Rhetoric – Abnormal Politics

5 Jun

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Language

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the rhetoric used by the BDS “movement” (which reflects the rhetoric of anti-Israel political activity generally).  But before getting into the mechanics of this subject, it’s important to understand some of the psychological motivation behind why people make certain choices when engaging in political debate.

More than a year ago, I wrote about the BDSers over-reliance on pathos (emotional persuasion), a subject particularly relevant to this discussion (which is why I’ll pause as you re-read that original piece).

Are you back?  OK, as noted in that entry, nearly every compelling argument contains some amount of emotional content, so the appeal to emotion is not in and of itself illegitimate.  But an over-reliance on emotional words and images (especially the use of emotionally evocative words and images to short circuit reason) definitely crosses the line into manipulativeness.  And when chosen emotional content is aimed not at the heart (which responds to appeals to positive emotions such as love and concern), but the gut (which responds to negative emotions like anger and fear), you quickly find yourself in situations where rhetoric is used to avoid reasonable argumentation rather than drive it.

I bring this up because the BDS bag of tricks consists almost entirely of pathos-based arguments.  Oh sure, the BDSers can occasionally rouse themselves to present arguments that ape the form of logic (usually consisting of false or self-serving interpretations of history leading to foregone conclusions).  But once those arguments are challenged, out come the photos of babies with crushed bodies alongside insistence that anyone challenging BDS dogma is responsible for the horrendous suffering being thrown in our faces.

Keep in mind that the assumption built into the use of such pathos-based manipulation is that the audience will respond to this approach.  And if you look at the audiences where these types of presentations have been successful (kindhearted Mainline Protestants who feel compelled to do something about the suffering of others, energetic student activists committed to human rights, etc.), you can see why this arrow tends to get drawn so quickly from the BDS quiver of available arguments.

Even supporters of Israel can find themselves questioning their own beliefs when confronted by provocative imagery, such as a photo of a dead or suffering child.  “Did the Israeli army actually do all it could to prevent such tragedies?” we may ask ourselves (even if we understand full well the difference between Israel trying to prevent civilian casualties while fighting a defensive war vs. Hamas trying to maximize civilian causalities – their own and Israel’s – in the course of waging an offensive one).

Under normal circumstances, an overreliance on pathos by one side in a debate has a corrective: the equivalent use of pathos by the other side.  After all, if we’re meant to respond to words or imagery of suffering Palestinian children in the way the BDSers insist we must, why can’t we show them photos of dead Israeli children, or their suffering families, or dead Syrians, or dead Palestinians killed by Hamas for that matter (with all the requisite blood and surviving family members with faces contorted in pain) and insist the BDSers must respond to our accusations and challenges?

If you’ve ever tried such an approach (or watched someone else attempt this tactic), it immediately becomes clear that “pathos jui jitsu” simply does not work on the Israel haters.  Which makes sense once you realize that much of the anti-Israel activism we experience exists outside the realm of what could be called “normal politics.”

For the first reaction of a BDSer to stories or photos of dead Israelis (or dead Palestinians they cannot blame directly on Israel), is to ignore them.  And if that doesn’t work, they create an elaborate fallacy-laden argument to explain why those deaths are also Israel’s fault (“they wouldn’t have died if it wasn’t for ‘The Occupation!’).  And if that doesn’t work, they fly into a rage and drag out 100 more pictures of dead Arabs to trump whatever you present to them.  And if none of that works, they simply walk away, only to return to make the same pathos-laced arguments that didn’t work on you to another audience two days later.

In other words, their arguments leverage the empathy of their target audience, but their imperviousness to the same type of arguments directed towards them relies on their own total lack of empathy for others.

I’ve recently been reading a book entitled The Science of Evil written by Simon Baron Cohen (brother of Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and The Dictator fame, as it turns out) which tries to explain all human evil in the context of empathy (or lack thereof).  And while I’m not that convinced by his overall argument, he does bring up an important reminder of where we can find the combination of emotional manipulative behavior coupled with the lack of susceptibility to emotional manipulation I describe above with regard to BDS behavior: in the psychological makeup of the sociopath.

Which brings us back to why anti-Israel politics seems so abnormal compared to more routine politics (even heated politics) we see in other realms.  For with BDS (and Israel hatred generally), we are dealing with a phenomena far scarier and more dangerous than a sociopathic individual: a sociopathic political movement, one that either provides a home for people with this disposition, or helps normalize sociopathic behavior so that it is encouraged within people who join “the movement.”

We need to keep this reality in mind as we think about both the rhetoric such a movement uses to present its case, and the rhetoric and strategies we use to counter it.Next up… Outrage!!!

Series NavigationRhetoric – Outrage >>

2 Responses to “Rhetoric – Abnormal Politics”

  1. Anonymous June 6, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    But aren't we wasting our trying to convince the die-hard BDSers and Israel haters. As Jon points out, nothing any of us say or do will probably change their minds. Yes, I know there are some exceptions to this — the Irish film maker Larken and the British Muslim who now works for Stand With Us. But what makes these stories so memorable is how unusual they are and I think those people can change their minds because of their openness and intellectual capacity. It's not any argument we make; it's the truth of the situation and their ability to see that.

    Anyway, this commentary is useful, but I think we need to look for and spread arguments that we find work well on the people in the middle or on persuadable people who lean slightly for or against Israel. Just my thoughts.

  2. Jon June 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    And good thoughts they are. I think you'll find I'm heading to the same conclusion, although doing so in a way that starts out by outlining just how abnormal a situation we are dealing with vs. more familiar political conflicts and debates.

    So hang in there…

    Jon

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