Rhetoric – Solutions

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Language

Israel’s friends face a rhetorical challenge.

For whether our opponents embrace BDS or some other tactic, anti-Israel forces deploy rhetorical strategies specifically designed to shut down rational debate.

On the one hand, they use evocative images of war (hard soldiers, frightening weapons) and its consequence (the wounded and dead) to play off the emotions of others whom they understand to be caring and empathetic.  But since the BDSers themselves are totally lacking in such empathy (despite their constant declarations of their own virtue), they are impervious to similar emotional appeals.

At the same time, they are devoted to avoiding their critics’ arguments by either ignoring them completely or finding some kind of verbal trick to give the appearance of being engaged in dialog while actually avoiding genuine discussion at all cost.

Faced with such opponents, pro-Israel activists generally look to two different styles of counter-campaign which I will categorize as positive and negative.

Positive campaigns try to create positive images of Israel with programming and events that highlight the Jewish state’s contribution to high technology, medicine and agriculture or stress the country’s liberal credentials by showcasing its democracy, free press and strong support for gay and women’s rights.  They may also include calls for dialog with Israel’s foes, even those firmly in the BDS camp.

Negative campaigns eschew this approach, preferring to fight fire with fire.  “If the Israel haters want to throw dead bodies in our faces,” they presume, “then we can match them gruesome picture for gruesome picture.  And if they want to toss around the Apartheid label, they’ll have to defend themselves against the fact that the entire Arab world is one vast sea of religious, gender and sexual Apartheid.”

Both approaches have their plusses and minuses (which I discuss at various points in this review of strategy and tactics and plan to return to as a subject of discussion over the summer).  The key point is that whether we are running positive campaigns in order to inoculate a campus against anti-Israel rhetoric, engaging in dialog (if only directed at marginal BDS supporters who don’t necessarily want to fall into a sociopathic movement), or fighting fire with fire regarding attacking our foes, it is vital that we keep our goals in mind as we select strategies and tactics best suited to achieve those goals.

But returning to rhetoric, we also need to start leveraging persuasive techniques that have proven effective for at least 2500 years.

For example, when the boycotters trot out their endless lists of accusations, notice how they try to personalize each and every one with names, dates and stories so specific that the common reader will more readily accept them as true (why, after all, would someone lie in such detail?).

The fact that they use such detail to cover their lies (such as those BDSers in Olympia who claim to have personally witnessed Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children in the head, or to have personally received hundreds of death threats from enraged anti-boycott Jews) does not mitigate the fact that the detailed stories re-enforce an emotional appeal.

And when emotional appeals tied to specific named individuals are put into service of a just cause and a reasonable argument, they can be even more powerful (just ask Gilead Shalit).

Applying this to so-called “positive campaigning,” which of these two statements will stick with you longer?

* 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 Haitains 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 (reinforced, not diminished, by the fact that credit for her rescue is given to both Israel and Jessica’s Haitian neighbors).

And if we look at “going on the attack” (especially if that attack is directed to the highly vulnerable target of the BDSers themselves), do you get more rhetorical ”bang for the buck” from one of my long-winded analyses of legal issues behind (for example) the Olympia Coop boycott, or from these two simple sentences:

“Tibor Breuer, a resident of Olympia for nearly thirty years, was surprised to learn that the coop he had helped build with his own hands had unilaterally instituted a boycott Israeli goods, choosing to make a political statement he doesn’t agree with and was never asked to discuss.  And when he did push to make the boycott a genuinely democratic decision, the word back from the coop board (which boasts that decisions within the organizations are consensus based) could be boiled down to: “tough” and “didn’t you get the memo?”

Again, making this a story of a named individual fighting an uncaring institution (one which speaks with the voice of distant corporate decision makers) is far more powerful rhetorically than long statements of facts (our usual way Israel’s defenders respond to its accusers).

Stories and other rhetorical strategies and devices are powerful persuasive tools which can be used for good or ill.  As such, we should not be queasy about using them to inform and convince, just because our opponents user them to deceive and manipulate.

So in addition to making sure our students are knowledgeable about Middle East history and are armed with facts before heading off to college, it might not be the worst thing to also send them into the world with a copy of Cicero in their book bag as well.

