Halo Effect


[Note: This was originally published at Elder of Ziyon around Martin Luther King Day.]

Every now and then, it’s nice to pull back from the combat zone to take a look at some of the tools and weapons used in our battles with Israel’s enemies.  And, given that we’re primarily fighting against a propaganda war, Martin Luther King Day gives us the chance to learn about an important verbal jousting technique known as the “Halo Effect.”

Like many persuasive tools, the Halo Effect takes advantage of the fact that the human mind is extremely gifted at making associations, but that many of those associations are formed in the absence of full knowledge.  Some uninformed associations (like associating a rustle in the bushes with danger, even if it’s just the wind) have obvious evolutionary benefit.  But uninformed associations can have a dark side (prejudice, for example, falls into this category), and the mind’s tendency to associate first and ask questions later (if ever) leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.

It is the propagandist’s job to create uniformed associations to the benefit of their cause.  For example, the BDSers’ incessant incantation of “Israel=Apartheid” is meant to cement an association in the mind of an audience that Israel represents the kind of racist society associated with the “Apartheid” term.  The boycotters must pitch this message to those who have no idea what Israel is like, since such factual knowledge would instantly expose the Apartheid accusation as a lie.  But they also prefer their audience to know nothing (or next to nothing) about South Africa’s actual experience with the Apartheid system, which leaves the term serving simply as a marker for a bigoted society worthy of dismantlement.

In general, the Halo Effect is used to associate your own cause with a person, image or movement with positive connotations.  Invocation of Gandhi, for example, gives your cause a halo of spirit-driven, non-violent resistance to power, just as invoking Reagan or Kennedy associates you with the perception of uncompromised conservative or liberal principles (regardless of the complex lives and political beliefs of all of these icons).

In the Arab-Israeli propaganda, no icon is the subject of more dispute than Martin Luther King, which is why quotes of his support of Zionism show up on so many pro-Israel web sites every Martin Luther King Day.  Anti-Israel propagandists, desperate to claim the mantle of the Civil Rights movement for themselves, ignore, deny or dispute King’s support for the Jewish state, and thus the ongoing war over King’s legacy.

Keep in mind that the Halo Effect does not require in-depth education of the public on the facts of the matter.  In fact, diving deeply into the complex real lives and beliefs of any icon (the ones already mentioned, or additional ones like Nelson Mandela or Albert Einstein) are as likely to lead to confusion over where they ultimately stood.  And for purposes of generating a halo to stand inside, a simple story will always trump a complex one.

So how to best use this technique, both to cement our own causes to worthy individuals and messages and prevent our enemies from doing the same?

I’ve already mentioned the importance of keeping your story simple.  But while simplification of complex stories is acceptable in political argumentation, such simplicity should never stray into inaccuracy.  For example, it’s fair to highlight that Nelson Mandela never advocated for BDS or point out his positive experiences with the Jewish state.  But using that to claim Mandela as an ardent Zionist would be a stretch into self-delusion or deception that could damage the credibility of anyone making such statements.

Identifying the line between telling an easily digestible tale and telling fibs is the key to using the Halo Effect to maximum advantage, as well as limiting its effectiveness for opponents.  For example, years ago a memo in which Nelson Mandela condemned Israel as an Apartheid state was exposed as a fraud, a hoax that has limited the BDSers ability to invoke his name ever since.  And while similarly inaccurate quotes from Martin Luther King condemning anti-Zionism were also exposed as incorrect, our side benefited from exposing this inaccuracy ourselves, rather than waiting for our opponents to do so.

So what’s the bottom line for activists whose main weapon is language?  First off, understand human psychology and the tools of persuasive communication (like the Halo Effect) well enough to put them to use for a worthy cause, and (2) always hitch these techniques to the truth (which is not that hard, given that the truth is on our side).

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;


  • 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.

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


Given how much more there is to learn from being wrong than right, I must send my thanks to one of our usual Anonymous commenters whose recent contribution caused me to make a major blunder.

As is frequently the case with Anons, this person chose not to respond to a point I had made, but rather to post a link to a site unrelated to the topic at hand, followed by a demand that we respond to her comment. In this case, it was a link to this site documenting house demolitions in Gaza and elsewhere. But in my haste to respond (and after looking at stuff like this for the last few days), I assumed the linked site featured horrific images of Palestinian suffering to make its case, rather than the nice clean maps and statistics which in fact are there. And so I lashed out at those who make emotional arguments at the expense of facts and reason, and was properly chastised for doing so.

