Two people are arguing. Person A starts interrupting Person B, refusing to let them make their point. Person A also repeatedly insults Person B. Eventually, Person B interrupts so they can speak. They do so in a way that insults Person A.
If you watched all that unfold and then told someone you watched two people interrupt and insult each other, you wouldn’t be wrong. But the person you told wouldn’t have any idea what really happened.
In the aftermath of the September 29 US Presidential Debate, we saw a string of “both sides“ headlines from major presses, describing what they saw as insults and tirades from both Trump and Biden. This is a debate where Trump called upon white supremacists to “stand back, stand by“ (which said white supremacists saw as a call to arms) and Biden asked if Trump “ever shuts up“ after a stream of rants and interruptions.
- “Sharp personal attacks and name calling chaotic first debate” – The New York Times (who then changed tack)
- “Personal attacks, sharp exchanges mark turbulent first presidential debate“ – The Washington Post (who also changed their line)
- “Trump, Biden trade barbs in first presidential debate“ – The Wall Street Journal
They missed the context.
Despite being a less-than-ideal way of understanding conflict, it extends to countless other areas. Take Trump himself: he routinely compares people who protest police violence and, in response to what they see as intimidation, throw things at police offers to the officers who have shot at and killed unarmed civilians.
He’s not unique in that. You’ll see it on the news, you’ll hear it from family members. It’s pervasive and often hard to argue against.
In this world view, people who defend themselves become equivalent to people who attack first or respond with disproportionate violence. In a world where so much manipulation and coercion happens with the threat of violence (be it implicit or explicit) – for example, Trump saying that looters will be shot – it makes it impossible for the victims to respond in turn without being labeled as part of the problem. The headline will read that they’re just as bad.
This way of thinking is rife in the world (and it extends far beyond people in the media, even if their commitment to “both sidesism“ is a real problem). And it makes it difficult to consistently point out the problem and the steps required to solve it. It’s held back vital reforms in areas as varied as police reform and health.
False equivalence and violence
Family violence provides a clear, and telling, example of how this approach to viewing a problem limits our ability to understand what’s actually happening. It also illustrates how people can take this misunderstanding, politicise it, and use it against victims of violence.
In her fantastic, harrowing book See what you made me do about domestic abuse, Jess Hill dedicates a chapter to when women use violence. In it, she details a disagreement between two parts of academia: ’family conflict’ researchers and ’violence against women’ (VAW) researchers.
Family conflict researchers, Hill explains, “insist that in the home women are just as violent as men.“ VAW researchers, on the other hand, “rubbish claims of ’gender symmetry’ and insist that perpetrators are overwhelmingly men“.
Both groups, says Hill, point to credible statistics to prove their point. And that there are “respected experts who have come to reasonable conclusions“ on both sides of the debate.
One of the reasons for this, according to Hill, is the way family conflict researchers have collected and understood their data:
Almost all the studies that ’prove’ women are as violent as men get their data via an instrument known as the Conflicts Tactics Scale, or CTS. It asks respondents to answer a series of questions: does violence occur in the relationship? How frequently does it occur? What does it look like?
The survey frames domestic violence as an argument that gets out of control (and thus misses some of the most dangerous examples of domestic violence). It asks if either partner in the relationship has used force to settle a disagreement and, if so, what kind of force. It then ranks “forceful acts on a scale of severity“.
But it’s not interested in why or how an act of force happened. The researcher’s job “is to record and rank each incident according to severity“. Context goes out the window. And that’s a problem when you’re trying to understand violence.
Without context, for example, the CTS gives equal weight to a kick that barely leaves a bruise as it does to a kick that causes traumatic brain injury. The kick whose intended meaning is ’leave me alone’ is registered as equal to a kick that means ’if you try to leave the house again, I’ll break all your ribs’.
This can lead to a distortion of the data and a misunderstanding of what’s happening:
’Those who have perpetrated several violent “acts“ (now matter how serious) and those who have reported committing a single act (no matter how trivial) are both defined as “violent“,’ write VAW scholars Russell and Rebecca Dobash. A woman who tries but fails to hit her partner will be recorded as ’violent’ - just as he will be if he beats her unconscious. According to the CTS, this relationship consists of one violent woman and one violent man in a situation of mutual violence.
Now, researchers who use this approach and end up believing that men and women are equally violent in a relationship aren’t “sloppy“, according to Hill:
It’s because their research focuses on how couples resolve arguments - calmly or violently? From the family conflict viewpoint both the man and woman above chose violence. Even if one of them had a greater impact, both are culpable, because both used violence.
Even the best intentions can have disastrous consequences. Family conflict researchers are clearly stating their goals and their rationale. But it’s still limited and, in many ways, flawed. That hasn’t stopped “men’s rights activists“ from clinging to their results and repeatedly, loudly, and forcefully using them to derail countless discussions about the violence women face in the home and even the smallest steps to address it.
How we understand conflict
There’s a world of difference between violence in the home, conflict in streets, an argument on a stage, and any other example you can think of. And, in each instance, there will be a different mix of things like racism, sexism, misogyny.
This line of thinking, this both-sidesism, exists on a continuum. It applies to the small indiscretions and the most systemic violence. Seeing it in stark examples can make it easier to see how it plays out on smaller stages.
But, throughout them all, there will be a few constants: a desire to control; to influence; to exert power; and to claim dominance. The stakes will change but the intent will remain. It’s important to know how we understand conflict and violence. And it’s important to know how we’re trying to tell others about what happens.
Context will always be important. We can’t reduce any conflict or violence to a simple tally or binary yes/no scale. And we can’t throw up our hands and say “well, they’re both doing it“.
Doing so is tantamount to giving up. It’s a surrender to the status quo. And it tells the aggressor that they’re safe to keep doing what they’re doing.