Friday, September 18, 2009
Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right
I'm likely overgeneralizing here, but why does it seem like whenever I point out what I see as the bad behavior of conservatives (whether theological or political) one of the first responses I get is usually "Well, your side does it too!" I can't recall how many times I've said something here about the close-mindedness of evangelicals for instance (which after all, is my own tribe), only to have someone respond, "Yeah, well, mainline liberals aren't any better." Or the number of times I've posted something about the dirty politics of the Republicans on Facebook, only to have someone reply, "Well, the Democrats do the same thing."

There are a number of things that bother me about this response:

1) It doesn't actually deal with the issue at hand. It's an evasion tactic that shifts the focus of debate from whether or not said behavior is actually acceptable, to "who started it". As such, it seems like basically a way of avoiding responsibility for one's own actions. So what if the other side does it? Does that thereby excuse your side from doing it too? Do two wrongs make a right? It's especially ironic when conservatives do this. I mean, aren't they supposed to be all about "personal responsibility", not just passing the buck?

2) The "your side does it too" response falsely assumes that I am actually on the "other side". This is not a safe assumption, whether theologically or politically. For instance, while I may be "post-evangelical", evangelicalism is still my heritage and the tribe I most easily identify with, so when I point the finger at the short-comings of evangelicals, it's not pointed at "them" so much as "us". And to be sure, I'm definitely not standing on the side of the mainline "liberals" either. Just because I've moved somewhat beyond evangelicalism doesn't mean I've therefore become a mainliner. That has become abundantly clear to me the more time I spend at my mainline Presbyterian seminary. I respect, love, and am intrigued by my mainline brothers and sisters here, but in many ways I still feel like an outsider looking in. So when folks tell me that "the mainliners do it too", my first thought is "Great, so what? I'm not a mainliner so what does that have to do with me?"

Likewise with politics, just because I no longer identify with the Republicans (though at one point in my life I was, literally, a card-carrying member) doesn't mean I therefore am a Democrat. I'm just as happy to criticize their antics as well (as I did, for instance, just the other day when I posted a Facebook complaint about how the Dems need to just let this Joe Wilson thing just drop.) Thus, when folks respond "The Dems do it too!" again my response is "Yeah? So what? They suck too. But shouldn't you be worried about your own side?"

Of course, I'm sure some might wonder why, if I don't consider myself either conservative or liberal in either of these spheres, why my critiques are usually directed primarily at the conservative side (which, I'll freely admit, they typically are). The answer is because, as I said above, the conservative side of things is where I come from and what I know. I can critique evangelicals because in some ways I still am one. And I can criticize Republicans because not too long ago I was one. However, not having ever been a mainliner, nor a devoted Democrat, I have a harder time pointing out their faults simply because I'm not as familiar with them. Indeed, it feels somewhat unfair and inappropriate for me to criticize them without fully understanding them. It's the whole "nobody better criticize my momma except me" thing. When you're part of (or have been part of) the family, you have a right to point out its faults. But when you're an outsider (and always have been), one has an obligation to understand before critiquing. (Which is one of the reasons I'm here at a mainline Seminary - in order to understand what makes mainliners tick so that I can better understand the critiques of my mainline Emergent friends.)

Anyhow, I'm sure I'll get flamed for this post, though of course it would be extremely ironic if the response to it was "well, liberals use this same evasion tactic too!" So let me be the first to say it, yes of course they do it too, and more than that, I'm sure I've done it too at times - I'm certainly not perfect. So why don't we all commit to dealing with the actual issues from now on, and not try to avoid seeing them in our own side (whichever side that is) by only ever pointing them out in the other. Let's all agree that "well, your side does it too", is never a valid counter-argument, especially when you haven't yet dealt with the fact that your own side is also doing it.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 5:27 PM | Permalink |


At 9/18/2009 07:21:00 PM, Blogger BornFree72

No flames here Mike. I have to agree that using the "they started it" or "she did it too" argument is lame (trust me I know, I've used it) and adds no value to the discussion. Disagreements on politics or religion are not a bad thing, but it's best to discuss them with rational arguments rather then finger pointing and name calling.


At 9/18/2009 07:54:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right."
-- H.L. Mencken

Both parties have to resort to these kind of tactics, since neither has any real ideas.

Nonetheless, it's entirely proper to direct the majority of one's criticism against the conservatives. Republicans offer us 1984; Democrats offer us Brave New World. Both options suck, but until a third choice becomes available, I'll opt for the latter.


At 9/18/2009 08:20:00 PM, Blogger arthurpare

No intense flames from this side either.