To understand the lesson learned from this experience, I need to refer back to the three modes of persuasion mentioned a few posts ago that derive from the principles of rhetoric (in this case, rhetoric defined as means of persuasive political speech).

For those few of you still in the room, these three modes are logos (an appeal to logic and reason), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and ethos (a slightly more complicated notion of appeal to the moral authority of the person making the argument).

In a perfect world, all political debate would focus on logos, with everyone arguing on the basis of sound logical reasoning backed up by empirical fact. But since the only political debates worth having are ones involving competing reasonable alternatives, we must frequently mix into the discussion appeals to things other than the head, including human emotion. But for such an argument to have integrity, logos and pathos need to be mixed in just the right proportion. And any contribution of pathos must appeal to good emotion (such as compassion, courage and sense of moral duty) as opposed to bad emotion (such as fear, anger or irrational hatred.)

Since writing about this matter a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about how the BDS movement (and all its antecedents) consist primarily (if not entirely) of pathos-based arguments which is why so much of their literature and media looks like this and this. So when I saw a link to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHAD) web site, I presumed it contained this typical content.

But of course it does not. Instead, it is filled with the aforementioned maps and tables, as well as testimonials, statistics and other elements documenting the many times Israeli authorities allegedly knocked down the home of a Palestinian family. Presumed in the argument based on this supposedly logos-based evidence is the fact that anyone who would do something as awful as knocking down a family’s house must be pretty awful altogether.

Thinking about this over the last few hours, however, it occurred to me that even with all those maps and figures, perhaps I was still looking at a pathos-based argument. After all, the image of a family house being demolished is at its core an emotional one (certainly for anyone who owns a home and raises a family in it). As such, it is similar to the statistics BDSers throw around regarding the number of children killed in conflicts like the recent Gaza campaign. Actually, the latter is even more emotionally evocative since what can be more gut wrenching (especially to a parent) than the thought of an innocent child losing his or her life?

But when these examples of house demolitions or children’s deaths are presented in isolation (absent every piece of the story that led to these horrible images or stats such as weapons tunnels under or Hamas rockets fired from those homes containing those children), then we are being asked to draw conclusions based on those images and carefully chosen statistics alone. In other words, the emotional power of a destroyed home or broken child (whether a photo or a body count) is meant to elicit in us an emotional response that leapfrogs reason to the desired conclusion.

As I’ve stated before, the arguments boycotters make in their presentations, their literature, their videos and their speeches amounts to nothing more than pure pathos aimed directly at not the heart (kindness, courage, etc.) but the gut (fear, anger, disgust). Which is why they tend to focus their messages directly at those who consider themselves to be compassionate and caring.

These pathos-laden appeals actually represent a compliment the BDSers are making to their chosen audience, assuming them to be empathetic enough to be manipulated in such a manner. In fact, if you want to see how ineffective such a technique is against someone who lacks such empathy, watch what happens when you ask a BDSer about Jews killed by terrorism, Palestinians murdered by each other, or the plight of women and gays in the Middle East. Presuming they don’t simply ignore you (their usual first choice), within seconds you will hear a “that’s terrible, BUT…” follows by their next round of accusations against you-know-who.

In one sense, pure pathos has significant rhetoric power, although only as a means of shutting down debate, rather than winning it. Which is why this is the tool the boycotters always reach for first, last and always since they know they can never win an argument fought on level ground.

Pathos is also useful for drawing those who have a visceral reaction to conflict and war who may lack the knowledge to put information like that provided by ICAHD into context, or who may not have enough experience thinking critically about matters where even raw emotional reality must be tempered by reason and judgment. Uber activists (like our Israel-disliking community) refer to such people (i.e., those who feel they must “do something” when bad things are occurring) as “loose change,” i.e., the folks who make up the bulk of bodies who march in the streets after a Middle East war breaks out (at least ones in which Israel is involved).

I’d like to think that for all its ability to short circuit reason and manipulate the inexperienced and empathetic, that pathos will always fail to win the debate and thus will never lead to political victory. And given BDS’s ten year losing streak, there is room for this type of optimism. But if we ever enter a world in which pathos rules the day, I suspect the fate that will befall Israel is only a tiny slice of the horror the rest of us can expect to descend on our lives.