the time. Recognizing the complexity of an issue results in complex opinions once you think things out. But it is never true à priori that “the truth is somewhere in between”; that is, when it’s true that both sides have a point you can only know it by paying close attention to what both sides are saying and thinking about it. “Let’s hear both sides” – that’s a salutary thought. But a presumption in advance that both sides are equally right, that’s just lazy, and, unfortunately, common.

Part of the cause of this kind of thinking is that journalists have turned to it as a way of avoiding criticism from bellicose right wingers who write letters to advertisers when the newspapers publish analyses that they disagree with, or facts that they want to suppress. Instead of just telling the truth in articles about hot topics, journalists now mostly provide a platform for “both sides,” regardless of how bogus one side’s statements actually are. Many in the public follow suit, thinking that this kind of “balance” equals objectivity. It doesn’t. That’s what’s so cancerous about this habit of thought. Objectivity can draw conclusions. À priori “balance” cannot. In the absence of a public that’s engaged enough to draw conclusions, who leads?

7 comments on ““The truth is somewhere in between” as a way to avoid thinking

  1. As Paul Krugman famously said:

    “Even when reporters do know the difference [between research and advocacy], the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, ‘Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.'”

  2. Maybe this is because most people who’ve studied philosophy or comparative religion have learned that so much about the world and “truth” is relative. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the gray area. There are very, very few things in the world that are black and white.

    It’s only been the last 5-6 years that I’ve felt that I was completely on the side of right when it comes to politics. And this is only because fundamentalists took over the conservative party. Fundamentalist religious people have no hesitation about their beliefs. It’s we liberals that tend to think that everything is relative, which leads us to think that everyone’s opinions have validity.

    Remember when the Intelligent Design people began raising their heads? My own mother argued that “both sides” should be offered in schools. I angrily answered, “Not in science class! ID doesn’t belong in a science class because it’s not a science!” She said, “How do you know?” And I unhesitatingly said, “Because it’s a black and white issue. It’s empirically evident.” If I have fundies to thank for one thing, they’ve led me to the knowledge that there are absolutes in this world. They’re just not what we’ve always thought they were.

  3. I think one important thing to look at is the fact that a lot of the arguments coming from the right that end up in the news media are not made in good faith in the first place. They’re arguments that they know are based on BS, but they know that if they can put it forth it will affect the debate in the way that they want. It’s pure cynicism. I think that’s different from an honest disagreement involving very different perspectives.

  4. Agreed. And I think a classic example of this is the climate change “debate.” Journalists tend to present two sides to the issue, despite the scientific consensus on the matter.

  5. I had a student come to me last year asking for assistance in writing a paper about the good side of Hitler. What a question! And absolutely borne of the ‘two sides to every story’ trope. We settled on looking at road construction in the third reich as an arguable improvement. But still.

  6. Extraordinary little corner of debate. A friend directed me here – he knew I’d like the article. Very articulate Rory – congratulations.

    To add my two-penneth, I’d ask what are we really talking about here? We’re talking about a post-9-11 world. Liberals are slowly beginning to relaise that ‘Liberalism’ isn’t going to save the planet. That’s why the gray area is becoming to look so unattractive.

    It’s very difficult to see how a liberal can ‘see both sides’ of the Burkha? To paraphrase Voltaire, how can we ‘disagree with the Burkha, but defend to the death a woman’s right to wear it.’ I’m not sure we can…

    …but then again, I’m not sure we have any choice. You see, the problem I have is that I can see both sides of the argument. The grey area may be used as an excuse for lack of thought, laziness etc., but what lies outside of the grey area? Outside of the grey area we may find certainty, hardwork, logical thought brought to logical conlusion, a right and a wrong, but we may also find other things. On the map as I see it we have ‘the grey area’ and we have the rest. And Here Be Dragons.

  7. I think the key question is whether the grey area (at a given moment) is defined by attention to the real complexities of the question or by compromise between objectivity and cynical sophistry that’s dedicated to advancing an ideological viewpoint.

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