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.

What is your thinking?

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About Kaveh Mousavi

Kaveh Mousavi is the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies. He is a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher. He is passionate about politics, video games, heavy metal music, and cinema. He was born at the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. He has ditched the Islamic part, but has kept some of the revolutionary spirit.

  • Brucc

    This makes good sense to me. Thanks.

  • John Morales

    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.

    Mmm. I think it’s very arguable whether those examples truly constitute double standards; in normal usage, the term refers to different determinations (or actions) when circumstances are quite similar.

    (If one tolerated an insult from one friend but not from another, that would constitute a good example)

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Ok but that would still be reasonable in some cases. Like the history of the friendship and our level of intimacy.

      • John Morales


        I feel I should add that the appositeness or otherwise of your particular examples doesn’t detract from your main point, with which I agree.

  • colnago80

    One big difference between Obama and Bush II is that the former is extremely reluctant to commit ground troops and is far more cautious then Bush was about intervening anywhere. He has been under great pressure from, among others, his former Secretary of State, to intervene in Syria. That’s a great idea, it work so well in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (end snark). Even Bibi agrees with Obama’s Syria policy in Syria, recognizing that it’s a little hard to tell the bad guys from the not so bad guys. The current view in Israel seems to be that it would be in their best interest for a weakened Assad to survive as they have concluded that the alternative is an Al Qaeda takeover and a resultant terrorist state.

    As for Lincoln, he is the textbook example of General Fuller’s axiom that in military matters, there is no substitute for a find mind. Lincoln had a fine mind which quickly grasped the fine points of military strategy. His opponent, Jefferson Davis, was a dolt, a dried up old stick more suited to the seminary then as head of a military operation. If one examined the qualifications of the two men before the Civil War began, one would have concluded that Lincoln, who had no military experience worth mentioning was in way over his head against Davis who was a graduate of the US Military Academy and a veteran of the Mexican War. As Fuller put it Napoleon’s mules went through 20 campaigns and at the end were still mules. High intelligence trumps experience when the experienced one lacks intelligence.

  • colnago80

    OT but what’s the buzz in Iran relative to the situation in Iraq, which is getting out of control in a hurry? The latest reports here indicate that the Al Qaeda affiliated invaders from Syria have captured Mosul and Tikrit, apparently a Kurdish force has captured Kirkuk and the Kurds may be about to declare Kurdistan an independent country. Well, I predicted a year ago that the situation in Syria would eventually spill over into Iraq and it appears that it has.

    • Kaveh Mousavi

      Iranians are pretty worried, of course. These guys are worse than Taliban and they are taking our neighbor.

      I personally consider Islamic Republic accomplice to this calamity. If they hadn’t so foolishly supported Assad so foolishly things wouldn’t become so out of hand.

      • colnago80

        The latest news has the ISIS moving on Baghdad.

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I disagree strongly with your point as worded, but I think I agree with the point you intend to express.

    Like Morales, i think you’re not using double standard as it was meant to be used.

    All our standards are **contextual** standards. An insult from a friend often comes in the context of a level of trust that the friend does not, in fact, believe us to be contemptible. An insult from a stranger is not received the same way because the context of trust does not exist. It is, however, possible to have a friend whom you do *not* trust to view you without contempt. Maybe you’ve recently admitted something that you know is objectionable to that friend, or maybe your friend’s personality has been changing lately, or whatever. But if that trust isn’t there, the insult is probably going to be felt the same way. This isn’t a double standard at all.

    When all else is equal except something that cannot be changed (or that we should not demand a person change), like race or dis/ability or nationality or religious affiliation or the school from which one graduated 20 years ago, responding differently to the same behavior is a double standard.

    When things are not equal in ways that can be changed and can reasonably be changed, especially when this surrounds behavior and/or access to important information useful in determining a response (you trust -or don’t- the friend because you have observed that friend’s behavior over time, you don’t similarly have access to a large amount of data about the stranger’s behavior), then you have a different situation, and so responding differently to the input is warranted.

    i think this is probably what you mean to say, but this latter case **is not in fact a double standard**.

    So, yeah, double standards are a credibility killer – at least with respect to any argument made depending on fair judgement in an area affected by your double standard. And the death of your credibility may indeed cost you the argument. And I’m fine with that.

    But for certain, when someone alleges a double standard, that allegation should be critically engaged. They may not have as much as a prima facie case, even when the person throwing the term around thinks a solid case exists.

  • Kimpatsu

    I completely disagree. The dichotomy is not between leaving your kids in the care of friends vs. the stranger at the mall, but between people you can trust with your kids’ safety and those you can’t. You trust your friends because you know them AS FRIENDS; you don’t trust the stranger PRECISELY BECAUSE THEY ARE A STRANGER. Double standards in politics is ALWAYS about tribalism and partisanship; a clear example is Obama telling the Chinese to stop spying on people’s internet activity. This is because Obama believes not in the universal rule of law but rather in different laws for different people. It is not the ACT that he decries, but the person performing the act. So USA spying on people is fine because USA is intrinsically noble, whereas China spying on people is bad because China is by definition not the USA. This is the real definition of a double standard; not applying common sense to the protection of minors.

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