Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Fallacy of Fence-Sitting

It’s a popular idea, and on the face of it a reasonable one: one has to see an argument from both sides, because no dispute, no quarrel, has one side only. It’s even the kind of idea a reasonably intelligent and liberal person should be able to get behind.

Unfortunately, it’s also a fallacy.

The fallacy is implicit in the very idea behind asking one to see an issue from both sides; it’s the assumption that any success in that effort will lead to neutrality. But of course, it doesn't, and it shouldn’t.

While any dispute does have two sides, one side is invariably more in the right than the other; I can’t think of a single issue where both sides can truly be taken to be evenly balanced. Even if on the surface of things, one might say both sides have an equal right to be considered evenly, a little research invariably shows up one side to be more in the right than the other.

Let’s take a theoretical case.

Suppose we have two nations, X and Y, for example, contending over an island, Z. On the surface of it, they have an equal claim to Z. It lies close, geographically, to X and was originally owned by and inhabited by people from that country; on the other hand, Y has colonised it for, let’s say, over a hundred and eighty years, and all the people now resident on Z are citizens of Y and wish to remain citizens of Y. Something of an equivalence of argument, don’t you think?

Now let’s take a look at the two (entirely theoretical!) contending powers, and we discover interesting things.

X, we find, is a nation which has never gone to aggressive war, except over Z, once, decades ago, when it was under a military junta, and was not a democracy as it is now. Y, on the other hand, is a rapacious ex-colonial power which still openly promotes 'enlightened double standards', has been known to 'sex up' documents to lie its way into wars of choice, and is an enthusiastic part of a murderous imperialistic coalition which is intent on yet more wars against innocent and virtually defenceless nations halfway across the planet.

Once we see these facts, the equivalence disappears. Whatever the situation on the ground in Z, all morality and justice demands that we support X. There is simply no room for fence-sitting here.

Still, let's assume for the sake of argument that Y says the, let's say, three thousand, inhabitants of Z wish to remain its citizens. Fair enough, we say, let’s take their feelings into consideration. They have rights too, don’t they? We can’t trample over their wishes, can we?

But do a little more research, and we find that there is still no moral fence to sit here. On the other side of the planet, the same Y which says these three thousand peoples’ wishes are paramount has expelled more than three thousand people from another island, shall we call it W, so that the leader of the aforementioned imperialistic alliance can use it as a military base, and to this day prevents their return.

We don’t even have to consider the possibility that the recent discovery of oil around Z has anything to do with Y’s hanging on to the island; a little research has already shown that no equivalence is possible. The reasonable and right-thinking person with a moral sense has no way out but to support X.

[Obviously, and let me repeat, all these nations and islands are imaginary and theoretical. Please do not for a moment imagine that by X I mean Argentina, by Y Britain, by Z the Islas Malvinas, or by W Diego Garcia. Not at all.]

This is just a coincidence. I promise.

Note that my main thrust in this hypothetical dispute is the acquisition of knowledge about the two antagonists and the history of the dispute. In other words, one has to do a little bit of research; but in the age of the Internet research is not that onerous an undertaking. Seeing an issue from both sides only makes sense if one then goes on to research both those sides, not otherwise. If there's not enough data, one shouldn't make a decision; but once the data, all that is available, is in, one can't possibly avoid making one.

Now, there's the question of different data sets - one side's data may completely contradict the other side's. On the face of it, again, this may be an insurmountable problem, but, really, it isn't. One merely has to check on the credibility of both sides on other topics. If one side, say, has a history of claiming that it is "45 minutes from destruction" by completely mythical weapons of mass destruction in order to justify an invasion it has already decided on in advance, and has been known to frame a manifestly innocent man for bombing an airliner, then its claims on any other topic can also be dismissed as ipso facto suspect.

There’s a quote I came across a long time ago. I don’t at this moment recall the source, but I think it was possibly from a book by John Wyndham: it may be a capital mistake to theorise without adequate data, but it’s mental suicide to funk the data one has. If, after doing the research, one refuses to take sides, all it means is that one has shut off one’s critical faculties and reasoning ability.In that sense, neutrality is immoral.

This is why, incidentally, I’m an atheist, and why I find myself more in accord with theists than with agnostics. I’ve done my personal soul-searching over the question of the existence of a god or gods, and have decided that there is none. A theist who has done the same and decided that there is one or more gods (note that I’m talking about people who have thought about the subject, not those brainwashed into blind belief from childhood) has taken the same journey as mine, even if he or she has come to the opposite conclusion. The agnostic, on the other hand, by deliberately avoiding a conclusion either way, is avoiding making deductions from data; he or she is refusing to think to the point of making a decision.

In the same light, I’d find more respect for people from Y who say, like then-US Vice President George H W Bush once did, “I don’t care what the facts are”, than with those who delicately avoid the facts in order to tiptoe round the subject and come up with a fake moral equivalence. At least they have the courage of their chauvinism enough to declare it, and claim that truth doesn’t matter to them; it’s simply a matter of their country, right or wrong.

Meanwhile, it’s rather pointless for fence-sitters on contentious issues to claim they are being attacked by both sides. Yes, people sitting on fences make good targets, but that’s not the point. They shouldn’t be on the fence in the first place. Either they should avoid the issue altogether, or they owe it to themselves to inform themselves enough to come to a decision.

Confucius, he say, man who walks down the middle of the street gets run over.  

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