A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives

Accusing the other side in a debate of a hidden agenda never gets us anywhere.  So let’s just not.

In the Israel/Palestine debate, there’s a trap that both sides fall into, repeatedly – and I’m no exception – which makes it more of a mud-slinging event than a discussion.  In a nutshell, the trap is claiming the other side has a hidden agenda.

I propose we all try to avoid this trap, for everyone’s sake.  To make that possible, let’s take a quick look at what it is, and how to avoid it.

The ‘what’

The trap takes many forms.  A typical way it looks when me and other lefties fall into it is “you’re only saying that to distract from the occupation and help Israel maintain it.”  A typical right-wing version is “you’re only saying that to de-legitimize Israel and lead to its destruction.”

It may be right, or they may actually believe what they’re saying.  Either way, what it does to the debate is to change the subject.  Worse still, it’s an attack on the person you’re debating, which puts them on the defensive, and that’s usually enough to make sure they won’t change their mind even a tiny bit.  In the end, we all get angry and shit all over each other and nobody’s any wiser for it.

The ‘how’

One way to avoid the trap is to just disengage when someone makes a dangerous claim.  Just say “okay, bye.”  I don’t believe in doing that, but it’s a way.

Another way is to re-state your position and demand a response to it.

Let’s say I claim there’s apartheid in the West Bank; let’s also say you think I’m wrong and that what I’m saying endangers human lives.  What you should do is explain why you think there isn’t apartheid, and/or demand that I explain my outrageous claim.  There’s a chance I’ll change my mind, or at least that other people will learn to see things your way from watching the discussion unfold.  If you just call me a terrorist, I’ll think you’re crazy, and I’ll still believe – and tell people – that there’s an apartheid regime on the West Bank.

It’s the same the other way around.  Let’s say someone – call her Jane – attacks International Solidarity Movement activists, claiming they’re agents provocateurs and terrorists; let’s also say that you believe they’re truly working to make the world a better place.  Explain why you believe what they’re doing is good, and demand that Jane explain her accusation.  Don’t fall into the trap of accusing her of distracting from the point – even if what she’s doing is exactly falling into the trap.  Also don’t fall into the trap of defending their motivations.  Just focus on what’s actually going on.

Now let’s say you posted something about some protest you support, and Jane fell into the trap, exactly like I just described. You can engage her, even though what she’s doing is counterproductive and distracts from your original point.  It’s still better than slinging mud right back at her.  Or you can just refuse to be side-tracked, explain (again) why you support the protest, and ask her if she has anything to say about the actual issue.

Finally, you can always link to this post and ask the person you’re debating to read it.  It’s short, and here’s a shortlink you can use: http://wp.me/p1gOTH-y6

3 thoughts on “A modest proposal: debate arguments, not motives”

  1. I have two little things to add:
    First, there’s nothing wrong with making the claim that someone has a hidden agenda – it’s just an awful debate strategy. Instead, you can write or speak about your suspicions elsewhere. Anyone can open a blog and that’s a good way to explain this kind of thing. Just don’t do it in the middle of a debate.

    Second, Paul Graham, an amazing essayist, wrote up an essay on how to disagree, detailing a hierarchy of seven levels of disagreement, from name-calling to refuting the central point. It’s well worth reading.

  2. I think there’s more to this issue. It’s not only a matter of accusing each other of having hidden agendas. I believe a culture of disrespect, cynicism and impatience in conversation has developed in Israel, especially when it comes to that topic but not limited to it.
    In the essay you recommended, Paul Graham mentions the strategy of deeming your opponent not qualified to take part in the conversation. I think that’s a very popular strategy here. Either you can’t possibly understand the situation because you aren’t Israeli, or you can’t understand cause you haven’t lived in a dangerous area, or you weren’t in the army, or you weren’t in combat in the army, or you weren’t in enough combat. When those options fail, people seem to resort to just acting like you’re stupid or naive.
    One way or another, I think the real problem is that people aren’t truly engaging in the conversation in the first place. I think people are happy to make some noise, but are usually uninterested in taking the time to really listen and try to understand, and to really explain their point of view.
    I think the best way to approach these conversations, is as though there are no common preconceptions (including historical facts), and genuinely explain where you’re coming from, and try to understand where the other is coming from. It can be very challenging.

    1. You’re totally right.

      One thing, though. You wrote: “people are happy to make some noise, but are usually uninterested in taking the time to really listen and try to understand, and to really explain their point of view.”
      I think what makes this happen isn’t really a question of interest. It’s more like, you see something you strongly disagree with, and you get emotional and want to just cancel out the dangerous idea as quickly as possible.

      Going for the accusation of hidden agenda is easy because it cancels out anything the other side says and you can do it almost automatically, since it’s about the whole other side, not just one point or incident.

      When people do this a lot, something very dangerous happens: the space of acceptable discussion becomes narrower.

      Basically, if there’s some opinion that will often get you accused of, say, racism, chances are you’re going to be more quiet about that opinion. Most people will just keep it to themselves and not let anybody know they think it.

      In some cases, this might seem like a good thing, because certain ideas actually are racism and actually can lead people to violence. (Even in those cases, there’s a lot to be said for the liberal-democratic principle of allowing even the most outrageous opinions in public debate.)

      But it’s actually very dangerous, because it makes certain things unsayable, not because they’re false but because they are associated with some hidden agenda.

      The thing about hidden agendas is, well, they’re hidden. You can’t usually prove someone has a hidden agenda. As a result, you might be wrong, and the debate can exclude ideas that might make sense.

      Let me make this all more concrete:

      Being critical of Israel’s security policy can be a cover for antisemitism, and it can be used to harm Israel and Israelis. It can, but sometimes it’s not.

      Equally, supporting Israel’s security policy can be a cover for anti-Arab or Western colonial ideologies, and it can be used to further some colonial aspirations. It can, but sometimes it’s not.

      If we automatically snap at anyone who’s critical/supportive of Israel’s security policy, we’re saying that there’s no situation in which it’s kosher to criticize/support it. Or in other words, we’re saying that Israel’s military can do no right, or that it can do no wrong.

      I don’t think this is what people actually believe, but it seems to be what’s happening in this polarized debate.

      By the way, Paul Graham also has a long and excellent essay titled What You Can’t Say. I should probably read more of his essays, the ones I’ve read seem to be so insightful and relevant.