Iran and the Principle of Charity

Because this site is trying to draw larger conclusions from a deep look at a narrow subject (BDS), I tend to avoid direct commentary on “Big Issue” political matters related to the Middle East, especially since so many others are writing about these topics based on high levels of expertise.  But there are a few topics that Divest This has veered into while discussing BDS that might help in navigating those big issues, such as the current heated debate over the nuclear deal with Iran.

For instance, the Principle of Charity which asks debaters to engage one another’s strongest, most important points – rather than pounce on weaknesses or errors not central to the issue being discussed – is useful not just as a demonstration of what the BDSers lack, but as an illustration of what we should embrace even (actually especially) in the midst of heated debate.

In the context of a Presidential race, the Principle of Charity requires you to assume the best of both sides rather than assume the candidate you like is the embodiment of all virtue and his opponent a scheming, lying, sack of crap secretly colluding with the nation’s enemies to enslave us all.

If we apply that same principle to the current Iran deal, this would require us to assume that President Obama (and deal supporters) truly believe this deal is in the best interests of the country and the world AND that Prime Minister Netenyahu (and other deal critics) believe the opposite with equal sincerity.  One side is likely to be right and the other wrong.  And given the stakes, the price of error is huge.  But even still, this should not lead us to suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree.

One complaint about such an approach is that it dooms us to unthinking neutrality.  But this is a shallow reading of the Principle of Charity since that principle actually provides a way to judge those participating in the debate based on how charitable they are being to those who oppose their views.

For instance, anyone trying to use the current conflict to score points in preparation for next year’s Presidential election (or get Jewish supporters of the deal kicked out of the big tent) is not simply being uncharitable, they are prioritizing their own agenda over the issue (Iran) they claim is of utmost importance.

Similarly, anyone trying to turn the conversation from the tenets and potential consequences of the Iran deal to something else (by characterizing the debate as representing a fight between loyalty to Obama/the Democratic Party/the USA vs. Netenyahu/the American Jewish community/Israel, for example) is not simply being uncharitable, they are playing a very dangerous game.

Now it is easy to find anecdotal evidence of people on both sides being uncharitable.  But in order for apply this principle effectively we need to think past anecdote and look for broader trends.  And in the case of the current Iran debate, I think it’s fair to say that deal critics – in the main – are asking for a conversation that focuses on the specifics of the deal and trying to argue how those specifics are most likely to play out given geopolitical realities and the nature of the Tehran regime.

In contrast, it seems clear (at least to me) that deal proponents are trying to narrow debate as much as possible by framing it as a decision between this deal – regardless of its contents – and war.  And given the weight of the issues involved, politicking in order to get past a minimal vote threshold by invoking party loyalty strikes me as the wrong way to engage in an argument over a pretty monumental matter with long-lasting consequences.

Honest debate also requires putting my cards onto the table so you can review my critique for potential bias.  So here I will admit to opposing the deal, even though the two reasons that top my list for doing so are not specifically related to what it means for Israel (as important as that matter remains).  Notably:

  • For an issue of such import, I would expect those pushing for such a major change in national policy to do everything in their power to bring the American people and their representatives along in the decision-making process.  I realize that this might seem Pollyannaish in such a hyper-partisan age, but a dynamic in which the administration seems to be doing all it can to get this deal put into place despite clear and high levels of opposition among not just Jewish or conservative Americans but all Americans is extremely worrisome, both on the face of it but also in terms of what such dynamics might mean for the long-term health of our democracy.
  • Also, for all the deal and side-deal documents, details, interpretations and counter-interpretations, this deal fundamentally boils down to taking a leap of faith.  That leap is based on the hope that treating a nation like Iran as a respectable member of the community of nations will actually turn it into one.  Like many people, I treasure hope as a human quality that helps us transcend ourselves and our circumstances, often in fantastic ways (just read Exodus – either Moses’ or Uris’).  But in international relations (especially those involving negotiating with tyrannies), relationships built on hope more often than not create disappointment if not disasters (usually of monstrous proportions).

Given that things like the Principle of Charity are the first to be jettisoned during times of high-pitched political conflict, I don’t expect this tool to get much traction in the coming weeks and months.  But in an era when some are questioning the very value of civility in political discourse, consider the power (and potential long-lasting impact) of an argument built on charity and reason, over louder less-friendly approaches to politics that never seem to accomplish what their champions hope to achieve.

4 thoughts on “Iran and the Principle of Charity”

  1. Very well said! I found this moving and compelling, and have added a link (look for “focus our attention,” in the second paragraph to my summary of the deal at I believe that if people evaluated the deal rationally, they would have to concede not only its flaws but that the risk far, far outweighs the potential rewards.

  2. Pingback: A Bad Deal
  3. Great article.

    Look at the reactions on the Left to Chuck Schumer’s recent announcement of opposition. There is zero attempt at understanding his position, rather just a whole lot of vitriol directed at “the Senator from AIPAC” and other such dogwhistles.

  4. You don’t say it, but the President’s political blackmailing of Schumer (he might not now get the top Democratic Party post he’s in line for) is appalling.

    And that’s from a Brit who has no say in the uS’s political process.

    But it still stinks.

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