In times of peril and uncertainty, there’s no greater threat to a democratic society than the breakdown in civil dialogue. A polarized society, unable to air its differences and seek common ground, fails the most basic test of democracy; a society without trust is a society that cannot make decisions.
Whether the task before us is caring for the sick, defending ourselves from enemies, educating the young or preparing for stormy weather, mistrust and incivility quickly polarize and then freeze the discussion, causing gridlock and paralysis. Problems go untreated and get worse, which brings even deeper mistrust as each side inevitably blames the other: If only you’d listened to me we could have licked this thing. Now look where you’ve gotten us. Things are collapsing around us, and it’s all your fault.
What’s true of a vast society like America is doubly true of a small entity like the Jewish community. While getting Jews to agree on where their shared interests lie and what threatens them, much less what to do about it, has been near-impossible for centuries; it’s getting worse as Jews become more diverse and find less in common with each other. As a result, we are seeing in the Jewish community the same breakdown of civil dialogue as in the rest of our country. In other words, the Jewish community is becoming all but ungovernable.
The root cause of incivility isn’t a great mystery: It begins with a feeling of urgency, a heightened sense of threat, of the stakes involved. With that in mind, how does one go about conducting and maintaining a civil discussion, especially when the stakes are high?
I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the years debating and dialoguing with people I disagree with on topics ranging from the Israeli-Arab conflict to Jewish education to climate change and the economy. I’ve picked up a few insights into what works and what doesn’t — not necessarily in winning a debate, but in keeping the lines open for next time. Here are the rules of engagement.
Rule No. 1: Be pleasant
That may sound banal, but it’s essential. Whether you’re arguing with someone you disagree with, raising a point in a meeting or debating on a stage in front of a crowd, you don’t score points by being unpleasant. If you’re in a one-on-one argument, the person facing you is probably just as determined to stand his or her ground as you are. The person is not going to open up to opposing ideas if there is a feeling of besiegement, but he or she might listen if the experience is pleasant.
It’s even more important in front of an audience. You’re there to influence their thinking. Most of them will have forgotten the majority of the specific points they’ve heard by the time they leave the hall, but they’ll remember whom they liked. Unless there’s a wild imbalance between the debaters in knowledge or articulacy, the person who wins the debate will be the one who comes off more likable. Even if there’s a skills imbalance in your favor, bullying or browbeating your opponent will only help your opponent.
And if you’re facing an audience that tilts against you — if you’re a settler debating in a Reform synagogue, or an abortion-rights advocate at a Catholic Church event — the only way to have any impact is to get the audience to like you.
I once saw Ralph Reed, the Christian conservative political strategist, addressing a packed auditorium at the national policy conference of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. This was back in the day when most AIPAC delegates were, like most Jews, liberal-leaning Democrats. Reed started off by acknowledging that he represents a community that’s at odds with the Jewish community on a host of issues. His message: Let’s work together when we agree on something, like Israel’s security. And when we disagree, let’s try to be adversaries rather than enemies.
He probably didn’t convince anyone present to join his Christian Coalition, nor even to vote Republican. But he made a lot of friends that day who would listen to him with an open mind the next time he spoke.
Rule No. 2: Avoid name-calling. Always — always — treat your opponent with dignity
Talk about facts and ideas, not about your opponent. Nothing shuts down a dialogue faster than a personal insult. You may think the person you’re addressing has demonstrated a character flaw or deficiency by advancing a particular argument, but saying so — by word or gesture — shuts down the discussion on a hostile note. You’re no longer attacking the person’s logic or facts; you’re attacking the person, your interlocutor. Unless your opponent is uncommonly patient and forgiving, you’ve just lost the debate.
This includes comments that might seem like legitimate observations in the moment, such as “You don’t know what you’re talking about” or “What gives you the right to say that?” The argument should be about the issues under discussion, not the qualifications of the person debating them.
