Engaging in debates about controversial topics is often a dangerous game of rhetoric, reason and rationale. Any argument has the potential to take a given smorgasbord of facts (often from “well-researched” journalism), link them in one of a dozen different combinations, and draw half-rationalized conclusions inflated by strong language and suddenly have thirty ‘likes’ on a Facebook status. We often find ourselves with the recipe for conspiracy theorizing (which is even more frightening with Facebook propogating this sabotaging of facts).
I recently encountered conversations of this nature on Facebook itself, where an old associate of mine, we’ll call him T, has taken to his own wall to foster intellectual debates about the conflict in Israel. T’s position is in support of the innocent Palestinians whose lives are both limited and tragically endangered amidst the battle between Israel and militant organizations that consistently aim to destroy her. Thus, in my assertions below, I do not seek to discredit or disagree with his position for I fully support it as I believe in sovereignty for the innocent as well as the potential for a two-state solution.
Nevertheless, in T’s effort to justify his position and make calls to action against those he perceives to be the Palestinians’ opponents, he has made several claims of which seem to abandon his own respect for logic and argument. In a recent message to him, I explained how I felt:
“One common theme sticks out [in your posts], and that is that many of the times where you’ll cite a fact or scholarly claim, you’ll often express an expostulation as a fact without a disclaimer.”
For example, using a comment from one of his posts:
‘But there is more. Israeli lives are better. They enjoy greater access to all sorts of human capabilities. Palestinian lives are stunted due to the occupation and siege. Thus, Palestinian lives can be more easily improved. So there is good reason to focus on improving them over focusing on the improvement of Israeli lives.’
To support my point, I explain:
“The final two sentences of this claim are just, but they were supported by an assertion that is not entirely accurate. Palestinian lives may be stunted by occupation and siege, but those are not the only reasons – there is also the fact that Hamas, as the governing body for the Gaza Strip, has not spent nearly a reasonable amount of money to create infrastructure or public services for its people and this is a major aspect of Palestinian sustenance, or, [currently] lack thereof.”
This is one example of over two dozen where I have expressed my frustrations with his use of reason to make the one-dimensional claims that Israel’s primary directive is opposition to the livelihood of Palestinians. These kinds of arguments disregard tragic amounts of context and facts and perpetuate theorization of conspiracies.
You can imagine the types of individuals who are drawn to such posts that begin with, “Hamas in Gaza is like the Jewish resistance from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.” Perhaps, I’m being hypocritical here since I was drawn in myself, but I was primarily driven by my original relationship with the individual: he used to lead a philosophy discussion group that would gather in a small coffee shop in Boulder, CO and he had invited me to listen and participate, and I would do so eagerly and with admiration for his insight and will to think freely.
It has become apparent that while thinking freely is always a virtue to be commended, when it is used recklessly with logical fallacies, and within the realm of public discourse, it ultimately stunts others’ ability to free think. In other words, when a thought leader spreads misinformation, it prevents others from using their own intellectual capacities to take informed positions and make moral decisions. Not to mention, that when one claims an assumption is a fact, it attracts others who are willing to do the same without the due process of research. As seen in the comments of one of his posts, a fellow Palestinian sympathizer joined with the following to say:
“The Zionist project has been built on a foundation of lies and myths. From its earliest days to the present, deception has been an integral part of its strategy. Those who have studied the history of Zionism realize that the strategy and tactics employed by Zionists have involved two primary components: (1) influencing political elites to make decisions favorable to their cause, and (2) providing cover for these elites by influencing public opinion through clever public relations campaigns. This has been true from before the Balfour declaration, when the British were the power source they chose (after the Ottomans turned them down), until the present, where the US Congress serves as another Occupied Territory.
Because Zionists don’t trust the success of their ideology in the marketplace of ideas, they try to effectuate outcomes favorable to themselves through tops-down tactics involving bullying and bribing political elites, and the very effective use of propaganda. Palestinians, on the other hand, have a bottoms-up strategy based on a grassroots mobilization of the global community to support their cause. The latter strategy is far more time consuming, and in recent years has shown some successes.”
In only three paragraphs, this individual was able to demonize Zionism by generalizing the strategies of the leaders in the early 1900’s and comparing it to the “noble” Palestinian quest. The obvious problem is that he uses sweeping claims like, “The Zionist project has been built on a foundation of lies and myths,” but then he uses confirmation bias by asserting that if actions 1 and 2 occurred, then the Zionists therefore must be deceitful because they “don’t trust the success of their ideology in the marketplace of ideas.” It’s not even clear within his argument to what specific lies and manipulation he is referring. Rather, this commenter satisfies his perception by over simplifying the concepts, and alas I replied:
“I’m not sure how the two primary components of the Zionists’ strategic plan are incriminating nor distinguished from other political bodies. 1) This is basic lobbying that has been done since the time of the Greeks (if not ancient times) – factions and groups have consistently had representatives speak on their behalf in order to ensure that policies and laws do not challenge their ability to survive. How does this make them liars? Do you have examples of what they lied about? 2) Clever public relations campaigns are also a common tool used by governments. They often disguise the details of what it takes to make things occur/change without letting information reach the public and be taken out of context causing problems the likes of which we see today (riots in Europe, conflicting media messages, etc.).
Zionism is an extremely complex, timely and well-rounded movement with many independent parts. You can’t equate the hundreds of impoverished Eastern European Jews who gathered in the valley of Harod and toiled the swampland and desert to create a lively and robust agricultural system with the thought leaders who gathered in Switzerland to share the stories of discrimination and despair that were occurring in Jewish ghettos and urban populations around the continent. Many things went right in the early 1900’s to set a foundation for a lot that has happened since. But so, so, so many things went wrong in the 1930’s and 40’s that justified the right of the Jews to a sovereign nation in a land that was claimed by no more than a few dozen scattered and unaffiliated villages in a wasteland.
Palestinians have the same right to sovereignty, but they are part of a much larger plot and with a far worse enemy that Israel.”
When asked to respond to me by T, the commenter’s only reply was:
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll pass. Except for an occasional foray, I avoid engaging with Zionists about Palestine. As Robert Heinlein said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
I suppose quoting an infamous science fiction writer, a trade in which facts and logic are used to create fantasy, is appropriate.
Conspiracy theorists often rely on confirmation bias to continually support their claims, and it is only logical to assume that there is high potential for this to attract others en masse with the same lack of capacity to evaluate dilemmas in context and with regard to all facts.
So, in a private message to T, I made my plea:
“Solutions come when those who think as deeply and as concentrated and as intelligent as you unite people in messages containing historical context, current context, and with recognition that both sides do not need supporters, but that rather they need new leaders who can demonstrate to them with a clearly communicated vision what alternative, peaceful realities are possible. And it needs to be accompanied with patience; the patience of a grandmother.”