Issue 106, Winter 2007/2008

The Trouble With “Balance”

Svetlana Mintcheva

Few people would contest the value of an even-handed, fair-minded discussion of an issue. Such a balanced approach has been critical, for instance, to efforts to assure that underrepresented groups get a chance to be heard alongside dominant voices. Lately, however, the notion of “balance” is increasingly used to control public debate over controversial topics by silencing dissenting voices.

As we have reported previously (CN#97), “balance” has become the stalking horse for efforts to undermine academic freedom, to pressure journalists to self-censor or tone down critical reporting, and to justify censorship of art. What the proponents of “balance” demand is that any expression on a controversial topic be accompanied by opposing views, no matter how prevalent the latter may already be in public discourse. Frequently, the demand for “balance” results in the cancellation of the entire discussion.Such situations suggest that the rhetoric of balance has been co-opted as a subtle and insidious disguise for censorship.

Few topics are more contentious – and more frequently bombarded by demands for “balance” (or “context”) – than matters touching on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The wave of cancellations of programs around Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s book, The Israel Lobby, is a case in point. The Center for the Humanities at CUNY and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs were among the institutions that canceled scheduled events to accompany the book’s publication because they felt it was too controversial to discuss in the absence of a critic, and the critics were either unavailable or unwilling to come.

In 2006, an almost identical argument was advanced by the New York Theater Workshop, which justified the indefinite postponement of “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” a play based on the diaries of the 23-year-old peace activist killed by Israeli bulldozers while acting as a “human shield,” by claiming that the work needed to be “contextualized” to present a more “balanced” perspective on the issues it raised. Not long thereafter, Brandeis University removed an exhibition of artwork by teens from Palestinian refugee camps, citing “the lack of a balancing perspective.” Ironically, the show’s curator, an Israeli student, conceived the exhibition as compensation for what she perceived as a dearth of Palestinian voices on a campus where the Israeli perspective was dominant.

Domestic politics are equally vulnerable to the (mis)use of “balance” as a subtle form of censorship. In 2004, for instance, Arizona State University required that an exhibition of political art “balance” every work critical of the administration with a work that criticized Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. To even out the numbers, the curators eliminated from the show not only some work that was explicitly critical of the president, but also a piece that appeared to challenge the status quo.

The debate over “balance” has been particularly heated in academic circles. Since 2004, proposed legislation with the misleading title of “Academic Bill of Rights” has proliferated in state legislatures. The brainchild of David Horowitz, a writer and activist who, taking a page from FOX’s “Fair and Balanced” playbook, argues that colleges and universities are dominated by “liberals” and discriminate against “conservative” views, ABoRs are presented as a way to promote “balance” in teaching about controversial issues. Controversial issues – and the students debating them – do not, however, exist in a vacuum, but in a wider social context where conservative views not only freely circulate, but dominate to the point where the label “liberal” has become political anathema. What ABoRs present as a search for balance is an attempt to extend conservative dominance to every cultural and political institution. Worse, in their demand that a “balanced” classroom should be guaranteed not by internal academic mechanisms but by government intervention, ABoRs represent a direct attack on academic freedom.

Appeals to “balance” today, more often than not, serve the interests of those who want – and may already possess – the power to suppress ideas they do not like. Next time someone calls for balance, consider whether those seeking it really need more airtime, or whether they are simply seeking to control the terms of the debate.