Rhetoric – Avoidance

12 Jun

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Language

Usually, the type of analysis I’ve been doing for the last few postings is performed in order to determine how well someone has used logic, language and other devices to frame an argument designed to counter an opponent and/or persuade an audience.  But another thing that sets BDS rhetoric apart from “normal” political interaction is how much anti-Israel partisans deploy the tools of rhetoric in order to avoid, rather than participate in, debate.

I’ve already noted several times the way BDSers repeatedly and intentionally ignore all questions or arguments for which they do not have an answer.  And other techniques, such as Argumentation from Outrage, are also used to so overcharge a situation emotionally that normal conversation (much less debate) cannot take place.

Here in Boston (where I have done most of my “field work”) you frequently see these two devices (igore-ance and outrage) combined.

For example, at an event in Harvard Square a few years back, I made it a point to insert myself into a conversation a group of boycotters were having with some passers-by so that I could provide corrections to the many historical inaccuracies I was hearing.  But rather than counter my points (or thank me for correcting their facts), the BDSer first tried to ignore me then, then shouted that I should go away (despite our conversation taking place on a public street of their choosing), then finally storming off in a huff.  And, sure enough, at another event a few weeks later the same people were there doing and saying the same things, as if any of the questions they was unable to answer a few weeks earlier had never been asked.

This avoidance of debate works in direct opposition to one of the most important notions behind sound argumentation: the Principle of Charity.  This principle says that in any debate you are better off engaging with your opponent’s strongest points, rather than just pouncing on his or her weakest.  To give a simple illustration, the philosopher Nigel Warburton uses this example:

“… 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.”

We saw an excellent example of the Principle of Charity being repeatedly breached during the PennBDS conference that took place earlier this year.  During various discussions before, during and after that event, the conference organizers were presented with a number of arguments against the points being made at their event, some from meand many from others.  Now they were well aware that these arguments were out there, but chose not to engage their critics (despite the fact that they kept claiming over and over how much they welcomed criticism and hungered for debate).

But once someone from the U Penn community wrote a letter to the local paper using language that was less than measured, suddenly the BDSers found their voice, writing endless denunciations, insisting that they felt threatened and demanding that others join them in denouncing this one letter (while all the time ignoring more measured critiques that took on all of the substantial BDS talking points).

This choice to “engage” only with someone who could be characterized in negative terms while pretending that this was the only criticism they received was no oversight, but instead represents a BDS rhetorical strategy we see time and time again.

We see it whenever the boycotters studiously ignore all criticism until someone finally accuses them of anti-Semitism (an accusation for which they have a ready store of answers) which causes the boycotters to rise in indignant attack mode, insisting that any and all criticism they ever receive consist of nothing but similar accusations.  This has become such a well-worn strategy that even if someone doesn’t make such an accusation, the boycotters will still argue as though this was the only criticism they have ever heard.

If the Principle of Charity requires you to engage your opponents at their strongest, what are we to make of a movement that will do everything in its power to wait for, ferret out or (if need be) make up talking points for their opponents that consist of arguments they do feel comfortable answering, and then pretending these is the only challenges they ever face?

What we have, then, is a group of anti-Israel partisans who try to ape the format of debate while doing everything in their power to avoid the real thing.  And how are those of us who try to argue against BDS (and other anti-Israeli activity) supposed to deal with a “movement” that puts most of its rhetorical effort into evading, rather than engaging, in discussion?  An answer to that question when I finish up this series later this week.

Finale… Solutions

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2 Responses to “Rhetoric – Avoidance”

  1. fizziks June 14, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    Looking forward to it, because I have no idea how to effectively debate these people. When I used to blog they would not answer anything specific, but would rather dig up something I had said in the past about someone being an antisemite (because that person was, in fact, engaging in serious antisemitic rhetoric). All they do to in response to whatever you might say to them is say “Criticism of Israel is not antisemitic”, which just changes the subject.

  2. DrMike June 15, 2012 at 2:45 am #

    One response is “not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. That doesn't mean that none of it is. Just like the fact that not all criticism of terror groups that murder Jews and Christians in the name of Islam is 'Islamophobic'.”

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