Double Standards Are Underrated

Double standard seems to be the ultimate game-over in ethical and political debates. While double standard can be a bad thing, it is not necessarily so. It certainly cannot be used to automatically dismiss any argument that includes it. I want to argue about this.

On the surface, double standard sounds really bad. It smacks of partisanship. It means that your loyalty is to your group and not to your principles and ideals. It means you’re a calculative person vying only for power.

And by no means I want to suggest it can’t be that. It might be even 100% unconscious. And it might show a lack of cohesion, and be a sign of tribalism.

But, you know, it could totally be not that. Even when it comes to politics.

Of course, in our lives we always have double standards. We tolerate an insult from a friend, even enjoy it, but get offended if a stranger says that. We leave our children in the care of our friends but not that guy we met in the mall. In these aspects our double standard is right. Of course, it can be wrong: we tend to accept criticism better from friends, but that’s wrong.

But to equate double standard with “wrong”, all the time, is false. Words are not actually entities that live independently from the person who speaks them, especially in politics.

And just like friendship, politics can also be a matter of trust, and that trust might be reasonable. You might accept somethings from a politician or a political group more readily, and that acceptance might be quite rational.

Another factor is the context and the consequence. You might recognize that a certain situation might make some measures acceptable while other situations may not, and therefore this leads to a double standard or multiple standards. A politician dealing with war or economic depression is not hold to the same standards as a politician working at the time of growth and peace. There might be some measures, even unethical ones, that the first one must take but they are not tolerable coming from the second one.

On the other hand, single standard might leave some negative effects as well. If you’re so inflexible in your disciplines that you will consider no situation urgent enough to bend them, you might as well end up losing and destroying your values alongside with you. Single standard can lead to extremism, to people so averse to compromise and gradual change that they become radical terrorists. Of course this is not always true, but if we are aware of the harmful side of double standard let’s be aware of the harmful side of single standard as well.

Take Ahmadinejad and Rouhani, for example. Ahmadinejad had the entire force of the regime oppression machine behind him for at least six years of his presidency, while Rouhani is limited and contained, and many parts of the regime intentionally want to make sure he fails. There’s no way I hold them up to the same standards. As you might know from reading this blog, Rouhani has gone on an offensive style, calling his critics “delusional”, “illiterate”, and similar things. Some his supporters – including me – are rejoicing his attitude. But many criticize us for double standard, saying that we attacked Ahmadinejad for his foul and uncivil language, so why are we cherishing the same thing in Rouhani? The answer is clear: Ahmadinejad was demonizing people who had risen to fight for their freedom and votes and he had all the mediums available to him. Rouhani is – first – right, because his critics are really that way, and secondly he is fighting to gain some power in a field entirely unfair to him. He needs to use everything he can use. Plus, the severity of the two is not comparable. So of course I’m going to have a double standard here.

Or take people who criticize Lincoln and compare him to tyrants for some of the things he had done during the Civil War, completely forgetting that Lincoln was fighting to preserve a democratic country and his enemies were slavers and tyrants, and that his defeat would be much worse for liberty than the dirty things he did in the process. Of course I hold someone like Lincoln to a different standard than other politicians.

And of course there are many things I trust Obama with rather than Bush. This gets tricky. On a rational basis, I completely disagree with the way things like “kill list” and NSA programs are used, and I want them to become transparent so that the free press and the public can scrutinize them, and abolish them if that is deemed necessary. These are wrong methods and wrong institutions. But that wouldn’t lead me to conclude Obama and Bush are the same, and yes, I would feel much more comfortable and reassured with Obama in charge of these things than Bush, or any democrat in comparison to any Republican. This double standard, but it’s reasonable, because democrats are in general the more reasonable and science-minded and liberal party.

Which is part of why we need reform. When abolishing incorrect systems is not possible or easy, you vote or try to vote reasonable moderate people in charge of those corrupt systems. It’s not ideal, but it’s damage control. So double standard is necessary here.

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