BDS and the War of Words

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series War

From Algemeiner…

If you don’t think words play much of a role in a shooting war, contrast the range of options open to Israel’s military the next time Hamas missiles fly  and an Israeli counter-attack is cast as “defense against aggressors” vs. “a disproportionate response.”

It has been more than a century since persuasive speech (traditionally referred to as rhetoric) stopped being a cornerstone subject studied by all educated people. This explains why elections are more about manipulating the public than convincing it, as well as why so few young people know how to respond effectively when proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel utilize their war-words strategy on campuses and beyond.

One article can’t do much to close the rhetoric gap between the manipulators and their intended victims. But a few key points regarding language and war might help move us in the right direction.

For starters, all attempts to use language to get someone to believe and do something can be categorized based on three Modes of Persuasion. The first two are logic and emotion (traditionally referred to as logos andpathos). The third mode is ethos, a term that defies easy translation into English but refers to the vital ability to connect to an audience by addressing their needs and concerns or otherwise letting them know you either care about them or are one of them.

Israel and its supporters tend to favor logical or logos-based appeals, best exemplified by the 1,000-word essay or editorial (such as this one). Hasbarah, the term Israelis traditionally use to describe their political diplomacy strategy, translates to “explanation,” and for whatever cultural reasons, our side tends to like to explain our positions in great detail through carefully constructed arguments that try to build valid conclusions on well-supported premises.

In contrast, arguments presented by anti-Israel propagandists tend to rely almost entirely on emotion (pathos), typified by the photo of the blood-drenched dead baby (a shocking image presented as a ghastly rejoinder to any argument about any subject). While BDSers might occasionally ape the form of reasoned discourse, once they run into counter-arguments they cannot answer it doesn’t take long for the room to be filled with words and images targeted not at the head, or even the heart, but the gut.

Interestingly, the more an argument relies solely on logos or pathos the less effective it is at convincing others. Long logical arguments can be tiring to read or listen to, even when they’re not boring (which they often are to those not already invested in them). But purely emotional arguments can leave an audience feeling manipulated, even when they aren’t built on lies. In both cases, such lopsided arguments ignore the needs of an audience, specifically their need to not be lectured to or jerked around.

This gets us back to ethos, and one way to make an effective connection to those whom one is trying to reach is to carefully balance sound logic and honest emotion in a story that presents your case in concrete human terms.

For example, which of these two statements packs more of a rhetorical punch?

  • Within days of a devastating earthquake striking Haiti, Israel had flown 220 doctors and set up a state-of-the-art mobile field hospital, providing rescue and health services to thousands of people;

or

  • Six year old Jessica Hartelin had good reason to believe her life was over after days buried under rubble caused by Haiti’s recent earthquake.  But she didn’t count on courageous local residents pulling her to safety, or on the skill and dedication of Israeli doctors who had set up the only mobile field hospital in the country in order to give local Haitians like Jessica the chance at life.

In the first statement, Israel helps thousands while in the second it helps only one, and yet the personalization of the story gives the second statement far more rhetorical power which is reinforced, not diminished, by the fact that credit for her rescue is given to both Israel and Jessica’s Haitian neighbors.

This comparison emphasizes the importance of using compelling narratives when presenting a case. This is imperative, given that our opponents are trying to use the human brain’s tendency to gravitate towards stories (rather than lists of facts) by telling and retelling their tale of “Apartheid Israel,” hoping that this fiction lodges permanently in the public’s brain, impervious to our non-fictional rebuttals.

Speaking of fiction vs. non-fiction (or, more specifically, falsehood vs. truth) one last crucial rhetorical lesson has to do with the difference between being honest and being fair.

In a propaganda war, it is vital that our side sticks to telling the truth since (a) getting caught in a lie destroys a speaker’s ethos quotient, and (b) just maintaining a lie-based narrative creates tremendous cognitive burden on the liar. But beyond these utilitarian concerns, honesty is a personal virtue that every individual has an obligation to uphold (easy to do in our case, since the truth is on our side).

Fairness, in contrast, is transactional, in that we are under no obligation to treat an opponent fairly who is not playing fairly with us. For example, that fact that BDS proponents intentionally avoid any and all points made by our side means that they are not entitled to demand we respond to each and every accusation they hurl at the Jewish state – no matter how much they scream in our faces that we must.

Similarly, while it might seem unfair to wrap the excesses of the most violent and irresponsible chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine around the neck of that tiny chapter at your own school consisting of just a few soft-spoken undergraduates, such a line of attack is perfectly reasonable – indeed required – until the “movement” that group represents earns the right to be treated fairly by those under assault by the BDS project as a whole.

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