Bitter Tea, and the Art of False Equivalence

unequivalentTea

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” “The day flew by.” “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I consider myself a fan of metaphors and similes. These rhetorical devices are often useful in literary works to help a reader better envision the story the author is trying to convey. Speech writers, news anchors, and politicians also employ the use of rhetoric in order to make a point that an audience can visualize and relate to. Sadly, rhetoric is often misused to purposefully distort reality in an effort to rally people around, what i would argue are, misguided ideologies.  Take for example the op-ed piece at TeaPartyNation.com by founder Judson Phillips who, in response to the veto of Arizona’s SB 1062 by Gov. Jan Brewer, claims that not allowing business owners to turn away customers who do not meet their religious criteria, is akin to slavery. Of course such a claim is absolute nonsense, but I think it’s important to examine his argument because these types of assertions, these false equivalencies as they are referred to in logic, are extremely popular in the political arena – most notably among the Tea Party movement.

Arizona’s SB 1062 was a bill submitted last week by GOP legislators that, if it had passed, would have allowed business owners to refuse to provide customers service, if the service was requested by a person or group of people who in anyway violates an owner’s religious convictions. Although it is suspected that the recent wave of sweeping judgements by federal courts to overturn state ban’s on same-sex marriage acted as a catalyst for the bill, SB 1062 would ultimately have allowed business owners to turn away Muslims, Jews, Christians, gays, African-Americans, immigrants –ad infinitum– so long as the owner could make the case that serving these groups violated their religious beliefs. To say it another way, despite the claims of conservatives, this bill would have allowed business owners to discriminately serve their customers. It would have exempted them from adhering to the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution. While it isn’t clear what Jan Brewer’s motivation was for vetoing the bill, she explains that the bill is “broadly worded,” and that it “could result in some unintended and negative consequences.”

While the response to the veto has been one of celebration among many, Judson Phillips was not among those. But rather than formulating a mature and honest reply, he states:

A free man or woman controls their labor.  A slave has no control over their labor.  A free man or woman decides who they will work for and under what conditions.  The slave cannot.

Here, Phillips infers that prohibiting business owners from discriminating against customers, makes them slaves. He attempts to formulate an argument using false equivalency – comparing two unlike objects or events in order to give them equal weight. Not only does he fail to construct a proper argument, but, disproportionately attempts to draw parallels between separate events of U.S history that are not in anyway identical. How exactly does Phillips equate 12.5 million people taken from their home (Gates), sold and traded into slavery, abused, beaten, starved and murdered, with telling religious people “no, you don’t get to discriminate on the basis that someone does not subscribe to your religious views?”  Here are the facts: Business owners are not being shipped from their homes and being sold. They were not forced to open their business or to work. They are not being punished or murdered when they don’t live up to the satisfaction of the customer.

False equivalency has become a popular default for the Tea Party and many other conservatives. From Palin’s assertion that retailers who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” translates to a war on Christianity, to attributing a fictitious moral decline and extreme weather in the U.S to increasing acceptance of homosexuality, each assertion is just as absurd as the next. Why is it that Tea Party members like to take their arguments to irrational extremes? If they think  these erroneous arguments cast them in a favorable light, it doesn’t. They would have us believe that they are somehow the victims of a fictional movement, designed to deny Americans’ their right to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, but the rest of us aren’t buying it. Here’s a rhetorical device that might better serve the Tea Party: put the victim card back, and you might have the chance to play with a full deck.

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