It’s natural to get angry when we’re arguing politics, international affairs or social values. And when we get angry, it’s natural to want to lash out. We’re defending the things we care about from people whose stated goal is to take away those things. It’s important to recognize the instinct and get control of it before it gets control of you. The person who loses control loses credibility in the eyes of listeners. It looks to the observer like you’re losing confidence. If you don’t trust your position, why should anyone else? Always remember that anger loses debates.
That’s not necessarily the case with passion. On occasion, getting heated up while making a certain point may show your opponents that they’re treading on sensitive ground, perhaps by touching on a sore point of yours that’s more deeply felt than they’d understood, perhaps even something they need to reconsider. The audience, too, may sit up and notice that something important just happened that they need to listen closely for a moment. But don’t let it last more than a moment.
And there’s this: You’re talking to a fellow human being who has feelings and a sense of worth and dignity, someone who’s guilty only of holding a view you don’t share. If you’re talking about how to make the world a better place for your fellow man, which is the object of most heated discussions, why not start with the room you’re in right now and the person sitting next to you?
Rule No. 3: Never assume that you know what the other person is really thinking
We don’t know what others are thinking unless we ask. That’s the point of engaging them in debate. And once you’ve asked, listen to their answers. If you think they’re masking their real intentions behind some high-minded rhetoric, chances are high that you’re listening to your own thoughts and ignoring theirs.
Here’s why: Most of us tend to think that what’s obvious to us must be obvious to others. If we believe that A causes B, then we’re likely to assume that anyone advocating action A wants to see outcome B. But that’s usually wrong. Most of the time, they’ve simply concluded that A doesn’t lead to B but rather to C.
Take, for example, abortion-rights advocates. They believe that restricting abortion violates a woman’s freedom. Because they are convinced of this causality, many conclude that abortion opponents want to see women controlled and subjugated. That may be true in a few cases, but the vast majority of anti-abortion advocates are motivated by exactly what they say motivates them: a desire to save human life. Conversely, many abortion opponents assume that abortion-rights advocates are callously indifferent to human life. Pro-lifers, too, often can’t or won’t perceive that pro-choicers are acting from a different belief system, one as ancient and honorable as theirs, in which human life begins at birth. What’s screamingly obvious to pro-life advocates isn’t obvious at all to pro-choice advocates.
I once attended a luncheon of Americans for a Safe Israel, a hawkish organization that sits somewhere to the right of the Likud on the Zionist ideological spectrum. There were two gentlemen at my table who were having a fierce argument over Israel’s two best-known leftist politicians, Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid. This was shortly after the Oslo Accord between Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Terrorism was picking up again, the worst in years, and the right was blaming the Oslo agreement. Beilin and Sarid were among the loudest voices urging Israel to stay the course and maintain the peace accord. The two gentlemen at my table, a rabbi and a writer, were furiously debating whether the two Yossis were deliberately trying to have Israelis exterminated in a second Holocaust or were just tragically blind to the implications of their advocacy. My tablemates weren’t able to reach an agreement on the Yossis’ attitudes toward genocide, but I was pleased to see they could agree to disagree.
Most debates are more grounded in reality than the one I overheard at that luncheon. Yet they can feel just as removed from reality. Palestinians and their allies often assume that because Israeli restrictions are humiliating, that’s the purpose — to humiliate Palestinians. But most Israelis have little interest in Palestinians’ self-esteem; their purpose is, rather, to protect themselves from violence by restricting Palestinians’ ability to attack them. Conversely, many Israelis believe Palestinian hostility is driven by a medieval European-style hatred of Jews, while the truth is, for most Palestinians, the conflict is over a mass migration that turned their homeland into somebody else’s country. Both sides impute fictional motives to their opponents, seemingly avoiding the painful truth that theirs is a conflict between two rights (though I may be breaking my own rule and imputing a motive that isn’t there).
Rule No. 4: If the issues look intractable, pivot to legitimacy
You may be facing an interlocutor — or a hall full of listeners — who can’t be expected to buy into your ideas. It could be that your hosts invited you because they overestimated their own capacity to absorb challenges. You may simply have been led by circumstance into an environment that’s implacably hostile to your ideas.
