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The fallacy of agenda-avoidance: omitting facts about human opinion

May 6, 2016

I have noticed a new Agenda of the ulra-liberal extreme Left / ultra-conservative extreme Right: the banana agenda. The banana agenda is an overfunded collection of bigots, forcing their opinions down other people’s throats. The anti-banana movement, on the other hand, are heroic defenders of freedom of speech. They’d have to be, because I am a member of the anti-banana movement, and whoever would dare accuse me of prejudiced restriction of freedom of choice / speech would receive an onslaught of anti-banana insults about how the banana lobby is ruining everything. And they would deserve it, the bananaist bastards.

All ridiculousness aside, watch out for words like “lobby” and “agenda”. I’m used to these terms popping up around LGBT issues, and a intensive Google session tells me that (outside of Vaticanese) the “gay lobby” is rarely ever spoken about by anyone outside of the extreme right. There most certainly are lobbies for gay rights, but that’s not quite what these people mean; they imagine a strong, centralised force of fierce, powerful gay people, systematically changing The System as per their Evil Agenda.

Anti-homosexuality speakers who decry the restriction of Christian anti-gay expression in institutions ironically do not take kindly to any Islamic expression in the same institutions (usually schools) – or, to use the more weighted term, indoctrination. They acknowledge that governmental interference of this kind was intended in large part to counteract radicalisation towards Islamic extremism, yet at the same time feel that pro-gay activists tend to unfairly penalise Christian institutions for the same crime, while letting Muslim ones off the hook. It is common to observe within the Daily Mail newspaper vitriolic mutterings among columnists along the lines of: “I bet if so-and-so was Muslim, the Left would launch a parade for them through Regent Street.”

Evidently, both sides have an issue with Agenda, or more specifically, the agenda of the Other. It is impossible to decry Agenda in general without being hypocritical; the moment you fight against a Christian agenda of anti-homosexual sentiment, you promote a gay agenda of pro-homosexual sentiment, and vice versa. When you oppose pro-religious sentiment of any kind, you promote anti-religious or secular sentiment, which cannot properly flourish without purposefully avoiding teaching religious lessons as fact, thereby implicitly sending the message that the institution considers them to be fiction. Even schools which exercise the highest level of religious tolerance have an anti-religious agenda; they don’t teach all faiths equally, but rather equally abstain from teaching all faiths. At my school, the lower years were taught the culture and rituals of major world religions and not the theory; upperclassmen were taught to critically examine Christian theory only.

Agenda has taken on an unfairly negative connotation. When we think of agendas, we think of overbearing groups of people wading in to interfere with something that is none of their business. But as is clear from above, an agenda is an inevitable part of running an institution. A right-wing party has an agenda towards right-wing policy. A sports magazine has an agenda towards promoting sport, and a music school has an agenda towards teaching music.

Knowing that agenda are inevitable, the argument ceases to be “People shouldn’t promote their agenda” and instead becomes “Who should be allowed to promote their agenda?” This, of course, is an automatic minefield. One or other group of people is bound to feel short-changed, that their agenda is not being properly or equally served. The only guidance I think one can legitimately use is the doctrine of least-harm. Whichever agenda serves the most people and causes the least harm is the best.

From this, it becomes clear that both secular and pro-diversity agendas are better. Secular agenda avoid pitting religions against each other, making religion something that is privately felt and encouraged in homes. Against secular educations, private religion still flourishes; in religious schools, there are too many unchecked variables, of which radicalisation is the most extreme example – a less extreme example is a deficit in education due to purposeful obstruction of certain commonly accepted scientific theories, such as evolution.

Pro-creationists tend to think that pro-evolution stances are an agenda best avoided by omitting them from the syllabus entirely; pro-evolution is The System or The Establishment issuing propaganda to feed an elaborate Lie. This idea can be found among many groups of people, including neo-Nazis and climate change or holocaust deniers. Their view is that the mainstream moderate are sheep, who believe whatever a powerful They tell the public to believe. Who “they” are specifically is left to the imagination.

The mistake such people make is to think that the best way to prevent children from adopting a lie is to lie about the presence of the lie. In actuality, lies about lies only muddy the water further, so that no one is armed with the information they need in order to make an argument in favour of their own viewpoint. If children do not know about the theory of evolution, or are purposefully given a scornful and stripped-down version of it, they will not be equipped with the knowledge they need to conduct a critical argument as they come of age.

Anti-creationists will say that this is exactly what pro-creationists want; they do not want their children to be critical, because they will inevitably use their critical faculties to question their own mini-Establishment, the pro-creationist one; something which the mini-Establishment obviously does not want. Such people apply too much conspiratorial logic to the Other. In either faction, perpetuation of certain modes of thought is less due to conspiracy and more due to culture; the pro-creationist or fundamentalist approach is simply that one does not question God, because only God knows.

These people must learn that this stance is a distinct feature of the theoretical Establishment they so fear; if the Establishment’s main aim is to tell lies, its best vehicle by which to do so is to obstruct all theories alternative to its own. There is no more convenient obstruction than the will of God. All it takes is for one other person to claim that God spoke to them and his view was X rather than Y, and all the Y-ists who promote God’s purported will as inherently beyond scepticism don’t have a leg to stand on. Instead, they will become engaged in pointless, circular arguments reminiscent of Monty Python’s Argument Clinic about what the will of God actually is. Rationale outside of belief in God does not suffer from this fatal flaw, and therefore is better, even for religious people.

Similarly, anti-religious people must think carefully as to what extent religious educations hurt children, and consider that anti-religious and anti-secular argument are uncomfortably similar: the anti-religious argument would be that kids should be taught that all religions are fiction, because that is the truth; the anti-secular argument would be that kids should be taught that secular learnings are are fiction, because that is the truth. The problem with religious truths is that they are hard to prove or disprove – impossible, at their basic level (the existence of a deity). The problem with scientific truths is that they are true up until the moment they are proved false, making them transient facts rather than fixed facts as many people believe.

In both cases, there is much to be gained from the simple acknowledgement that the quest for knowledge is itself noble and likely to lead to better answers than simply accepting the viewpoints of one’s culture or educational institution. Exposure to a selection of common minority viewpoints, in as non-biased a way as is possible, serves the dual-purpose of boosting a pro-equality agenda, which makes us more empathetic as well as more knowledgeable. Next week, I will talk more about the advantage of pro-equality stances for all agenda-setting.

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