I do want to mention that just the word criticize falls into one of my pet peeves. Why criticize either side? I always thought the ideal (please don't say 'but that is not what you doing now') was to be offering a positive alternative. Constant belittling and partisan criticism is a significant part of the problem.

The main reason I have never identified with mainline Protestants is that I am not protesting anything. I stand for truth, love, charity, grace and forgivness.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. (Romans 12:18)


At 9/18/2009 08:34:00 PM, Blogger Milton

I yearn for civil discussion of ideas with another person. However, I hardly ever find it. I think what you've described is human thing, in that we all want our tribe to win and be right. To do this, we either have to paint ourselves as better than the others or as bad as the others. I must confess, I've used the same tactics against others of differing politics. I think civil discussion is possible, but sometimes I wonder!


At 9/19/2009 10:26:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

I'll provide a weak defense of the "the other side does it to" argument, at least in the context of politics. (1) Most Americans consider politics a choice between two parties; it's therefore useful information for the voting public to know that the other party is just as evil as you. (2) Assuming that by "dirty politics," you mean activities that are legal but in undesirable, parties are presumably engaged in them because they're useful, and would be virtuous chumps if they gave them up while the other party kept engaging in them. For example, I don't like gerrymandering, and would prefer that both parties stopped doing it. However, the Democrats would be chumps if they stopped on their own, and I don't really want them to stop, if the Republicans are going to keep doing it when they're in power---that would be idealistic and virtuous, but it would give Republicans a huge unfair advantage. (And conservatives can reasonably swap the words "Democrats" and "Republicans" in the preceding sentence.)


At 9/19/2009 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

Another reason to criticize mostly Republicans is that one just *expects Democrats* to act in those ways, so it's hardly worth noticing, whereas for Republicans it's shocking and unacceptable. ;) (Just a joke.)

Yes, I wish our public dialogs were more civil. But for me it's only partly because I like peace and harmony. The rest of it is that sniping is so distracting and counterproductive. I want facts and reasoned discussion. I wish political debates were more like academic ones. Not that academics are all perfect ladies and gentlemen, but the overall atmosphere seems more reasonable.

Also, I think criticism is important along with giving constructive ideas. People need to know the limits as well as the core of proper behavior. And when someone creates ill will by the things they do, it needs to be dealt with in some way (criticism plus apologies at least) rather than pretending it didn't happen and letting the bad feelings fester. It can clear the air for more constructive dialog to happen.


At 9/20/2009 08:53:00 PM, Blogger Nathan P. Gilmour

I'm going to disagree with Milton and say that I more often than not find conversations with another person quite interesting and edifying. The problems come when I (rarely) listen to AM radio or watch political TV news or (more frequently) turn to the Internet for such things. Abstracted from human bodies and human community, interlocutors in such spheres of "discourse" lose humanity in a hurry, dive right down past cheap fiction, and turn quickly into bathroom stall cartoon characters.


At 9/21/2009 01:13:00 PM, Blogger John Mahan


As I have seen from discussions you have had, and I have participated in, it appears to me that the "your side does it too" kind of arguement is more an ad hominem. It is a means of pointing out that it this kind of "bad" thing really bothers you, why do you predominantly point it out on the conservative side? And then that assumption becomes validated because most of the positions you promote are antithetical to the broader conservative principles.

Personally, I appreciate reading how a "progressive" views conservative positions because I know you are not the only one who sees that and it forces me to answer (at least in my own head) the question or disown that position.

That said, there is a difference when a conservative critisizes conservatives and when a former conservative critisizes conservatives. The prior is "nobody better criticize my momma except me." The latter seems more like the fallout of a divorce.


At 9/21/2009 04:08:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

John Mahan makes a good distinction, Mike. That, or something like it, is what has prompted me to object to the one-sidedness of your commentary at times. It usually sounds more like a bitter divorce' than a son who loves and respects his mother.

People like Mark Noll (who has numerous times very nearly turned in his "evangelical" card) are much easier for an evangelical or conservative to hear and receive and take seriously when they speak in criticism of conservatives and evangelicals. In my opinion maybe that's because of the presence of love and respect in their words of criticism and a sense of balance and fairness in their treatment of things.

Not that in order to have a right to ever criticize evangelicals you'd need to have remained an evangelical like Noll (which in other exchanges you've made very clear you have not). But having left one family, to keep on sniping (almost exclusively) at it for traits that usually are common *human* traits exhibiting themselves in ways particular to that family, as if rather than human traits they were indications of that particular family's unique evil . . . that can be more than a little frustrating to read. And yes, it can prompt a reader to point out that you're complaining about a human phenomenon, not a uniquely conservative or evangelical one.

