Recently, I've come across two perfect examples of false equivalence.
The logical fallacy of false equivalence compares two non-similar things to make them seem like the same thing, when in reality they're so different they should never be compared.
The False Equivalence of Confederate Monuments and Holocaust Denial
Holocaust denial argues that the events of the Holocaust never happened, that they were grossly exaggerated or even outright fabricated.
Removing Confederate monuments does not deny that the events of the Civil War ever happened.
Taking down Confederate monuments, especially for generals, simply asserts that we shouldn't valorize certain people who participated in the events of the Civil War.
Germany, for example, has no memorials or monuments to Nazi generals, leaders, or soldiers, yet it would be ludicrous to suggest that Germans don't know about Nazism. Indeed, they know enough about Nazism to not erect monuments to Nazi leaders.
When we celebrate Confederate generals and statesmen through monuments, we turn them into heroes in the story of the Civil War. We idealize and romanticize them. We also reshape the narrative of the Civil War.
The picture above, for example, is the memorial to the Pennsylvania regiments at the Battle of Gettysburg. You'd think those regiments did something truly remarkable based on their memorial, but in reality, people in Pennsylvania just raised a ton of money for it. In contrast, the stone monument to the 20th Maine, which held the end of the Union line and did more than any single unit to win the battle, wouldn't stand out too much in any cemetery.
We celebrate what we value, and we value what we celebrate. What we memorialize reinforces certain values, beliefs, and attitudes. It idealizes and romanticizes, turning complex historical figures like Robert E. Lee into two-dimensional symbols for "the lost cause." It also suppresses or marginalizes other possible values, beliefs, or attitudes.
Historically marginalized groups finally gained enough of a voice to communicate that Confederate monuments reinforce a problematic understanding of the Civil War and an equally problematic imbalance in the stories and people we celebrate. I mean, where are all the Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad, and 54th Massachusetts memorials?
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Why Do Confederate monuments Exist?
The fact that so many regard Confederate generals as heroes worthy of monuments attests to the success and power of reshaping our collective understanding of the Civil War.
Not long after Reconstruction ended, people in the south began claiming that the Civil War had been about "state's rights" rather than slavery. The "Ladies Memorial Associations" all over the south were particularly influential. Textbooks and teachers ran with the idea.
We know the claim of state's rights was misleading, however, because the "Declarations of Causes for Secession" talk about slavery a lot but hardly mention state's rights. The Constitution for the Confederate States of America explicitly provides for "the right of property in negro slaves."
Plus, no Federal action against state rights, or slavery, had actually been taken when the southern states seceded. They feared Lincoln would act against slavery and preemptively seceded.
Making secession about states’ rights rather than slavery enabled people to begin memorializing the Confederacy and an idealized “lost cause.” It transformed our understanding of history and, arguably, history itself.
The False Equivalence of "Asking a White Person to Apologize for Slavery Is Like Asking an Asian to Apologize for Pearl Harbor"
The meme below is another perfect example of false equivalence.
At first glance, this seems like a persuasive argument. Who would hold an Asian today responsible for the actions of Asians in 1941? So why should anyone hold whites today responsible for the actions of earlier generations?
Here's the false equivalence. Pearl Harbor and WWII were contained historical moments. Obviously, both events had far-reaching ripple effects, but those effects did not include creating long-term systemic advantages for Asians at the expense of other groups.
In contrast, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, school segregation, mass incarceration, and inequities in policing have all contributed to lasting systemic advantages that each generation of whites enjoys and passes on to the next generation.
Also, to my knowledge, no one expects apologies; activists only want whites to acknowledge the necessity of systemic reforms if they truly want "justice and liberty for all."
False Equivalence: How to Recognize and Fight It
False equivalence can be extremely difficult to recognize if the comparison’s historical, cultural, or social context is unfamiliar.
Everyone is familiar with the proverbial "apples vs. oranges," but it's harder to recognize how removing Confederate memorials doesn't deny or erase history whereas Holocaust Denial does. It's even tougher to articulate the underlying argument against continuing to valorize problematic historical figures who have been celebrated and idealized over many decades.
It may be helpful to reverse the comparison and see if it still makes sense.
Instead of, "removing Confederate monuments is like Holocaust Denial," try phrasing it as "Holocaust Denial is like removing Confederate monuments."
Put that way, it's easier to see the false equivalence. Holocaust Denial denies the events of the Holocaust ever took place. Removing Confederate monuments, whatever else one thinks about it, doesn't have the same effect, purpose, or intent.
I'm not sure this strategy works as well for "Asking a white person to apologize for slavery is like asking an Asian to apologize for Pearl Harbor."
Let's try it: "Asking an Asian to apologize for Pearl Harbor is like asking a white person to apologize for slavery."
I'm afraid that just makes it seem like Asians do, in fact, have something to apologize for, or that the comparison is apt. So how can we recognize and fight false equivalence like this?
Fortunately, pretty much all Americans are very familiar with Pearl Harbor. We can recognize and point out that Pearl Harbor was a one-time event that didn't create lasting systemic advantages for Asians compared to other groups. We can compare Pearl Harbor to centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow, redlining, and injustice in policing and the criminal justice system, all of which have created lasting racial inequities.
And we can also point out, "I can understand how it feels like white people are being asked to apologize for being white, but I've never heard anyone actually ask that."
To fight the fallacy of false equivalence, use the comparison's own language to reveal its flaws. When that doesn't work, we can dig into the context of the comparison.
To learn about other common "argumentative fallacies," get my book, Become Your Own Fact-Checker: Learn How to Decide What to Believe in the Clutter of News, Noise, and Lies.