The Universal Notebook: Both sides (not) now

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When I saw the spot News Center Maine anchor Cindy Williams did for the Channel 6 in-house promotion series touting the station’s dedication to unbiased, fact-based reporting, I found myself arguing with my television set.

“No, Cindy,” I snapped, “you do not have to listen to both sides!”

Edgar Allen BeemWilliams was promoting the old journalistic chestnut about considering all points of view. All well and good, but, take it from an old journalist, sometimes you only have to “listen to both sides” in order to determine that one side is full of beans. 

There are not two equal and legitimate points of view on all important issues unless those sides are right and wrong.

Reasonable people, for instance, can have legitimate differences of opinion about many things, such as abortion, religion, or guns. But when it comes to things like slavery, white supremacy, and genocide, there are not two valid points of view. One is simply wrong. You don’t have to listen to arguments in their favor any more than you have to listen to a defense of Adolf Hitler in order to be considered just and tolerant.

President Barack Obama liked to consign actions and ideas to “the wrong side of history,” meaning that eventually anything from Russia’s invasion of Crimea to those who oppose gay marriage and legalizing marijuana would be seen as wrong-headed. 

The judgment of posterity suggests that truth happens to an idea. Just as the meaning of the law evolves through time and interpretation, so ideas and actions can become true over time.

I am an admirer of philosopher William James’ pragmatic approach to truth.

“The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it,” James wrote. “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication.”

Conservatives hate the idea, but science, law, and public opinion are all living, evolving things. Conservatives embrace the absurd originalist idea that divining what a bunch of 18th century white men wrote in the Constitution is the correct way to interpret and apply the law, as though it were possible to know the minds of the forefathers. (And why would we want to be dictated to by the dead, anyway?)

Fundamentalists feel the same way about the Bible, as though God wrote it. The Bible is a divinely inspired work of mortal men that changes through time and translation. God is still speaking.  

As to contemporary issues, I feel no compunction about ignoring positions that have no merit or validity. Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, for example, are just plain wrong. 

There is also no ethical or earthly need to listen to the GOP’s Big Lie that Biden stole the 2020 election. The truth is that Trump tried to steal the election, failed, and is still trying to do so.

There are also not two sides to the Jan. 6 insurrection. A violent and treasonous mob tried to overthrow a free and fair election. Those who participated and the man who incited the attempted coup should be punished. Those who defend the insurrection are on the wrong side of history.

“Woe to him whose beliefs play fast and loose with the order which realities follow in his experience:” William James warned, “they will lead him nowhere or else make false connections.”

Translation: you are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts. Making up facts to support your personal agenda is dead wrong.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.