Rhetoric – Avoidance

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

Rhetoric – Outrage

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Language

One of the most interesting things about the rhetoric used by the BDS “movement” and similar Israel-disliking organizations is that the BDSers’ life on the psychological extreme (discussed here) means that the rhetorical tactics they employ also tend towards the extreme.

When one is dealing with a “normal” political situation, even one as heated as our upcoming Presidential campaign, there are forces that keep discussion within general bounds of civility.  Certainly candidates will drop innuendos about their opponent’s inadequacy for the job, while surrogates get much more specific and accusatory.  But the simple fact that a candidate feels the need to be perceived as even-tempered and fair (even if he or she counts on others to do the dirty work) implies an understanding that public discourse needs to follow certain civilized rules.

The public is also interested in variety, which means using the same tactic over and over again is likely to bring diminishing returns, especially if that tactic is perceived as controversial or extreme.  And one of the rhetoric tactics that tends to wear out its welcome fast is Argumentation from Outrage.

Argumentation from Outrage is considered in informal fallacy, that is a fallacy not based on breaking any formal logical rules (such as All Dogs are Animals, All Cats are Animals, therefore all Dogs are Cats – a formal fallacy which is wrong even if you substitute letters, imaginary animals or nonsense words for Cats, Dogs and Animals).  But with an informal fallacy, the actual content of the argument is relevant or, in the case of Argumentation from Outrage, how that content is presented.

Argumentation from Outrage is usually brought up in discussions of cable TV or radio political talk show hosts who seem to be able to break into a screaming fit at the slightest provocation.  Just spend ten minutes watching Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews shrieking at a guest for doing nothing more than correcting their grammar and you understand the phenomenon.

In that context, Argumentation from Outrage is meant to short circuit reasonable debate by raising the temperature to such a degree that the only choices an opponent to the screamer has are to (1) capitulate; or (2) begin screaming back (usually a losing proposition for a talk show guest inexperienced at public howling who does not control the microphone or editing booth).  And while such a tactic may play well to a talk show’s fan base which gathers to watch their hero put wrong-minded guests in their place, most people who play in politics put the brakes on such tactics (especially when playing before a mixed audience of friends, foes and undecideds).

But as we have seen, people playing the BDS game have no such brakes for the simple reason that “the audience” for them are not real people, but simply props in a fantasy-laden drama going on in the boycotters own heads.  Which is why if you point out the inconsistencies in their arguments, they’ll fly into a rage.  If you point out their hypocrisy of snoozing while Hamas missiles fly but rousing themselves into righteous fury when Israel shoots back, they’ll fly into an even bigger rage.  If you point out that their “movement” draws its strength from being aligned with the needs and goals of wealthy and powerful states, they will burst a blood vessel.  In fact, doing or saying anything that challenges their self-perception as courageous and virtuous human-rights champions speaking truth to power means it’s just a matter of seconds before someone’s face is two inches from yours shrieking abuse and spewing saliva (either literally or virtually – although without the saliva when this dynamic plays out in online debate – as it inevitably does).

The point of Argumentation from Outrage is to raise the discomfort level so high that people will avoid further attacking (or even questioning) the person having the tantrum.  Most normal people, after all, don’t like being in situations where emotions are running red hot.  And a boycotter losing an argument knows this, which is why they tend to explode so readily in hope of making it impossible for normal debate to continue.

This helps to explain why anti-Israel “dialog” tends to be so shrill.  I have frequently teased certain writers (like those responsible for this Muzzlewatch site) of starting their writing in a snit and then working themselves into frenzy of accusation and fury.  But if you think about it, starting an argument in a state of outrage is yet another way of avoiding a debate you know you cannot win.

The trouble (for the BDSers anyway) is this perpetual outrage is used to justify all kinds of behavior that – as mentioned previously – tends not to play well with a general audience which does NOT like to be patted down on the way to class by a bunch of Israel haters dressed up in Israeli soldier costumes during some campus protest, does NOT like to have their concerts or theatre performances interrupted by people shrieking slogans and waving banners, and does NOT trust people who seem to be shouting, even when the situation doesn’t warrant it.

Not only are these tactics counter-productive in and of themselves, but they also tend to get old and tired rather quickly.  Which may help explain why the boycotters seem to be having such a difficult time getting anyone to notice them these days, much less take them seriously.

Next… Association