By Zach Oaster
False equivocation is when two things are compared (by media, by politicians) as if they are on equal footing when in fact they are not similar at all. Often oppression is equated as being the same as a powerful group’s opinions of oppression (or lack thereof). Or, when a privileged group sees the granting of equal footing to a marginalized group as “oppression” to the privileged group. This is reinforced by a naive media system that often exploits these false equivocations in order to suggest fair and equal coverage of issues. This is exploited by politicians who wish to cater to constituents with social or economic power at the expense of marginalized and oppressed groups. After all, if we can suggest that all groups are on equal footing, there is never injustice, only a difference of opinion.
A recent example of this is the way that people are equating resistance to Trump and the GOP legislature's stated goals as being the same as the resistance that we saw going into the Obama administration. I see a number of social media posts and memes which suggest the opposing Trump is just more of the same “my side didn’t win” poor sportsmanship. Resistance to specific policy goals, like repealing the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’), and thus repealing access to health insurance for millions of Americans (mostly poor) is seen as the same exact thing as when conservatives vowed to block anything Obama suggested, because, you know, he was planning to give things to the “takers” – like the ability for poor people not to die from curable diseases just because they were poor, or stopping insurance companies from denying coverage to people who had “preexisting conditions” (like when they lost their work insurance coverage because they exhausted their medical leave when they got cancer, so they got fired and had to seek insurance on the private market).
But from where I am standing, vowing to block a president from doing things for the common good is not at all the same as ideologically opposing the very notion of the common good in the name of personal responsibility and cost efficiencies. Let's look at this through the lens of the renewed rehashing of the healthcare problem in the U.S.
When Obama was running for president, he was advocating for changing health care policy in a way that would give more people access to healthcare. Now, the way he ended up doing it was terribly imperfect -- and it left the private insurance, pharmaceutical, and hospital industries in the middle to continue to exploit people's illness for profit. That said, at least the intent was to give people access, and expand the common good.
Resistance to this was, in many cases (but not all, obviously), rooted in limiting access to healthcare in the name of personal responsibility, fear of decreased standards of care, castigation of the poor, people of color, and immigrants, or moral panics about costs. As evidence over time has shown, none of these scares turned out to be rooted in fact. The only lingering problem has been costs -- to the individual insurance market consumer, not to the taxpayer, and to everyone overall as the continued catering to private industry has not arrested the exponential climb of insurance costs. Resistance to Obama was rooted from the beginning in a philosophy that, regardless of what he might propose, it was wrong. When the dire predictions turned out false, they just shifted to other dire predictions – or placing blame for failures on the executive while the legislative body flaunted a do-nothing approach in the name of fiscal conservatism.
The GOP's plan at the moment is to reduce access to healthcare -- and even they say that their replacement plans will still increase the number of uninsured. Most estimates (including some coming from conservative think tanks) suggest that the number of uninsured after a repeal of Obamacare will be higher than before Obamacare was enacted. Thus, congress' current plan is to make the problem worse than ever before, on purpose.
Again, the appeal is to the same tired mantras offered before -- personal responsibility, fear and castigation of the “takers”: the poor, people of color, and immigrants, and continued moral panics about costs to taxpayers (with no critique whatsoever of the private insurance, pharma, and hospital industries that keep making record profits). The GOP lawmakers have no problem with pointing out the obvious flaws in Obamacare, such as the recent sharp cost increases for individual insurance market consumers, but they have refused to even consider the necessary changes, or alternatives – like a single-payer system – that would improve or solve these troubles. They are calling their alternative to Obamacare an improvement, even though it is designed to reduce access to care and does not in any way address the continual rising cost of healthcare.
Yet, this decrease in access is heralded among conservatives in the name of a philosophy that says there is no effective "common good" -- rather they see the role of lawmaker as being the scowling parent, always keeping an eye out for the child who might take too much (even though statistics shows that this is actually not the case) ...The parent who punishes everyone for the mistakes of a few and insists that it is better to have the appearance of so-called ‘freedom’ and control rather than a commitment to justice.
Really, listen to the rhetoric – the word “freedom” is often used by conservative pundits -- as if having access to healthcare is oppression, and they are freeing us from it.
Suffering is seen as a necessary evil to ensuring righteousness. Meanwhile, in the tradition of Karl Rove, conservative politicians make it a habit to accuse the other side of doing explicitly what they themselves are doing – proposing a nanny state. In the conservative ideology, however, the nanny – the so-called ‘caregiver’ and ‘steward’ -- walks around threatening everyone with the yard stick because she heard third hand that the kid two blocks over stole a cookie once. Spare the rod… and spare the care too.
It is a quick and unapologetic return to what was labeled a few years back as the, “we’ve got ours, so fuck you!” GOP agenda.
And so, as I see it we have on one hand Obama and the Dems proposing 8 years ago that we increase access to healthcare (a flawed and contradiction-fraught for-profit process, indeed). And today, we have the GOP legislative leadership placing the repeal of Obamacare – and access to healthcare for tens of millions of Americans – as their first and move ardent priority. The news is covering it like it is merely a strong difference of opinion, not a massive injustice. This is a terrible false equivocation, and we should all be speaking out ardently about this. Basic human rights, like access to healthcare when you are ill or suffering, is not a mere matter of opinion.
For those of us on the left, it is a further setback partially of our own making, as we’ve allowed the discussion to languish. Obamacare was not a panacea, yet, so many of us defended it like one. We offered little these past 7 years in the way of continued push toward a single-payer universal healthcare system. We’ve failed to hold Obama accountable (on many fronts, not just healthcare) and instead we’ve given utterly too much attention to the do-nothing congress (and maybe I am hypocritically doing more of that here by writing this article).
We’ve allowed the conservative pushback to Obamacare to define the limits of the discussion. Among conservatives, Obamacare has been posited as the most liberal-possible option. But worse, the average liberal American has also accepted these limits – some through resignation and entrenchment, others through socialization in the assumption that Democrats, liberals, and leftists are all essentially the same thing. Actual solutions offered by the left (like single-payer) have not even entered the public discourse for what is now approaching a decade. Even now, both the media and the liberal internet outrage machine is bound and determined to allow Trump tweets to set the agenda for all that is discussed, often leaving the viable long-term leftist solutions and agendas completely off the radar.
Meanwhile, reports warn that at least 25-30 million people will lose healthcare coverage when Obamacare is repealed. Some estimates double that number. Given that the population of the U.S. is ~319 million, you can do the math to figure out what percentage of Americans this affects – and all of them poor or sick. This issue isn’t going anywhere until we fix it. Challenging political and media narratives is a first step to resetting the agenda. We must be more vocal about the substantive differences. Polarity here is only found in one group’s desire to strip the humanity and dignity of the other’s. It’s time we stop passively permitting the media and politicians to suggest that this is a mere matter of differences of opinion.
Zach Oaster is a public sociologist, shepherd, and artisan. He is a full-time graduate student of sociology at Western Michigan University as well as a longtime performer of music and organizer around social justice issues. Zach identifies as a radical queer godless apostate and heretical disaffiliated United Methodist. He prefers masculine pronouns, and has a fabulous talent for writing third person bios. Zach describes his academic research as, “exploring the conflicts within conservative political and social discourse, revealed at the intersection of neoconservative and neoliberal ideologies – especially as those discourses converge on issues important to the LGBTQIA communities.” Find out more about Zach at www.FatToaster.com, or on Facebook.com/ZachOaste