Changing Your Mind

Continuing to catch this site up with stuff published earlier this year…

I’ve become a big fan of Jonathan Haidt, co-author of the best-selling Coddling of the American Mind and a social-science researcher committed to bringing political balance and reasoned discourse back into academia and everyday political life. 

Haidt is a scholar who practices what he preaches, including one of the key virtues of a truly free and independent thinker: the ability to say “I’ve changed my mind,” especially about something he once believed deeply. 

In Haidt’s case, he revised his thinking about the role intuition plays in human reasoning between his first best-selling book (The Happiness Hypothesis) and one I just finished reading (The Righteous Mind).

Given that Happiness Hypothesis put Haidt on the map as a public intellectual, I can only imagine what it took to put into print an admission that that book contained a thesis the author no longer buys.  But the ability to both change your mind and admit you have done so has strategic as well as intellectual benefits.

For instance, when I first got into the fight against BDS, I repeatedly argued against turning to authority figures (such as lawmakers, courts or college administrators) to deal with demonization/delegitimization campaigns targeting the Jewish state.

This stance was based on the fact that, back then, BDS was largely taking place within civic organizations, such as colleges and universities, churches, municipalities and food coops, with anti-Israel activism driven by small groups of insurgents within individual institutions.  Since the majority of members of these institutions were either hostile or indifferent to the boycotters’ political agenda, the best strategy was to help that majority organize and find its voice so it could effectively beat back BDS (which they did again and again over the course of more than a decade).

Yes, the Israel haters are relentless which meant they kept coming back those organizations again and again to demand a revote, refusing to take “no” for an answer.  But such behavior meant that, by the time a handful student governments or church votes started going the BDSers way, the public had internalized how unrepresentative or corrupt such votes were, which meant the boycotters either lost or – at worst – acquired tainted victories no one took seriously.

Given how effective grassroots politics was at turning back BDS, I saw turning to authorities as a less effective and riskier short-circuiting of more effective, democratic processes.  But as the fight moved from these small communities to large and powerful institutions, such as the United Nations, I’ve had to revise my thinking regarding the best course of action to take in response new forms of the BDS threat.

As most readers know, the UN’s Orwellian Human Rights Commission is preparing a blacklist of companies doing business in Israel, the publication of which will put pressure on those companies to sever ties with the Jewish state.  Given that this blacklist effort is driven by wealthy and powerful states that dominate the UN and have subverted it to their will, local activists have no way to influence what happens in the halls of that body. 

Understanding this reality, the most effective counter-measure to a UN blacklist is the anti-BDS legislation passed or on the way to being passed in most US states and the federal government.  If one ignores partisan hyperbole regarding such legislation, these laws simply update rules that have been in place since the 1970s that make it illegal for US companies to participate in the Arab Boycott that goes back to the 1920s now that those same boycotters have hijacked the United Nations to give this age-old form of partisan warfare a veneer of global legitimacy.

Once anti-boycott laws are passed, companies (especially those more concerned with the large Arab market vs. the small Israeli one) considering participating in a UN-led boycott will have another factor to take into account: the impact such a choice will have on their relationship with the large US market.  We’ve already seen what happened to one corporation (AirBnB) that thought it would face no consequences for joining the latest version of the Arab boycott.  Given that companies are generally conservative, turning to US state and national legislators to add a counter-weight to the UN blacklist is not just a last resort, but our best choice. 

In science, there is a principle which says you should try to understand a problem in terms of the right level of scale.  For example, while the weather can be studied at the atomic level, there is more insight to be gained by studying the subject at a macro vs micro scale.

Similarly, grassroots fights are still the way to go when the battle is taking place at a local food store or student government.  But when powerful forces are arrayed against you, it is best to marshal equally powerful forces to counter them.

Sticking with an old formula when new situations require new tactics tends to lead to calcification and failure.  This is why I have changed my mind about enrolling authority figures in our fight, but only in situations where that option makes the most strategic sense. 

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