Friday, July 25, 2014

can we talk?

I have been absent from much of the conversation going on about recent events in Israel and Gaza.  Partly that’s been because much of what I was feeling just did not want to be captured in words.  Partly because there were issues that I felt demanded more knowledge than I could pretend to.  And partly because, given the state of the discourse – at least as it appears on my FB feed – I didn’t feel that anything I might actually say would do anything beyond proclaim, “I’m the kind of person who thinks X!”  And while this seems to be The Conversation the Jewish community is having, it doesn’t feel much like a conversation.
What follows, then, are some notes about what a real conversation might look like, based on what I think I know about ethics, about the current situation, and about how to speak to people who don’t agree with you (I used to teach high school, so I’ve had some experience with that).   If you think I’m wrong on some of these, let me know – although if you disagree with me on any of the “Categorical Statements” under “Thoughts on the Situation” we probably don’t share the same universe.  Because it seems to me that if we’re straight on these, then we might be able to talk.  To each other.

Some thoughts on moral reasoning
To have a right to something does not mean having a right to do anything claimed to be in support of that right.
Conversely, to say that something done in support of a cause was wrong does not in itself invalidate the cause.
To have a right to do something does not mean that thing is either moral or wise.
Suffering does not necessarily endow one with either virtue or wisdom.  Sometimes people  do become wiser as a result of their suffering; sometimes they become broken and bitter; and sometimes it doesn’t change them at all.
The potential total amount of suffering, folly, and injustice is infinite; neither victimhood nor wisdom nor righteousness is a “zero-sum game”.
At the same time, when things like suffering, folly, and injustice, as well as wisdom, righteousness, and compassion, do occur they do not do so in infinite amounts.  The fact that a particular action is unjust does not make the party committing it entirely unjust.
It follows that:
·         Critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the legality of that action or strategy.
·         Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause they are claimed to support. 
·         Similarly, critiques of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the justice of the cause (although the justice of the cause is a precondition for the justice of the action). 
·         Nor can critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy be met by arguing that those on whose behalf the actions are purportedly taken are themselves victims.
·         To point out injustices committed by both sides is not to create a moral equivalence.  One could, for example, argue that the fire-bombing of Dresden was a war crime without claiming that the Allies were no worse than the Nazis.

Some thoughts on discourse
The purpose of cheerleading is to bolster the feelings of those already convinced; the purpose of arguing is to convince someone.  It is important to be mindful of the distinction, and to choose one’s rhetoric accordingly.
Insisting on a point is not the same as arguing for a point.
Saying that everyone in a particular community believes something to be true is more a statement about the community than about the truth value of the proposition.
A figure known to be a partisan of one side is unlikely to be seen as a compelling authority to those not already sympathetic to that side.
A figure held to be untrustworthy on a range of issues may not have much credibility on others.
Questioning the integrity or moral status of one’s interlocutor is similarly unlikely to prove an effective strategy for convincing him or her.
If a large number of your target audience is unconvinced by your arguments, it is a more useful exercise to re-examine your own presentation than to blame the audience.

Thoughts on the situation.
1) Categorical Statements:
The death of children is a bad thing.
Targeting civilians is a bad thing.
While particular institutions may be broken and particular polices unjust, the principle of international law is a good, not only when it is helpful or convenient.  This is especially true for treaties one has signed.
Oppression is a bad thing.

2) Particulars
The State of Israel has no less legitimacy, and no less a right to exist, than any other state.  Jews have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.
Palestinians have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.   Palestinians have no less a right to self-determination and freedom from oppression than any other people.[1]
The Occupation is not, and has never been, benign.
Hamas is not a force for good or liberation, and its policies have increased the misery of the residents of Gaza.
Hamas has shown no interest in a long-term settlement with Israel.
It is past time for the American Jewish community to address what it means that  no country outside of Israel has ever seen the settlement of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as anything other than a violation of international law.
A stable Palestinian state is crucial for Israel’s long term security.

[1] Yes, I’m aware that I didn’t say that Palestinians have the same right to a state as any other people.  That’s because I’m not convinced that peoples have a categorical right to a state prior to that state’s existence, in the way that people have a right to be free from oppression.  Do the Basques have a right to a state?  The Kurds?  The Roma?  And yes, I’m prepared to apply this reasoning to Israel.  I don’t think, prior to 1948, that the Jews had an absolute “right” to a state.  That doesn’t delegitimize Israel; I don’t think there was an absolute right to a Czech nation-state, but that doesn’t delegitimize the Czech Republic.   That also doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be sovereign Palestinian state; I do.  That’s because I think it, like the State of Israel in 1948, is the best political solution in the current situation.


Unknown said...

I am so glad Mimi posted this blog. You're very smart and these notes toward a conversation are very helpful!

Regarding "some thoughts on discourse": I think I see things a little differently than you do

- the purpose of argument

I believe that the purpose of arguing is to sometimes convince someone....but a lot of times trying to convince someone is not the arguer's "real" purpose. I say this about myself, sometimes, and also about other people.

Sometimes the underlying purpose is playing a part/grandstanding/positioning oneself, exactly as you pointed out at the beginning: "I'm the kind of person who thinks X"; "I'm a 'progressive,'" "I'm a radical,"; "I'm hot"; or whatever whatever.

