The Difference Between Both-Sidesing and Acknowledging Complexity


There are two concepts being discussed a lot right now that I think need some differentiation.

One is Both-Sidesing, which seems to be the act of trying to recognize one or more points made by the opposing party during the course of a debate or discussion.

The other is All Lives Matter, which in my opinion is a failure to understand the concept of prioritization.

If I understand Both-Sidesing correctly, I am actually for it. Not just for it, in fact, but an advocate.

In other contexts, Both-Sidesing is also known as Steel Manning, or during the course of a discussion it can even be used as part of Nonviolent Communication and Active Listening.

In short, I see Both-Sidesing as a natural and desirable part of any advanced discussion between rational people discussing something in good faith.

It reminds me of saying during a discussion, “So it sounds like you’re saying…”, and then inserting your empathically formed paraphrase of their points.

But even more important than the discussion lubrication aspect, I see it as the only realistic approach to discussing complex topics, like racism, social inequality, taxation, how to construct a just government, etc.

I don’t see how you approach anything like that without first looking at multiple (not just two) perspectives, highlighting what you think may be valid points in all of them (or at least why they might see them as valid), and then proceeding from there.

It’s almost like people attacking Both-Sidesing are saying their position is so strong that presenting any alternative viewpoint is equal to moral failure, and that’s no way to have a conversation.

Ok, so that’s what I think about that. The gap I have in that argument is in the definition. If Both-Sidesing is actually something else that I don’t get, then maybe I just need to be educated.

First, is “All Lives Matter” an example of Both-Sidesing? I don’t think so.

That would be something like, when debating Ted Bundy’s killing of girls in Florida, we say:

Sure, but it wasn’t all bad. I mean he was really smart and he made people comfortable around him.

That seems like what Trump did. It’s not our job to find endearing things about white supremacists in the middle of a white pride march. And it’s not our job to find nice things to say about Ted Bundy when he wasn’t killing people.

Maybe Ted Bundy made a hell of a grilled cheese sandwich. I don’t care.

Things get complex when someone comes to the table to talk about underlying grievances, and they come to have an actual conversation.

So if Al Quaeda or the KKK comes to the table to have a real conversation, and they say, “We do this because we don’t have jobs, or because you stole our oil, or you did this on this day.” … Well then we can start to talk about ideas, and then it becomes ok to acknowledge pain and suffering as part of a potential path to understanding and non-violence.

But you don’t go to the site of an ISIS bombing or a racist killing and say, “Well they kind of have a point because of…” It’s about empathy. And timing. And ultimately, context.

And that brings us perfectly to “All Lives Matter”.

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All Lives Matter is a perfect example of failure in the realms of empathy, timing, and context. To me the best metaphor is the Emergency Room in a hospital.

If someone comes in with a stab wound to the chest, and they’re not breathing, it doesn’t matter that their pinky is broken. Again, context.

If we were all on vacation in Bora Bora and someone broke their pinky, it’d be a major event. But America isn’t in Bora Bora. America isn’t breathing, and it has a chest wound called systemic racism against black people.

Yes, we know fingers are important. All fingers equally. Cops matter. There’s tremendous racism against Latino people as well, and white and Asian people matter too.

Everyone matters. All groups matter. But mentioning that while someone can’t breathe does not give them air.

Movements like BLM are calls for Emergency Room prioritization. And that makes sense to me.

So, as I work this out in my own mind, I think I see the difference between Both-Sidesing and All Lives Matter more clearly.

This is why I love writing. It clarifies thought.

And in retrospect, it seems like I may actually be wrong about Both-Sidesing because the definition that’s being used is the one I gave with the clearly bad examples. So let me be clear about that: if that’s the definition that people are using, and that we agree on, then I’m against it as well.

I think there are three separate things at play, actually, and I’m only advocating for one of them. So let me break them apart by assigning some concise definitions.

  1. Both-Sides’ing: Taking something that’s clearly horrible and finding something trivially positive to say about it or its advocates. E.g., “Sure, Nazis were bad, but they sure knew how to unify a country!”

  2. All Lives Matter’ing: Failing to recognize the prioritized context in a crisis situation, resulting in additional suffering for the most-acutely injured.

  3. Acknowledging Situational Complexity: Enumerating the multiple perspectives and arguments in a complex problem so we can move towards a solution that works for as many people as possible.

Using these definitions, I am against using 1 and 2, and for 3. In other words, let us not confuse Both-Sidesing with Acknowledging Complexity.

The former should be avoided, and the latter encouraged.


  1. June 14, 2020 — A reader corrected me on my Trump quote. I had him saying, “There were good people on both sides.” regarding the Charlottesville marches, which he didn’t do. It was evidently about statues coming down, and his wording was “fine people”.