The Principle of Charity

I had forgotten about the “Action Alert” effect whereby activists on both sides of a BDS debate call on their bases to write to decision makers at organizations like the Olympia Co-op, as well as to flood the comments section of news stories covering a boycott story like the one unfolding in Washington. So my prediction that comments would level off at the 100-150 mark (at least in the newspaper) has already been proven wrong.

With so many things being posted in reaction to the Co-op’s boycott decision, it’s tempting to shine a spotlight on clear anti-Semitic comments such as one that added the collapse of the Global Economy to the list of Israel/Jewish crimes that should be punished by BDS. Similarly, BDS advocates would probably like to highlight the stray bigoted comment posted by an anti-boycott critic to “prove” that their opponents are motivated by racism. But while throwing the other side’s nastiest anonymous commentary into your opponent’s face (while ignoring extremism on your own side) has become a familiar online debating tactic, it misses two important contributions (one broad, one narrow) that online (mostly anonymous) commentary can make to a more enlightening debate.

On the broad side, while no single anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian nastygram says that much, in aggregate the aggressive and frequently ugly debate taking place online is a good indication of what Olympia is likely to experience throughout the community in the coming weeks and months. Whenever a BDS project pitches its tents, it’s just a matter of time before the entire community degenerates into a flesh-and-blood version of an online flame war. So look to the bulletin boards to see what the Co-op’s board has given as a gift to the organization’s membership.

On a more narrower front, an active online debate does allow many if not all arguments about a controversial subject to appear in one place and while some of these arguments may be spurious or weak, many (on both sides of an issue) can be logical and strong. But are partisans on either side of a debate under any obligation to focus on their opponent’s strong arguments, rather than mercilessly take apart their weak ones? In fact (at least philosophically) they are.

In philosophy, there is a “Principle of Charity” which requires participants in debate to extend certain “benefits of the doubt” to one another. One manifestation of this principle would be to consider an opponent’s arguments in the best possible light. In a detailed discussion of this principle, the philosopher Nigel Warburton uses this example to illustrate the concept:

“… in a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might state that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim ‘All animals should have equal rights’ as being a shorthand for ‘All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm’ and then to address that.”

Of course, the Principle of Charity does not (and should not) be automatically applied to every argument and every debater. Assuming the best of a proponent of perpetual motion machines or conspiracy theories, for example, could lend legitimacy to arguments which are, on their face, simply bad or mendacious, requiring no further interpretation generous or otherwise. At the same time, much of our political debate could be made much calmer and more illuminating with a healthy dose of this Principle.

Applying the Principle of Charity to the debate taking place at Olympia (or Oly as local fans seem to call it) does not mean agreeing to the boycotter’s mendacious presentation of Middle East history or accepting their self-serving explanation of why they demand only Israel (and not far greater human rights abusers) be boycotted. Nor does it require us to shut up in the face of emotive arguments, whether those take the form of photos of blood Palestinian babies or the invocation of the dead Rachel Corrie. Rather, it requires us to search past manipulative rhetorical for an argument that is reasonable, compelling and unquestionably true.

In this case, the strongest argument I’ve come across was in response to something I posted contrasting the behavior of the Oly Co-op board with the decision by a Co-op in Davis to reject similar boycott calls. While I happen to think that Davis’ decision was based on sound judgment that Olympia would have been well served to listen to, at least one commenter has pointed out that Oly is not Davis and that the rules of the Olympia Co-op make it clear that the board has full authority to make decisions regarding whom to boycott with minimal requirements to determine if such a boycott represents the will of the membership.

In this argument, boycott supporters are saying something that is absolutely true (those are apparently the rules at the Oly Co-op) and compelling (every organization, after all, gets to make its own rules after which it is only obligated to apply those rules consistently – which the Co-op has done). So what is there to say in response to such a sound argument?

Quite a bit, as it turns out, which I’ll get to tomorrow.

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