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Monday, March 19, 2012

Double Standards are Good Things?

Columnist Stanley Fish of the New York Times has no problem with that which others might consider to be a double standard:

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.

I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.

At least he's honest in his lying sorta double standard kinda way.

When I first read this, I was wondering if some sort of satire or parody was involved. But given the author and the paper in which this appears, I have to believe it's genuine.


Hey Skipper said...

This op-ed piece, which strongly suggests that the NYT's standards would need considerable elevation before they would avoid shaming a high school newspaper. It condenses practically every collectivist trope into the kind of toxic stew that leads straight to re-education camps.

Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice.

Which means that only motives matter. Does he not understand that what he is justifying every predation made in the name of religion?

What Rush said pales in comparison to Maher about Palin. Moreover, Rush was engaging in satire, which to be effective must always have some basis fact. Maher, in contrast, was wallowing in base insult.

I was in a hotel last night, doing a little channel surfing, and stumbled onto Maher's show.

Regardless of the whatever merits might attend not being a collectivist, at least I'll never have to contort myself defending that exercise in wholly unwarranted self-regard.

Anonymous said...


You wondered elsewhere about what's wrong with tribal politics. This.

Bret said...


That's a good point. It's at least somewhat hypocritical of me to decry Fish's double standard while wondering what's wrong with being tribal.

I guess the problem is that I am tribal as I put the well-being of my family, then friends, then communities, ahead of everybody else. I'd be rather surprised if the vast majority of people don't do this to some extent.

The possible difference (here comes another double standard :-), is that the total size of all my tribes combined numbers in the dozens while the number of progressives (Fish's school, so to speak) numbers in the hundreds of millions (worldwide). If I cut my daughter some slack I wouldn't extend to a stranger, the effects of that double standard are limited. On the other hand, the NY Times still has a large influence.

In addition, the New York Times pretends to be "objective" (whatever that means anymore). Fish has harpooned any remaining pretense of objectivity. That's what was most surprising to me - that he admitted it.

Anonymous said...

I disagree -- I think the difference is that you put at least some abstract principles before tribe because you make following those principles part of the definition of your tribe. You may cut them extra slack but it still matters (and don't tell me you wouldn't have a little talk with the daughter after cutting her that slack). And you admit that what she did was, in fact, wrong. You would ameliorate punishment, not guilt. That is, you are truly American.

Fish, in contrast, AFAICT defines his tribe by basically mannerism. Dress the right way, say the right things, go to the right schools, and everything else is OK. Not even forgivable because it's not wrong in the first place. That's real tribalism.

In essence, I think you misunderstood what "tribal" really means, but Fish lays it out for you.

Bret said...


I'm finding your argument unconvincing for two reasons. First, it seems much like a definitional argument - in other words what does the word tribal mean. In its simplist form it's "displaying loyalty to a tribe, group, or tribal values" (from So both Fish and I are tribal, we're just exploring the nuances.

Second, there's no doubt that Fish has principles. We may not like them and we may think that his principles are conflicting, incoherent, unrealistic, etc., but he has them and those are that socialism/collectivism/statism/egalitarianism trumps all else and any means are justified in achieving those ends and that anyone who enlists in helping achieve those ends is moral.

The surprising part is that he chose to lay that out so clearly for all to see.

Anonymous said...

"there's no doubt that Fish has principles"

I doubt it very much, if by "principles" you mean "abstract concepts not tied to specific people/places/cultures". One need only observe the reactions to President Obama, where whatever he does is good, because he does it. If it violates some putative principle his supporters have, that principle is discarded.

To me the dividing is line is clear and bright. As Fish puts it "tribal obligations [vs.] the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens". It is about abstract concepts or people and lifestyle?

I am not going to claim that there are no principled collectivists, but they are, IMHO, a tiny minority of the Modern American Left.

P.S. Consider the phrase "but he's our bastard". That's a conservative concept. For the Left it seems that if he is "ours" then he is, ipso facto, not a bastard. C.f. Pinochet vs. Chavez. Castro vs. Batista. The resistance to any abstract, universal judgement is so profound, so pervasive, that I can see no other explanation than no principles at all.