Boasting of Double Standards (2012 Apr)

by Barry A. Liebling

If you are consistent when you judge others – whether or not you know them, identify with them, like them, agree with them, or approve of them – you are displaying integrity. You are sticking to a single standard. This is captured in the familiar proverb “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Alternatively if you are lenient when one of your pals commits a transgression but harsh when the same bad behavior is committed by a stranger you are using a double standard. People who resort to double standards are often called out for it and deserve to be scorned.

Yet, the use of double standards is common and not likely to be extinguished anytime soon. People who make this mistake often deny they are doing so, or have an excuse as to why it is acceptable when they take this route, or brazenly ignore their critics. It is unusual for anyone to argue seriously that double standards are acceptable or should be embraced. What is even more rare is for anyone with intellectual stature to take this position.

Recently, Stanley Fish – the distinguished professor, literary theorist, and legal scholar – wrote a column for The New York Times where he explicitly endorses the use of double standards for himself and his allies.

The events that triggered Professor Fish’s article are the attacks against Rush Limbaugh – the highly influential radio talk show personality. Mr Limbaugh vigorously criticized Sandra Fluke, a law student who testified before congress arguing that the government should require her school to pay for women’s contraception. Then Mr Limbaugh took a wrong turn and asserted that Ms Fluke was a slut – a woman of loose morals. He made the error of argumentum ad hominem (or ad feminam) suggesting that Ms Fluke’s remarks be dismissed because of her personal status. He should have restricted his critique to her fallacious reasoning.

On cue an avalanche of progressive commentators howled for Rush Limbaugh to be punished for his uncivil aggression against Ms Fluke – and by extension against all women. Some demanded that the Federal Communications Commission remove Mr Limbaugh from the airwaves.

Many conservative commentators and a few progressives came to Rush Limbaugh’s defense pointing out that a double standard was at play. Mr Limbaugh’s adversaries were apparently not concerned when leftist media personalities targeted conservative women with ad hominen attacks – calling them far more insulting names than “slut.” This motivated Limbaugh’s attackers to twist themselves into knots attempting to explain how what he said was odious, but it is fair game when a leftist smears conservative women by likening them to sexual organs.

Here is where Professor Fish – a long-time defender of progressivism and sworn enemy of right-wing politics comes in. He argues that sanctions against double standards is mistaken and is based on “the political philosophy of enlightenment.” According to Professor Fish it is appropriate for progressives to treat their friends with decency and to withhold civility from their opponents. “Obligations are not owed to everyone, but only to those who are of the right sort.”

He goes on to say that leftist pundits who use smears “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?” Professor Fish confesses that he is presenting “an apology for identity politics” and that “it implies that might makes right.”

Is Professor Fish giving good advice to his fellow left-wing travelers? Will his political comrades benefit from his recommendation? Certainly not.

Following Professor Fish’s prescription – never giving an opponent an even break – will energize some of his allies and encourage them to attack ruthlessly. It will also infuriate those on the other side and is not likely to convert any thoughtful people who are undecided.

A serious flaw in praising double standards is that it reveals a lack of confidence. Professor Fish is hyper-partisan and has a fierce desire for his progressive allies to win. If he thought leftist arguments were sound and capable of defeating the opposition he would be all for a fair fight. His endorsement of identity politics is a tacit admission that he does not really believe truth is on his side.

And it gets even worse. Professor Fish is explicitly rejecting the “philosophy of enlightenment” – the idea that the way to settle disputes is through rationality, examining evidence, and persuasion based on logic. If he abandons these principles why should anyone pay any attention to his writing? In his own words, the Professor is advocating “might makes right.” By taking this position he disqualifies everything he says from serious consideration.

Flirting with double standards is never benign.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.