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A false equivalence is a rhetorical strategy of applying an arbitrary substitution to a sentence and assuming that this substitution preserves meaning.
An imaginary dialogue that exemplifies false equivalence:
- Alice: "Hey guys, shut up and let the women talk"
- Bob: "What a terrible thing to say! Why, imagine if you were saying 'shut up girls, let the men talk'? That would be bad, right? Therefore, what you said is just as bad."
Bob's equivalence is false because the imperative for women to be quiet in presence of male discussion has social structures of domination that support it and give it meaning beyond just Alice's own hypothetical statement. On the other hand, the imperative for men to shut up in the presence of women's discussion communicates an exceptional situation in the dominant sociopolitical culture. Social structures of domination, that discourage men from speaking up because of their gender, do not exist.
As this example suggests, words have meaning, and context matters. False equivalences are one instance of a common silencing tactic of treating language as purely syntactic, assuming that arbitrarily changing a sentence's context while preserving its structure also preserves its meaning. Of course, people saying these things generally do not believe that language has no meaning; they just hope that others won't notice it does.
- This is a very common rhetoric in discussions concerning presentation of women in comics and video games.
- In November 2014's node.js code of conduct discussions, male commenters used the word "unsafe" to describe how they felt about being asked to treat marginalized people with human decency. In a comment, Isaac Schlueter pointed out that this is a false equivalence:
- For the men in this conversation, the complaints about "safety" are largely about the following sort of situation: If you say something offensive or treat someone disrespectfully, then your comment may be deleted, or your patch rejected. If the admin decides that your behavior was an honest mistake, and that you are unlikely to repeat it, they will address it and ask you to please be more careful in the future. If you are repeatedly abusive, intentionally or not, you will be banned from participation in the project....
- For the women in this conversation (and some not in this conversation, who have been scared off by the male supremacist connotations in @gramergrater's choice of anonymous actually-about-ethics-in-games-journalism pseudonym), the "safety" concern is very different. They are worried more about triggering a concerted attack on their OSS participation from dozens or hundreds of anonymous accounts on multiple vectors, including GitHub, twitter, facebook, linkedin, and of course, actual in real life attacks at conferences and other professional social gatherings. They are worried about DDoS attacks at their employers' websites, petitions demanding they be fired from their jobs, threatening notes left at their front door, and threats of mass murder at venues where they make public appearances. None of this is hypothetical; these are all real things that have happened to real women in the real world. Even in less extreme examples, they are harassed with unwanted advances, sexual comments, and seen as objects rather than full participants.
As Schlueter pointed out, this way of using "unsafe" deceptively equates status anxiety with fear in the face of genuine threats to one's mind and body.