If that’s the case, then there’s no point in trying to convince your listeners to agree with you. At best you’ll fail. At worst you’ll leave your listeners angry at you and more hostile to your ideas than they were before. This happens more often than we’d like to think.
In this situation, don’t try too hard to sell your positions; it won’t work. Instead, concentrate on convincing the listeners that your views emerge from a legitimate, well-intentioned belief system. Convince them that you are after the same basic goals they are — peace, health, security, prosperity — but have different ways of getting there.
Hey, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had starkly opposing views, yet they were fast friends. So were the Temple-era sages Hillel and Shammai. If they can agree to disagree, so can we.
Rule No. 5: Respect democracy, and lose graciously
Under the norms of democracy, the majority rules. We forget that this works only if the minority agrees to lose. If it’s legitimate to offer competing ideas and let the public choose, it must be legitimate for the public to choose the other side’s ideas. The implication in debates over politics and ideas is that the other side’s ideas and proposals may be disagreeable to you, but they are legitimate — that is, unless they can be shown to be outside the bounds of what our society considers decent.
Failing to accept your opponents’ underlying legitimacy can kill civility. Our current political culture tends to encourage apocalyptic rhetoric about the horrors that will ensue if the other side’s visions come to pass. It’s not aimed at encouraging serious thought. It’s not even aimed at moving toward solutions. It can’t help bring solutions, because it makes dialogue, compromise and agreement all but impossible. What it does well is fire up our own ranks so that we can put up a good fight.
That might be good politics, but it’s terrible dialogue. If the purpose of dialogue and debate is to examine the merits of competing ideas, that comes to a halt when one of those ideas is declared illegitimate, off-limits and not up for discussion. Here’s a rule of thumb: If it’s part of the program of one of the major parties in our system — Democratic or Republican, Likud or Labor, Reform or Orthodox (and, yes, smaller players like Greens, Meretz, Reconstructionists) — then it is by definition a legitimate viewpoint. Try to show it’s mistaken rather than beyond the pale. Then you can demand the same treatment.
Rule No. 6: Balance what you attack in your opponent with what you grant him or her
Look for opportunities to point out areas of agreement. Nothing does more to create goodwill toward yourself than showing it toward others.
It also keeps the discussion grounded in reality. The truth is that most people are well intentioned and want only the best for themselves and those around them. If you don’t believe that, pretend you do. Go ahead and flatter your opponents and your audience. They’ll like you for it and open themselves up to hearing your arguments more sympathetically. You might even convince yourself to love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) and enjoy your world just a little more.
It’s important, too, because identifying existing points of agreement makes it easier to look for others. If the purpose of debate is to solve problems and reduce conflicts, a good place to start is where you can show there isn’t really a conflict. That lowers walls and makes it easier to conceive that further agreements are possible.
Finally, the most important rule and the hardest to follow:
Rule No. 7: Realize it’s not the end of the world
This one is simple to understand: If you are convinced that the opposing viewpoint will bring irreparable damage, it’s very difficult to accept it as legitimate and discuss it in civil terms.
That’s the catch in American Jewish discussions of Israel: Many opponents of Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian statehood firmly believe that compromise would leave Israel defenseless and vulnerable to its enemies’ genocidal designs. It’s hard to remain civil in the face of that threat.
You can reply that those aren’t the stakes in this evening’s discussion. Or that they’re wrong and that compromise, even if it is a mistake and would leave Israel weaker, wouldn’t spell Israel’s demise as long as the Israel Defense Forces are around.
If experience is any guide, though, those arguments will fail. If that’s the case, your best alternative is probably to remember that their rage isn’t the end of the world, either, and that even if they can’t see it, we’re all one family, Jewish, American and human. And as Jews, we’re commanded to cut our opponents some slack. As the ancient sages put it in Pirkei Avot, the Talmud tractate known as “The Ethics of the Fathers,” “Judge every person toward the scale of innocence.” Or, as it’s more loosely but commonly translated, “Give every person the benefit of the doubt.”
J.J. Goldberg is the Forward’s editor-at-large. Follow him on Twitter, @jj_goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).