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One Cliché Too Many

eye on the news

One Cliché Too Many

How an empty phrase can be used to justify any government policy December 18, 2015
Politics and law

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

“One sexual assault is too many,” University of Texas president Gregory Fenves was quoted as saying in the Washington Post recently. “It is essential that we foster a campus that does not tolerate sexual assaults while strongly encouraging victims to come forward and report incidents.” That initial phrase—one is too many—shows up a lot lately. In October, Vice President Joe Biden, promoting a campaign to bring attention to rape on college campuses, recalled that he sponsored the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s, “to end the scourge of violence against women and hold perpetrators accountable. It’s been a great success, but even one attack is one too many.” The vice president likes the phrase so much he gave his campaign the snappy name “1 is 2 Many.”

Fenves and Biden don’t mean the phrase literally. Surely if there was really only one sexual attack on a college campus in a year, even the vice president might suggest we hold off on more legislation and more awareness campaigns. What does the phrase mean, then?

It’s almost always intended to justify a governmental initiative of one kind or another. When a bill was recently introduced in the California senate to expand the number of immunizations children and day-care workers are required to have, the bill’s sponsor, Tony Mendoza, issued a statement contending that “we must do everything in our power to protect California’s children. If this new law can prevent the loss of even one child due to a communicable disease, then it will be considered a success. Because one child’s death is one too many, especially when it may be preventable.”

As a matter of political savvy, I don’t blame the senator for defining success in such a way that his proposal can’t possibly be called a failure—but leave that aside. I’m not certain that any governmental initiative—especially one as consequential as this one—can be “considered a success” if it only saves one child. Still, it’s true that, in an abstract moral sense, “one child’s death is one too many.”

But hold on. If we follow the even-one-is-worth-it logic, we will find ourselves advocating all kinds of draconian bans and unreasonable requirements. If one preventable death is one too many, and if that is sufficient justification for further governmental coercion, we would impose an outright ban on football, skydiving, mountain climbing, bicycling, and countless other risky diversions. We aren’t prepared to ban any of these activities for reasons that have nothing to do with our concern—or lack of it—for human life. We don’t ban them because we value varying degrees of personal freedom more than we value absolute safety.

The phrase is meaningless, in a sense—it’s a tautology, the equivalent of saying “a bad thing is bad”—but there is a certain alluring logic in it, too. Consider a throwaway line in a recent New York Times story on alcohol-related car fatalities on Long Island. Though the statistics have improved in recent years throughout New York State, we learn, “there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, say officials and activists, who assert that even one drunken-driving death a year is one too many.”

I don’t wish to downplay the significance of alcohol-related fatalities, but that last phrase—“one drunken-driving death a year is one too many”—sounds ominous. As long as one person dies in an alcohol-related car crash, “officials and activists” are going to press ahead with their current strategies. And since by and large that means stiffening penalties—creating more driving-related felonies, attaching mandatory jail time to lesser convictions, and so on—it’s hard to see where their efforts will end. DUI as a capital crime?

That is unlikely, of course, and so we return to the question: What do those who use the phrase mean? It may have less to do with erasing every last case of measles and DUI fatality and sexual assault, and more to do with an aversion to empirical evidence. Arguments and data don’t much matter in the pursuit of perfection. Faced with the question of whether a burdensome and expensive policy is worth preserving when it shows few signs of success, the ideologue dismisses those worries by pointing out that the world is not yet perfect.

So yes, even one bad thing is always too many. But by itself it’s not much of an argument.

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