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Double Talk about Double Standards

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Writing in the New York Times, Stanley Fish reveals he is happy to live with an immoral double standard; but no decent society can.

Professor Stanley Fish recently published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Two Cheers for Double Standards.” Fish begins by explaining that a double standard is “when you condemn an opponent for doing or saying something you would approve or excuse if it were said or done by one of your buddies.” A classic example of a double standard is when a married woman is condemned for having a sexual affair with another man, while her philandering husband is given a free ride—after all, he’s just a man. But this is not the double standard that Fish is cheering for. (Just imagine reading a New York Times op-ed that cheered for that particular double standard!)

No, the double standard Professor Fish has in mind stems from the furor over Rush Limbaugh’s despicable and gratuitous attack on Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Fish notes that “Limbaugh has not had many defenders,” a fact that might be interpreted to the credit of conservatives, who, in this case at least, put public civility above blind partisanship. But Fish draws no such conclusion, since the target of his polemic is those conservatives who, according to Fish, “have cried ‘double standard’ because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized … for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a ‘right-wing slut,’ and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed as he referred to Michele Bachmann as a ‘bimbo’ and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper.”

Fish appears to be cheering cowboy outlaws, Nazis, gangsters, the mafia, the KKK, and the seasoned practitioners of nepotism and cronyism, all of whom put loyalty to their own group above mere abstract principles.

Fish observes that “some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two [Schultz and Maher] off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures.” But Fish rejects this feeble attempt by the liberal Left to wiggle out of the charge of a double standard, because the double standard, Fish maintains, is just what our nation needs.

True, as Fish acknowledges, many of us have been brought up to think of double standards as wrong. This is because we “have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism … Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.”

But not everyone has been schooled in this political philosophy. Fish recounts a scene in the classic Western film The Wild Bunch, in which two outlaws discuss the thorny issue of who deserves your loyalty. The moral of the scene is summed up by Fish as: “What counts is who your friends and allies are. You keep your word to them and not just to anybody. Your loyalty is to particular people, and not to an abstraction.”

Fish could have easily chosen other examples besides picturesque outlaws to prove the same point. The fundamental principle of Nazism was to put loyalty to a whole people, namely fellow Aryans, above loyalty to abstractions such as enlightenment liberalism and the rule of law. The KKK put loyalty to white Christians above the principle of common decency. Both the Nazis and the KKK observed a rigorous double standard: Do good to our friends and evil to our enemies. But is this really the kind of thing that Stanley Fish is cheering for?

The double standard, Fish maintains, is just what our nation needs.

Presumably not, yet his next example hardly clarifies his position. “The same disdain for choosing principle over family and friends was displayed by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley when he was accused of nepotism for having steered the city’s insurance business to his son’s agency.” Now Fish appears to be cheering public officials who have used their position to enrich their family members and who routinely give high paying jobs to their pals and cronies. To take it one step further, why not those politicians who, according to the double standard, should be cheered for using their power and influence to get back at their enemies?

At this point in his argument, Fish appears to be cheering cowboy outlaws, Nazis, gangsters, the mafia, the KKK, and the seasoned practitioners of nepotism and cronyism, all of whom put loyalty to their own group above mere abstract principles. Are we really reading the New York Times? And where is Fish going with his argument? After all, wasn’t this supposed to be about Rush Limbaugh, Ed Schultz, and Bill Maher?

Of course, you didn’t really think you were going to get through an article by Stanley Fish without at least one reference to John Milton, did you? And no surprise, Fish, an eminent Milton scholar, quotes a scene from Paradise Lost to clear matters up. When Satan refers to himself as a “faithful leader,” the Angel Gabriel replies, “Faithful to whom? To thy rebellious crew?/An army of fiends.” From this passage, Fish moves to the real point of his article. “Your faith is not binding simply because you have pledged it; it is binding only if it is pledged to the right people … Obligations are not owed to everyone, but only to those who are of the right sort.” (Emphasis mine.)

So forget about Fish’s argument up until this point. He really didn’t mean to imply that he was cheering those who were simply loyal to particular people, be it their own family, friends, group, tribe, race, or nation. He is only cheering those who are loyal to the right people, while nothing could be more despicable than loyalty to the wrong people.

He is only cheering those who are loyal to the right people, while nothing could be more despicable than loyalty to the wrong people.

