Sunday, November 25, 2012

On political agenda

I want to address the question of political agenda (now that I've got one...).

As a background, imagine the following conversation: a student comes to a Chabad House rabbi on campus and asks him why the rabbis of N. America did not pasken against slavery, if one might conceive that there was room to do so, in particular, the way it was being carried out. (This example is not from my experience, although I did ask a similar question once.) The rabbi might answer that the poskim really did not think that it was wrong from halachic perspective (although it might have been morally wrong), but another answer one might hear is: "Maybe because they did not have a political agenda".

I want to address this answer. Political agenda is assumed to attenuate one's objectivity. It is especially damaging, then, when intervening with the investigations calling for one. For instance, it's not as much a problem when choosing a salad: "this doesn't taste good because it's not organic" may be a silly thing to say, but after all, if it doesn't taste good to one, so be it. It is more damaging in natural sciences, for instance, since there the object is not to discover how one feels about something, but what something is. "White men are superior to women and minorities" or, on the other side of the spectrum, "global warming is caused by industrial pollution" are examples of conclusions that may have been influenced by a political agenda.

I think, however, that there is also a positive side to the political agenda (and potentially a negative side to not having it): it alerts one to a potential issue. I don't know whether slavery, as practiced in N. America, was halachically problematic. But if I know that it was morally wrong (and the general assumption is that there is a strong degree of correlation between morality and halacha, especially bein adam l'chaveiro), I may be prompted to investigate more into the halacha. On the other hand, if I don't know it's wrong (or have never seriously considered such a view), because I have not been exposed to extra-hallachic analyses of morality, I may never look into all the details. (I am not suggesting that Torah is somehow deficient as the lone source of morality, but people are deficient in understanding morality from Torah and especially halacha and may benefit from the "outside" analysis.)

In fact, I think most people have a political agenda one way or another. At the minimum it is what I call the inertial agenda: to preserve the status quo (I am tempted to call this political vector conservative, but it can act in a liberal direction too: for instance, one raised in a democratic society may never assume there is anything wrong with democracy from moral or legal points of view).

Thus, being exposed to various political agendas (as well as scientific, economic, or grammatic ones) may:
  1. alert one to potential issues that one might not have thought of before
  2. battle one's already existing agendas or prejudices that might affect one's objectivity.

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