On human rights, the “other countries are worse” defense needs to go

In an interview recorded on Friday, Mike Huckabee called out businesses who opposed Indiana’s and Arkansas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Acts for hypocrisy, pointing out that Wal-Mart does business in China and Apple does business in Saudi Arabia. If these companies were really so concerned about human rights and anti-LGBT discrimination, then why are they still doing business in and with countries that sport shoddy human rights records?

Tom Cotton made a similar argument last week when, in defending Arkansas’ RFRA, he pointed out that “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay,” so those who are critical of Arkansas would do well to get themselves some “perspective.”

We don’t just hear the “other countries are worse” argument as it relates to non-discrimination legislation. We hear it when Israel is cited for abusing Palestinian human rights. We hear it when Americans criticize another country’s imperial impulses, only to be reminded that America is no saint when it comes to our own expansionary military incursions. And we hear it when the American government criticizes the human rights record of other countries, such as China, only to be reminded that we have the largest prison population on the planet and our self-described democracy has taken on all of the trappings of an oligarchy.

It’s time to put this argument to bed. It’s nothing more than a distractive device used by the criticized to deflect, not respond to, legitimate criticisms levied against them. Here’s why:

It isn’t a defense

Mike Huckabee and Tom Cotton can shout and scream all they want about how terribly China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other illiberal countries treat their citizens. No one is arguing otherwise. LGBT citizens and allies who are fighting for rights in America aren’t saying that life is worse here than it is in Russia or Uganda, where there are laws on the books criminalizing homosexuality.

But that says nothing about the American laws that Huckabee and Cotton are defending, laws that Americans have direct control over and are directly affected by. While Mike Pence can’t do anything about social justice in China — although a few Republican governors seem to be inspired by their labor laws — he has a great deal of influence over how Indiana treats anti-gay discrimination. He has used his power poorly, and he has been called out in kind. Answering that criticism with “But Iran…” doesn’t address the American debate at hand. At all.

It’s an admission of guilt

In deflecting a criticism by making an analogy with a worse case, the defender is admitting that whatever they’re defending is, at the very least, not “good.” If it were, they’d simply be saying so. This is a massive hole in the glass houses argument. When listeners are invited to forget about the sins at hand because they aren’t the only sins that exist, the speaker is admitting that the sins at hand are, in fact, sins.

The need to identify, call out and shatter bad public policy renders the glass houses argument completely moot. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” begets zero progress. Free society relies on judgment. Errors can only be corrected if leaders are open and responsive to criticism.

That was the case with Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an error that Mike Pence (sort of) corrected following intense pushback from citizens and major corporations who didn’t like the idea of state-protected discrimination. The law was judged, and it was judged to be bad. If we had shrugged our shoulders and sighed “Well, at least they aren’t hanging gays in the street,” we’d have been giving a bad law a pass simply because it wasn’t a much worse law.

It invites the wrong kind of comparison

America isn’t just supposed to be less-bad than autocratic dictatorships; it’s supposed to be better. We reserve the right to judge Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and other illiberal regimes as politically inferior to our own because we claim to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

When Mike Huckabee says with a straight face that Saudia Arabia’s laws matter in the context of American domestic policy, he is effectively saying that this is no longer the case. That Tom Cotton would rather Arkansas be compared to Iran as opposed to Illinois doesn’t feel like American exceptionalism; it reeks of American relativism. If the goalposts have moved in this way — if America is no longer a shining beacon on a hill, and is instead just the house on the street with slightly brighter Christmas lights — it’s hard to argue that whatever moved those goalposts was a positive development.

When it comes to human rights, other countries certainly are worse. No one is saying otherwise. But when it comes to American human rights and civil liberties, that adds nothing to our domestic discourse. America can be better and it should be better. That proponents of anti-LGBT legislation such as Mike Huckabee and Tom Cotton are using Saudi Arabia, China and Iran to make their case shows how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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