Rhetoric – Association

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Language

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s surprise best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow describes the human mind as separated into a lazy but powerful slow half that processes information deliberately, and a much-more-frequently-used fast half that spends much of its time associating one thing with another.

You can read more about his arguments here, but for purposes of this discussion our fast, associative processor is why hearing any song we’ve not listened to in a while will immediately trigger memories of the last time we heard it, the first time we heard it, the embrace of someone we danced to it with, and these memories will trigger further associations without any conscious choice on our part to think about these subjects.  Similarly, if I simply say the seemingly arbitrary words “banana” and “vomit,” a host of images will flood your brain, triggering actual physical sensation (such as queasiness and a bad taste in your mouth).

The power of association is one of the reasons why it plays such a huge role in human discourse, especially the kind of persuasive discourse you find in politics.  For example, we are endlessly trying to associate our causes with words and people who possess positive connotations while simultaneously implying negative associations to our adversaries.

This is why we live under a government, while they live under a regime.  It is also why during a BDS battle, the fight is often over who gets to be the “grassroots movement working together with a network of partner organizations worldwide” vs. “a group of single-minded partisans taking orders from people with no connection to the community.”

This phenomenon also explains the desire to attach one’s own cause with unassailable individuals (the fight between pro- and anti-Israel activists over the legacy of Martin Luther King being the best example readers of this blog will recognize).  For whoever can convince an audience that they (and not the other guy) represents the traditions of King or Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, the more likely they can associate that aura of virtue to their own agenda.

Another associative rhetorical device is the Association Fallacy, more commonly known as “guilt by association.”  This is where the (usually negative) qualities of one thing are implied to be inherent in another associated thing.  For example: “My opponent is in favor of tight monetary policy.  The Nazis were also in favor of right monetary policy.  Therefore, my opponent is just like Hitler.”

Usually, guilt by association is a bit more subtle than this (although association with Nazism became so commonplace in the age of Internet debate that it ended up popularizing a less-known fallacy called Reductio ad Hiterism).  But it is one of the most commonplace rhetorical techniques you see applied by (among others) BDS activists to avoid confronting topics they’d rather not discuss.  This is why attempts to counter this or that BDS point so frequently end in an accusation of “sounding just like a right winger” or “Likudnik,” especially in front of an audience that perceives itself on the left end of US or Israeli public opinion.   The hope is that if they can associate their opponents with someone the audience doesn’t like, this frees them from having to answer any genuine questions or challenges.

There is a final example of associative rhetoric that, while not unique to the BDS movement, is so integral to that effort that it needs to be highlighted. For, if you think about it, the entire BDS project is built around trying to associate the boycott and divestment cause with the positive brand of a respected institution (such as a major university or centuries-old church).  In fact, without such associations the BDSers can claim to represent nothing more than themselves (which is why they fight so feverishly to bring one or more of these groups over to their cause – by any means necessary).

This desire to speak in the name of others is also why groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (to take my favorite general example of practitioners of rhetorical excess) spend so much time putting their own opinions between quote marks (usually associated with rabbis or third parties not necessarily directly connected to their organization).   The (accurate) assumption behind such a move is that such words would have less power if delivered in the name of a partisan group.  But if they can come out of the mouth of someone outside of their group (or someone with a title – such as rabbi – which implies authority and connectivity to ancient legacies and traditions), they will sound more neutral and, thus, objective.

As with so many rhetorical techniques, devices that leverage our uncontrollable tendency to associate are most effective when harnessed to logical arguments based on accurate facts.  But problems arise when they are used in place of logic and fact (which they so often are when coming out of the mouth of BDS champions).  While such verbal tricks can work for a while (and may be effective with certain audiences), they tend to come off as manipulative and dishonest when an underlying lack of logic or honesty is exposed.

Our desire to think the best of people can easily turn to outrage when it becomes clear that someone is trying to play us for suckers.  Which may explain why, after more than a decade of effort, BDS (like “banana” coupled with “vomit”) has done little more than leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone who has encountered it.

Next… Avoidance

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