When “Neutrality” Masks Our Biases

[Notice] what passes for an insult these days. We call someone ‘dogmatic’ when we wish to imply that they are too rigid, when it is perhaps closer to the truth that their dogmas collide with ours. We consider being called ‘opinionated’ an insult; but we don’t use this word because someone happens to have an opinion – but because they have the wrong one or are pushy about it.

We call being ‘ideological’ a sin, not because having ideas is a sin, but because we think our ideas are better than others’. We accuse politicians of getting ‘political’ when what we actually mean is sectarian – not they had fallen into the heresy of having political thought. I also hear of people speaking of ‘propaganda’ as if it were a bad thing, and I wait for the punch line, and it never comes.

If I don’t like propaganda, it is because it is propagating an idea I don’t like, not merely because it attempts to propagate. (The word ‘agenda’, too, is often used like this.) Or, we hear of a group being denounced as ‘a cult,’ when it might have been more precise to call it a bad cult, for isn’t collective worship of anything a ‘cult?’

When we scoff at the manipulation of children by youth pastors in movies like Jesus Camp, calling it ‘indoctrination,’ it might have been clearer to say that children ought to be taught better doctrines.

[We] abuse language with a linguistic sleight-of-hand, distracting the mind by saying a disagreeable idea has a bias, whereas the magician remains unbiased.

— Haw, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart, p. 130, emphasis mine.

(Via Jason Hood with thanks to Brian LePorte.)

6 thoughts on “When “Neutrality” Masks Our Biases

  1. My problem with that argument is that you get people who – regardless of what they’re arguing for – are so absolutely committed to their side that they won’t even consider the merits of a dissenting view. And funnily enough, it’s those people who are probably the worst abusers of the language – dismissing their opponents as brainwashed pawns of western media, and other such things.

    There’s nothing wrong with being committed to an ideology, or holding some heart-felt opinion. But there *is* a problem when people hold to such opinions so strongly that they cannot accept other people holding different opinions.

  2. There are such people; but it seems that we find them easier to see when they hold a position contrary to our own…

    Do you deny the existence of the category of “brainwashed pawn of western media”? Or just its particular application in the case you have in mind? :-)

    As for your last point, it all depends what you mean by “accept”. Presumably you don’t mean “I entirely refuse to believe that this is actually your opinion; you must be lying to me”. So what do you mean?

  3. The objection is to people who are unwilling to consider that they themselves might be wrong, and so can’t accept the possibility that someone arguing with them might have a valid point. So no, it’s not that they deny that someone has a different opinion – it’s that that person is flat-out wrong, misguided, mislead, whatever.

    I’m trying to avoid derailing this thread into one of the same heated arguments that I’m talking about, but I have in mind a friend who holds *very* strong opinions on such subjects as Israel / Palestine (or Syria, Libya, Lebanon, etc). And while I actually agree with him in large part, it’s like he simply can’t conceive of the idea that the situation isn’t black and white, that no faction has clean hands.

    And I see the same kind of attitude in myriad forums – people who see the world as black and white, and divide it up into “us” and “them”, people with no interest in compromise, no sense that other dissenting views might have some merit. Politics/economics, religion, software-development… no matter the subject, you get these die-hards who will never, never budge a step from their chosen position.

  4. That’s definitely a useful thing to point out. I think dogmatism is still annoying when I happen to agree with the dogma, and opinionated is much more about being pushy about your opinions rather than having the wrong opinions. But it’s definitely easier to notice the problems when you disagree.

    Political I think is different; it has multiple overlapping meanings. Sometimes it means anything to do with politics or even anything to do with society, but sometimes it also means taking political power as a goal for its own sake rather than using it as a means to an end. I think using political as an insult implies the second meaning of political, rather than accusing someone of holding political views one disagrees with. Agenda is definitely an example where it’s a word that should be neutral but is used to cast aspersions; everyone has aims and goals!

    See also this excellent article about how supporting the status quo social hierarchy is not “neutral”.

    Actually I think bias in the concluding paragraph is another weasel word! Everybody has biases; it’s easy to pretend that your own biases are the objective truth and therefore superior to other people’s biases.

  5. I think the most common use of “political” as an insult is when someone applies their principles consistently to a difficult problem. At least in our current poor-quality political discourse, they are then accused of “playing politics” with the issue.

    I agree about bias; but I think the quote is agreeing with you that everyone has them.

  6. Oh, and to emphasize, I’m not talking about people who’ll listen to dissenting views but simply disagree with them – people who are comfortable with the idea that others think differently from them. I’m talking about those who are insistent that views opposed to theirs are wrong, invalid, intolerable – people who won’t yield an inch, no matter what.

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