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Shannon Corregan: Two sides of argument not always equal

Back when I was in grad school, I tried to dissuade my undergraduate students from using the word “bias” or from thinking of their sources as “biased.

Back when I was in grad school, I tried to dissuade my undergraduate students from using the word “bias” or from thinking of their sources as “biased.”

I’d been trained by several excellent professors at the University of Victoria to think of bias as an unhelpful term, and I was reminded of this lesson last week when I stumbled across some commentary on the Woody Allen scandal.

It wasn’t a scholarly or journalistic article. It was just an opinion piece, like this, discussing the blow-back surrounding the Golden Globes’ decision to award Woody Allen, the man who stands accused by his adopted daughter of molesting her when she was seven, with a Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award.

The thesis boiled down to this: There are two sides to every story. Allen is both an alleged child molester and a great artist, and it’s wrong to ignore one facet of the man in favour of the other.

There’s a problem with this conclusion, and it’s a problem that’s often present in the news we watch, the articles we read and the things we say.

It’s the fallacy of balance.

“Balance” connotes all things that are steady and dependable. The idea of balanced writing (or balanced journalism or balanced reasoning) relies on the metaphor of the scale. If there are two sides to every story, the metaphor suggests, then a balanced review will put equal weight on both sides. To do otherwise would be unfair.

This model is also attractive to us partly because of our linear understanding of left-right politics.

This metaphor, however, encourages us to presuppose that there’s content of equal value on each side. This is a problem. For example, when praising Allen as a filmmaker, I think it’s wrong to deny or obscure the fact that he’s also accused of being a child molester. I think we have a moral duty to acknowledge that context.

On the other hand, I think it’s valid for someone to choose not to support or condone Allen by watching his films, regardless of how funny they are. I think it’s valid for someone to answer the question of “Is Woody Allen a great filmmaker?” with “I don’t care, because he allegedly abused his child.”

This doesn’t make that person’s opinions “unbalanced;” it means instead that they find one side of the argument more important.

In this case, moral factors trump esthetic ones; indeed, I think it’s appalling to argue that the moral and the esthetic have equal value. Child abuse is a bigger deal than Annie Hall. Yet the metaphor of “balanced” reasoning insists quite powerfully that in order to be fair, you need to accept both sides as valid; to come down on one side or the other is to be extreme or unbalanced or biased.

This two-sides-to-every-story model infiltrates so much of our writing and reasoning. It’s especially insidious because it casts the reader in the role of moderator at all times. It suggests that there’s a way of looking at a situation that is divorced from our subject position, that it’s possible to be free from “bias.”

This is dangerous. It’s possible to be fair, but it’s never possible to be neutral — and the only way to be fair is to acknowledge in what ways you and the world around you are not neutral. If you’re a man and you don’t understand how male privilege affects you, or how systemic sexism negatively impacts women, then you’re obscuring the problem rather than solving it.

Insisting that you’re neutral harms the people you’re intending to help.

When Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, pundits anxiously wondered if her identity as a Hispanic woman would affect her. She responded by acknowledging that, yes, her experiences as a Hispanic woman would affect her decisions — but no more so than her predecessor’s experiences as a white man affected his. This was something no one had thought to worry about.

Everyone’s “biased,” and since that’s not a useful observation for anyone over the age of 16, let’s toss it.

Let’s also toss the idea that it’s better to be a moderator than an opinion-haver, and that both sides of an argument are equally valid. Sometimes they’re not, and it’s not unjust or extreme to say so.