AKA, "this is MY fire hydrant."

There seems to be a lot of this going on in electoral politics, radio, TV, and at least some graduate programs (I imagine it's far worse in anthropology than electrical engineering, but I've never been in an electrical engineering seminar. Do electrical engineers have seminars? That's how little I know!)

Sometimes the purpose for arguing might be translated as "I want you to like me" or "I want you to see me as a friend [or ally]." Actually, those are also motives for silence or insincere assent.

In my current incarnation as a lawyer, sometimes I make arguments that I know full well will not convince the judge, but I make them to put some kind of political or moral pressure (shame) on my legal adversary. Or I make an argument I know I will lose to "preserve the error" on appeal.

Or I make an argument I know I will lose because it is the right thing to do. Sadly, this is happening to me a lot lately.

In life (as opposed to the law), I like what Grace Paley's character says in "Wants": "I don't argue when there's real disagreement." She may be referring to people who don't share the same universe, though -- just as you've said.

Sometimes argument is simply play, or play for one person. I don't think that's the case here, with Israel and Palestine, I don't think anyone's having fun. But there are "just for fun" arguments -- I've had those with my kids.
"Saying that everyone in a particular community believes something to be true is more a statement about the community than about the truth value of the proposition."

Yes, but such a statement is even more about the speaker who makes the claim.
Thanks, and I do hope you write more!

Unknown said...

One other thing, and I know you know this, but it bears repeating. Listening -- for as long as people need to grieve, rage, be heard -- is more effective than arguing.

Unknown said...

Oldie but goodie:

Arkadiy said...

Rabbi Gutoff!! Good to see you on here, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. It was refreshing to read this.
One question that your post left me wondering pertains to your statement, "I’m not convinced that peoples have a categorical right to a state prior to that state’s existence"
Would you apply the same reasoning to peoples that had a state, at some point in time, and no longer do? In other words, suppose there is a state (say, state X), and that state has been taken over by other peoples, who turned it into their own state (say, state Y). If I am not misunderstanding your statement, as soon as X turns into Y, the original peoples no longer have a right to it.

My point is that since most states used to be other peoples' states at some point, we probably have to get into discussing other factors, in order to understand whether peoples' have a right to a certain state, instead of just making absolute statements about peoples' rights to states based on the current situation.

These details will probably have to include the temporal window of how long it takes for a state to be considered a rightful state of the peoples' before it becomes the right of the conquerors (1 day?, 4 weeks?...67 years?...etc,..). And also probably the worlds' consensus of (which, like you mentioned, should matter) regarding which state belongs to which peoples (this will inevitably have to do with the temporal window after the transition and the way in which the transition happened). There is also the nitty-gritty how the definition of an abstract "state" corresponds to all the various forms of "statehood" within the confines of international law (ie. colony, republic, land, country, etc,..).

I am getting into all this, because I think that the temporal window from when the Palestinian people considered certain territory to be their own is too short, and other dynamics are too important to be ignored, to conclude that they do not have a "right" to a "state" (in an abstract sense), merely based on the fact that they currently do not have one.

newcleanwars said...

Joshua, this will be helpful when I'm choosing words and statements while discussing this situation and others. My one criticism is that I'll never get all this to fit on a bumper sticker. On the other hand, I don't even have a bumper to stick it on.

Joshua Gutoff said...

Virginia - welcome, and thanks for your comments. You bring a fascinating perspective to the discussion.

Arkadiy - Great to see you again!! I'm so glad to hear from you. Your question points to part of why I think the whole discussion of the right of a people to have a state is the wrong one (and again, yes, including for Jews). States are political constructions not metaphysical entities. They are created as attempts to solve political problems. Right now, a separate state for the Basques would be a political disaster, while a stable Palestinian state would, I think, be the wisest solution to a great deal of suffering and turmoil. But that's different than determining at what point a group has been a "people" long enough to have a "right" to one.

And NCB, I think you'd need someone with Lori's pen control skills to get even a portion of it onto a bumper sticker!

Jeffrey Johnson said...

A very useful set of principles.

Regarding Palestinian right to a state, it does not seem accurate to compare them to the Kurds, the Roma, and the Basques.

I agree, there is no necessary right to a state for any people simply because they share some common identity.

But in the case of the Arabs residing in the Ottoman Empire prior to WWI, article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant conferred a legal right to a state. Resolution 181 offered a legal right to a state, and numerous UNSC resolutions since confirm their legal right to a state.

So beyond any abstract absolute right, the Palestinians have clear earthbound legal right to a state under international laws, actually under the same terms as Jews had to form a state. For a variety of reasons, including lack of competence and bad leadership, they have not accomplished this. That in no way diminishes their rights.

We might take your thought on moral reasoning: "Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause they are claimed to support."

and slightly amend it:
"Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause OR GROUNDS TO CLAIM A SACRIFICE OF RIGHTS they are claimed to support."

One of the most common arguments I hear justifying occupation and denying Palestinian rights to the West Bank is the 1948 war, as if that nullified any Arab land rights.

There is a tragic element to how both sides viewed the 1947 partition of Palestine. For Jews it was a joyous occasion. For Arabs it was a terrible loss of land they had reasonable expectations to consider theirs.

I can't come down on either side of this dilemma; I recognize both sides as valid, though they are contradictory.