You may say "a pox on both their houses" from time to time and you don't fully "fit" in either camp. I actually expect that over time in a mainline seminary and context you might fit less and less there, because you're clearly an independent thinker who can often see through BS coming from either direction. But for the couple of years or more I've been reading, most of your pox-throwing tends to go in one direction - the direction that you seem *least* fit in with anymore, as far as I can tell. I'd guess that when you were a conservative evangelical and Rush-listener your criticism was one-sided in the other direction rather than offering balanced, equal-opportunity criticism of conservatives, too.

It's not surprising that having realized you disagree with evangelicals and no longer are one, you'd be angry and want to take them on. "The heresies that men do leave/Are hated most of those they did deceive." But if some ex-pcusa or ex-episcopalian was several years out of their mainline context and had found a new, evangelical church where they fit in better but maintained a blog that they dedicated primarily to criticising the hypocrisies and sins of their old denomination while rarely if ever turning an equally critical eye on their new evangelical context - I'd have much the same reaction to them. And there are such people out there, no question.

I don't mean any of that as a flame. You were obviously bothered, and asked a question that you seemed to genuinely want answered honestly.


At 9/21/2009 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for your thoughts Karl. I think my point was more that the "your side does it too" argument doesn't work with me because I'm not on the other side. Whether or not I'm an evangelical anymore (and really, if I'm not, then it wasn't a divorce so much as an abandonment... I never left, but I was pushed out), the fact remains that I haven't joined the PC(USA), nor the Anglican church, nor the Democrats, or whoever. Perhaps I don't have the "right" to criticize where I've come from. I don't know. Regardless though, the "your side does it too" argument is still irrelevant because it's not my side. And while whatever particular problem I'm pointing out may in fact be a general human trait, that still doesn't excuse the particular behavior being exhibited by particular people, and thus bringing up the "both sides do it, therefore it's just human nature" argument still just feels like a dodge to avoid actually dealing with the issue at hand.

In other words, it's not about me. I'm not on any "side" right now, so maybe that means I don't have the right to criticize anyone, I don't know. But it's still a crappy argument regardless. Forget about what side you think I'm on and deal with your own side's issues.


At 9/22/2009 10:06:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Maybe it's not so much "your side does it too" as "people all around are doing the same thing, so why do you so frequently single out your ex, to tell everyone how evil she is?"

I agree that issues need to be dealt with, not dodged. Saying "we aren't the only ones" doesn't work as argument and it shouldn't be thrown out merely as a conversation stopper. But at times I think it's a valid point to bring up in the context of a larger discussion re. the issue.

It would be like someone from Wheaton who went to grad school at Cal Berkly complaining about the treatment of conservative opinion on Cal's campus by the majority of Cal students and citing it as an example of liberal groupthink and idea suppression. It might be valid to point out to the Wheatie that at her alma mater, the College Democrats were often treated similarly, if not worse, by their fellow Wheaton students. Not as a conversation-ender as if it invalidated what she just said about her experience at Cal or to discourage efforts to change things in her local context, but at least as a perspective check so she remembers not to demonize the people who are currently pissing her off, as if they were uniquely bad in this respect.


At 9/25/2009 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I question this implication that it's inappropriate to criticize your "ex". I think those who have been an intimate part of something, and who are in many ways still a part of it, are often in the best position to see it clearly and comment on the things that need to be improved. Who else is going to do it? True outsiders don't know it well enough to really give a valid critique, and insiders who are merely content with the status quo aren't generally interested in even hearing about the flaws, much less doing anything to correct them.

This "you're not one of us anymore, therefore you don't have a right to critique us" seems like a rather convenient tactic for evangelicals to not ever have to face dissent, especially considering most emergents have not deliberately left evangelicalism, but instead, like myself, have been pushed out by those who didn't like the fact that we were questioning the status quo. According to this logic then, all they have to do is define us as "outside the camp", and thereby suddenly let themselves off the hook from ever having to listen to us again or take our critiques seriously. Yes, very convenient.


At 9/25/2009 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Andy Culbertson

When people talk about someone criticizing their ex, I think the idea is that the criticism is bitter, exaggerated, and biased against the ex. But I agree with your point about being in a position to know what to criticize.


At 9/28/2009 04:34:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Andy says it well.

There is inside or used-to-be-inside critique of evangelicals (Noll, for example, or the Wittenburg Door, Ron Sider, Bob Webber, Dallas Willard, Scot McKnight or Rob Bell) that is plenty incisive but easier for evangelicals to hear because of the charity, balance, and sense of an attempt at fairness that comes across. There's less of a sense of "those people suck and I should know because I am/used to be one - let's look at another example of their hypocrisy/blindness/stupidity."