Now, this is all very easy for the Angel Gabriel to decide. God and the angels who remained faithful to Him were clearly the right sort, while Satan and his army of fiends were obviously the very worst sort imaginable. But for most of us mere mortals—fallible human beings, judging other fallible human beings—the decision is not quite so simple.

Not so for Professor Fish, who, like the Angel Gabriel, can easily distinguish between good and evil. “Schultz and Maher,” he declares, “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?”

At this point, one begins to suspect that Fish’s two cheers for double standards is nothing but double talk. If he were really supporting double standards, then he would be logically committed to supporting double standards for everyone, not just for himself and others of the right sort, but also for those he regards as the bad guys. For Fish, it is fine to attack Limbaugh while condoning Schultz and Maher, but beyond the pale to condemn Schultz and Maher while absolving Limbaugh. Loyalty to a particular people is good, but only if the particular people are the right sort, which, in practice, almost invariably means “people who act and think like me.” In short, Fish’s two cheers are really two cheers for Fish and his friends.

But Fish hasn’t finished yet. He is bothered that some people might not think it fair that only the right people, like Fish and friends, should have the privilege of playing doubles. So he feels compelled to put down the very idea of fairness. “‘Fair’ is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on withdrawal from moral judgment.” This statement is simply nonsense, and, what is worse, it is nonsense that any third-grader could detect. When a schoolyard bully is picking on a defenceless younger kid, and another boy steps in and makes the bully stop, the heroic kid is acting out of a sense of fair play. Far from withdrawing from moral judgment, the kid who intervenes is compelled to take action because he is witnessing behavior that he deems unfair—and thus wrong.

Fish notes that ‘Limbaugh has not had many defenders,’ a fact that might be interpreted to the credit of conservatives.

For most of us, our concept of a good guy is inextricably involved with the ideal of fair play. In our normal dealings with other people, we seldom have insight into the dim inner recesses of their souls. When we make moral evaluations of them, we must go by their behavior toward ourselves and other people we know. When individuals treat us and other people unfairly, when they spread lies or call people by nasty names, we instinctively lose moral respect for them. By the same logic, when we see them behaving fairly with ourselves and others, they automatically gain our moral respect. We admire them for it—and with good reason. A history of playing fair wins our enduring trust like nothing else can.

If Fish had ended his piece at this point, it could easily be summed up as: If you are among the right people, like Fish and friends, you can get away with murder—or, at the very least, all sorts of nasty and reprehensible behavior, while being entitled to attack the nasty and reprehensible behavior of the wrong people. Hurrah for our double standard for us, but not those of our enemies. But Fish, perhaps nagged by a lingering sense of fairness, concludes his article by giving everyone an equal opportunity to play unfairly.

After arguing that we should be loyal to the right people, Fish suddenly switches tracks, maintaining that his argument “elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differentials 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.”

Fish appears to be cheering public officials who have used their position to enrich their family members.

Earlier I asked whether Fish was willing to cheer Nazism or the KKK. But if his intention is to elevate “tribal obligations” über alles, then shouldn’t outlaws, gangsters, racists, Nazis, et al be free to elevate their own tribal obligations above the weak virtue of fairness? Why shouldn’t bigots be allowed to practice discriminatory treatment against other citizens, if they can just get enough power, i.e., might, to get away with it? Even worse, if might makes right, then even Fish’s idea of loyalty to the right people comes down to meaning nothing more than loyalty to those who happen to possess the most might. Can Fish possibly mean such a thing?

Fish concludes by saying that he can live with the consequences of the argument he has presented, but the most charitable reading of this pronouncement is that Fish has been so confused by his own double talk that he doesn’t realize that his argument not only excuses and condones the likes of Ed Schultz and Bill Maher, not to mention Rush Limbaugh, but also Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and all those who have rejected the philosophy of enlightenment liberalism for the naked assertion of the will to power. Perhaps Stanley Fish can live with that, but no decent society can.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Explaining the Santorum Surprise” and “Tim Tebow and the Atheist’s Dilemma.” J.D. Kleinke discusses the “Contraception Conundrum.” Jonah Goldberg contributes “Birth Control Agitprop.” Michael Barone says “Loose Lips can Turn Convictions to Controversy.” Karlyn Bowman authors “The Pill: 50 Years Later.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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