The media likes to engage in moral equivalence. They write stories that simplify to: those guys did something bad, but we asked for it, or we used to do the same thing. Why do they write such things? Basically to ensure that people discount the United States and the West for their privileges.
Think of it as a version of “you didn’t build that.” It is “freedom didn’t build that.” If freedom is as great at providing for human welfare as history suggests, it devastates the Progressive argument that societies need an enlightened elite telling the masses what to do. Therefore, every great thing American freedom has done must be negated with American wrongdoing.
Blame the Victims, Cultural Elite Style
When my 11-year-old son recently asked why the old American sin of slavery—not racism, but slavery, an institution outlawed a century and a half ago—constantly comes up in discourse, that was the explanation I gave to him. Americans will never be truly credited for transcending our past. That we have gone further in racial relations than other western societies does not matter.* To admit our strengths would be to admit some version of American or Western exceptionalism, which the relativist, all-cultures-are-equal elite would never allow.
Currently the most notable moral equivalence emerges from the French terror attacks and many comments suggesting that the “brats” and “thugs”—the cartoonists, not the terrorists—were asking for it. In fact, the equivalence further suggests the terrorists were actually merciful for not killing women. (That The New York Times omitted the terrorist’s religious conversion instructions to the spared women is bad enough. But they also omitted something they would complain about in most other contexts: a woman was singled out and treated more delicately than a man simply due to her sex. Apparently, in some circumstances, soft treatment of women because they are women is acceptable. Per normal, nobody notices the corollary: the higher price men pay for their actions.)
How to Assess a Group’s Actions
Since the media uses moral equivalence against privileged groups or cultures, whenever discussion of moral equivalence arises, we end up worrying about when we should analyze actions as group actions or individual actions. On the whole, Americans, individualists that we are, don’t like assigning group culpability. Mollie Hemingway summed up that sentiment when she recently wrote: “Every group, of course, has some bad actors. But we should be on guard against developing bigoted responses that apply to groups instead of individuals.”
We should be on guard against blaming a group for acts of individuals, yes, but there are times when group culpability is appropriate, and as Hemingway noted, consistency is key for any such analysis. Thankfully, there is an easy test to help us know when and how to assess the moral culpability of groups. It just takes five simple questions:
- When was the act done? Centuries ago or last week?**
- Who is doing the act? A leader of the group or a follower?
- How many are doing the act? A large group or a lone wolf?
- What is the nature and magnitude of the act? Words or violence? A slap or a slit throat?
- And how do other members of the larger group respond? With silence, condemnation, or celebration? Calls to imitate or to cease?
Obviously, the range of possible combinations is large, but it is easy to see a scale from a lone-wolf, random citizen reading an offensive limerick to a group of friendlies who voice their disapproval afterward and counsel him to never read it again, to a council of respected elders inciting many followers to kill innocents, after which they are then cheered and copied while disapproving members remain silent. The lone wolf is just that in the former example, but we would be quite justified in seeing group responsibility in the latter.
I’ve seen many discussions on a variety of topics intuitively covering at least one of these questions. It is essentially the analysis Rachel Lu gave recently in her piece on Islam:
I’d happily accept Branch Davidians as next-door neighbors rather than live anywhere in the vicinity of Boko Haram militants. More importantly, these groups are clearly far more marginal within Christianity than Islamic extremists are to their fellow believers. And that matters. Even if jihadists are in many respects non-representative of all Muslims, their movements are large, global, and obviously admired by many Muslims. Far more than the Branch Davidians, it’s reasonable to suppose that they are symptomatic of deeper problems that affect all Muslims[.]
Islam and terrorism is the most frequently recurring example of the need to assess group capability, but it is by no means the only one. A couple of far less-extreme examples in which the five questions can be useful to determine if a problem points to individuals or the group: declared feminists have some misandry within their ranks and many Catholics are becoming quite uncomfortable about political statements made by the current Pope. In such cases, the five questions could be used not only for outsiders to assess group action, but also for members to determine whether and how vigorously they need to respond.
These five questions are hardly more difficult to answer than the who, what, where, when, why, and how that mainstream journalism is supposed to provide the public. We found ways to provide those answers for ourselves, and we can provide this analysis as well. Any time you hear a claim of group blame or moral equivalence, answer those five questions. Then decide.
* I provided the Black Pete link because it is a recent example of racist attitudes common overseas. Others are easy to find. I’ve written on a few personal experiences in the past. Most memorable to me was British elite reaction to Obama’s election, when some mocked the tears of joy and firmly agreed that neither the election of a minority, nor the tears, would happen in the United Kingdom.
** I could have held this analysis to four questions, but I added the first one about when the act was committed because the most common moral-equivalence arguments in public discourse are that all religions are violent and Americans are freedom’s hypocrites, each of which detractors base upon actions committed centuries ago. It is more accurate to say that all religions have been violent but that most have denounced and left their violence in the past, and that America was once hypocritical yet has made great effort and more strides than any other nation to redress that past.