Stanley Fish and Double Standards

Stanley Fish explores the case for double standards. He says it's all right to criticize Rush Limbaugh for calling Sandra Fluke a slut but let it pass when Ed Schultz calls Laura Ingraham a slut or Bill Maher uses a more obscene term to describe Sarah Palin. It's mainly a question of knowing which side you're on--and that's the higher morality.


Schultz and Maher 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?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they're basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. "Fair" is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.

I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential 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.

That's a good thing to know about Fish if you ever come across him. But the argument is a shambles, isn't it?

Get one thing out of the way. Are Schultz's and Maher's remarks equivalent to Limbaugh's? Fish says yes, they're the same: denying it, he reckons, "won't wash". For what it's worth, I can't stand any of them--but it does wash. There is a difference. It does matter that Schultz and Maher attacked public figures who expect to be fair game and can give as good as they get. Limbaugh's target was a novice, and that makes it worse. Schultz apologized promptly. Maher deals routinely in empty insults and obscenities. Just words. To my mind, Limbaugh was assaulting Fluke's character much more deliberately and viciously: when he called her a slut, he meant it literally (or appeared to). Finally Limbaugh expects to be taken seriously in a way that Maher, at least, doesn't. (Well, I hope not.)

For the sake of argument, though, let's suppose with Fish that it's all the same. Let's also suppose that Schultz and Maher are a force for wisdom in the world and Limbaugh is evil. What's to stop anybody who believes both things saying that their equal insults were equally disgusting? Applying a common standard to the comments doesn't involve "relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right or wrong". Actually it means the opposite. It's loyalty to the group that forces you to relax or soft-pedal your convictions about right and wrong, supposing you have some. That's the problem with "tribal obligations".

If you think Limbaugh is an enemy of the people, why treat him "fairly"?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance.

My advice would be: stick with the liberal calculus even if it means treating Limbaugh fairly. Weighing people or opinions according to consistent moral standards is not the same as saying that different people or opinions are equally moral. Applying a consistent standard doesn't stop you deploring Limbaugh on some things and endorsing him on others; or agreeing with him on everything and finding the way he expresses himself revolting; or disagreeing with him about everything and enjoying the entertainment he provides; or just wishing he would evaporate.

You can and should treat people you see as morally different differently. Choose sides, but at least try to be consistent in judging moral differences. Loyalty doesn't have to be total. When you compromise for the sake of a larger and more important goal, at least be sure that's what you're doing--and as you apply the double standard perhaps give a thought to your credibility with members of other groups you might hope to recruit.

The single standard means criticizing political allies for the same things you would criticize in an opponent, and sometimes that's awkward. But it's a lot easier to live with than "might makes right".

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