Not to say that more critique isn't needed. But I prefer the constructive and charitable variety. That seems to be the kind that is most likely to be heard and actually result in change.

Persistently one-sided barrages aimed at human tendencies as they show up uniquely in your former tribe as if that tribe was uniquely awful are likely to be met with rejoinders of "take a look around you - welcome to the human race."

Now if you want more of a "Don't Date Him Girl" type of website intended to warn everyone of how bad your ex was and to make sure the evil ex doesn't hoodwink anyone else, then that's a different thing altogether and I guess there's a place for such a site. But if it's about constructive dialogue between people on different sides of an issue - a real conversation rather than a harangue - then maybe more balance would help to actually bring about dialogue. And if you aren't offering the balance then don't be surprised if some of your conversation/dialogue partners try to. Not as a conversation stopper or excuse, but for the sake of clarity and fairness and context.


At 9/28/2009 05:25:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'm sorry if it seems to you that my blog is too one-sided Karl. Again, I'll point out that I'm perhaps "one-sided" because I don't have "another side" that I'm on. I'm not on whatever "other side" you want to point the finger back at, so to me bringing in the "other side does it too" is still irrelevant because who was talking about them in the first place? Why point out the speck in the mainliners eyes when we still haven't dealt with the plank in our own?

Of course you're entitled to your opinion on whether you think I'm more of a "bitter-ex" than an "insider". So I take it that you don't think there's anything to my suspicion that many evangelicals have deliberately tried to turn folks like me into "exes" so that they can thereby marginalize our critiques? Perhaps we wouldn't feel the need to be quite so critical if we felt like we were being heard.

Of course, here at my blog there's never any need to balance what I say about evangelicals, since I know I can count on you to immediately jump in with it no matter what I say. ;)


At 9/29/2009 01:04:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Mike, I'm nearly as much of an independent as you claim to be. I'm not interested in dichotomized thinking and my opinions don't line up neatly in any particular category. I do appreciate balance and charity though. There have been many instances where I defended the emerging church to evangelical friends who were being imbalanced and uncharitable in their characterizations of it. I'll defend Sider and Wallis to people who think they're communists, Brian McLaren to people who think he's a heretic, Franky Schaeffer to people who think he's embraced the devil, and evangelicalism to people who think it's uniformly like Falwell and Dobson - just examples.

Unfairness, lack of balance and charity bug me - wherever they come from, whoever they are directed at and regardless of whether the person doing it is an insider, an outsider, or a used-to-be-insider. They get in the way of constructive dialogue and result in only ever preaching to the choir. Who is the intended audience and what's the intended purpose for your blog? Is it intended as a place for dialogue and to persuade the not-yet convinced including maybe even some evangelicals, or is it mainly a venting place for like minded people who are all angry at the same things, with disagreement discouraged? Maybe that's the key question and maybe I misunderstood its intent. I share many of your frustrations and concerns with evangelicalism. But I'm interested in a fair and charitable discussion with balanced context, and if my idea of what that entails isn't welcome I'll keep quiet.

You accused me before of trying to do something I've never intended to do - assigning you to a "side" or wanting to label you so as to dismiss or pigeonhole you. I don't care what side you are on or whether you are on all sides, or none or even if we scrap the idea of sides altogether. I care about fairness and a balanced context when weighing issues - and especially when leveling critiques.

As far as evangelicals forcing people like you out, I think it has to be looked at on a case by case basis re. where the fault lies. Theologically, at a point I think integrity demands one saying "I'm just not [or the body saying "you just aren't"] an evangelical anymore" rather than trying to play word games to say one still is evangelical even though one differs from evangelicals on almost everything. In that case maybe there's no "fault" just a need to go separate ways. In many other cases the (usually local) church is being insecure or power hungry or too narrow, and is silencing dissent wrongfully. In still other cases the dissenter who thinks he's being prophetic is just being an ass and deserves censure for attitude, more than for the content of his theology and his inability to see this ends up with his being on the outside with martyr/prophet complex still intact. Each case has to be taken on its own merits by those who know both sides of it. But yeah, I hear you that on the local level a lot of bad crap is perpetrated against dissenting voices in many evangelical churches.

Like I said earlier, many of the critiques levelled at the evangelical church by emerging folks are being voiced by people as diverse as Scot McKnight, Tim Keller, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, N.T. Wright and Mark Noll and many others. Maybe there's a reason those voices are mmore frequently heard and, if not always agreed with and followed, not forced out in toto.

Thanks for putting up with a dissenting voice.


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