The other day, my wife and I were accused by (call them Friend-A) of “sacrificing a friendship for an agenda”. Whether that friendship, (with someone else, call them Friend-B,) is truly over remains uncertain, the problem is Friend-A’s use of the word ‘agenda’ to describe, what we consider, a legitimate complaint about Friend-B’s behavior.
Let’s face it, the word ‘agenda’ is tainted. We have, for example, the “Right Wing Agenda”, the “Liberal Agenda”, the “Gay Agenda”, the “Feminist Agenda”. It carries the taint of conspiracy. Of unthinking, ideological fanaticism. Of behavior that is “over the top.” People refer to their own beliefs as “values”. We have “Conservative Values”, “Liberal Values”, “Christian Values”, and so on. The word ‘agenda’ is almost always used as a slight.
So, what is the definition of ‘agenda’ according to Mirriam-Webster?
- A list or outline of things to be considered or done
- An underlying often ideological plan or program
By these definitions, we all have an agenda: that list of things we think should happen. Of behaviors we encourage or will not tolerate. And, because we’re human, these little lists are informed by who and what we are. The things we’ve learned from parents, teachers, friends, strangers, books, movies – from the inescapable act of living our lives. This list is, if you will, the essence of what we have come to believe. It is our values distilled into practice.
In a literal sense, our Friend-A is right – we are willing to sacrifice a friendship if that friend violates our values in a sufficiently egregious manner – but that is not the sense that comes across. The semantic loading of the word ‘agenda’ makes it sound like we lightly tossed aside a friendship for some trivial, unimportant reason. Or worse, that we are fanatics intent on bending the whole world to our will no matter who gets hurt.
But if we refuse to stand up for our values, it is we who become trivial, who get hurt. Our faith in ourselves, and what we believe in, erodes just that little bit each time we let something slide. The argument with Friend-B revolved around and issue of respect: don’t use the word “gay” as a synonym for “lame”. If we let that slide, we lose a little self-respect each time. (Oh, and Friend-B? Spelling it “ghey” isn’t fooling anyone.)