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Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 144.
One particularly egregious type of Straw Man argument attributes a set of ideas, beliefs and actions (usually negative ones) to a loosely defined “They.”
For example: in his historical perspective Jews, God and History, Max Dimont presents the idea that racism is a misbegotten child of the Enlightenment. In the course of arguing a point about the political application of anti-Semitism, he states:
The religious politician in the Middle Ages had asked for the banishment of the Jews… The secular politician of the Modern Age did not ask for the banishment of the Jews, because it would not have served his purpose. …The way the first manipulators of anti-Semitism saw it, the Jews had to be kept around as perpetual scapegoats. What they had not foreseen, or wished for, was the emergence of a new breed of totalitarian politician who would advocate the actual extermination of Jews. They had not foreseen that their own irresponsible propaganda would be seized by neurotics and sadists and shaped into a philosophy of murder.
Does this sound familiar? Around the world, many voices have called for the banishment or extermination of groups that are “Other”—Them, and not Us. Various groups fit that definition and suffer the consequences at various times: Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, even Christians.
Individuals and movements blindly make use of the raw material at their disposal to achieve their goals—in the case of Nazism, the raw material included the dire economic and political situation in Germany after WWI, the faux-Darwinian theories of philosophers like Nietzsche and Gobineau, and the human desire to be able to point to something or someone and say, “That is why I hurt! They have done this.” THEM.
In one of his letters to our small-town newspaper, my Christian apologist friend stated that “The Babis attempted to assassinate the Shah.” He generalized an act committed by two deranged young men seeking revenge for the execution of their prophet, and imputed it to an entire religion. Our environment is awash in such broad-brush statements: “The Jews crucified Christ,” “The Muslims want to govern the world through Shariah law,” “The Haitians made a deal with the devil,” “Atheists are immoral,” or “Religion poisons everything.”
All of these statements are evocative and emotional, but none of them are true—and when you think about it, it takes only a moment of “reverse engineering” to realize it.
Let’s take the alleged Haitian “deal with Satan” expounded by a famed televangelist after the earthquake that leveled Port au Prince. This deal was supposedly struck in the late 1800s when the country was held by the French. The televangelist said, on-air: “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the Third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”
Setting aside the question of how the televangelist came by this information in the first place, what does it mean to say “They got together?” What “They?” Who? The entire population? Every man, woman and child? In a land without the Internet, email, television, telephones and possibly even consistent mail service, how did They do this? Who contacted the Devil? How did they get in touch with Satan, anyway? Did They do it as a gestalt? Did They elect someone to do it? How? By popular vote? Secret ballot? And how is it that an infallible God aimed the earthquake, fired, and hit a generation of innocents who had nothing to do with this alleged deal?
If you ask questions about propositions like this and the answers don’t make sense, it’s highly likely the proposition doesn’t either.
This generic use of the unspecified “They” has real-world consequences. It can determine how we behave toward others as individuals, as members of religious or secular organizations, as nations. It can affect whether we react to the plight of other human beings with empathy, apathy, or contempt.
So the next time you read a book or an article that makes claims about what a certain “They” thinks, believes, or does, simply reverse-engineer the propositions to see if they make sense. Then ask yourself if the writer has drawn a clear distinction between individual beliefs and actions, and institutional or collective ones.
More than that, ask yourself if those institutional or collective beliefs and actions even exist.
Next: The Benefits of Vagueness