Friday, April 13, 2007

I try not be a coward when engaging in subjects that are very close to my heart, such as Israel and antisemitism. So every now and then I venture into the netherfields of radical Leftism and challenge their prevailing wisdom with some of my own positions. My most recent attempt unfolded here. Another futile engagement took place here. There were other attempts on other websites but the vituperative level of the responses does not merit any further acknowledgement.

Someone like Mike, from the Sojourner blog, gains my respect for merely being civil, or relatively so. He benefits from the principle of the rabbi's goats.

What is that principle?

Here is the folktale on which it is based:

A poor man comes to his rabbi to complain about how difficult life is for him, his wife and their six children in a small one-room hovel. The rabbi refelects a bit.

Then he asks: Do you have any chickens?

- Yes.

- Good. You must now keep them inside your home.

The poor man, astounded, nevertheless does as advised. Returning a few days later, he complains to the rabbi that things are even worse now. What to do?

- Do you have any goats?

- Yes, two.

- Good. So you must keep them inside your home with the chickens and all the rest of you. Things will get better.

A week later, the man returns: Rabbi, your advise does not work. The noise, the filth, we can't sleep, we can't breath properly. What kind of advise is this?

The rabbi reflects and tells him: OK. Now go home and remove the chickens and the goats from your home.

The man returns a few days later and hugs the rabbi in gratitude: rabbi, you have no idea what relief your last advice gave my family. We suddenly feel so much better, breathing fresh air in our tiny but comfortable home!

The principle? I guess it's a version of relativity. The extra abrasive element, which should not have been there in the first place, once removed, changes the entire culture of the exchange. A dialogue can actually take place when the gratuitous constant noise of invective and insults is ejected.

Cass Sunstein was addressing this type of engagement when he wrote about the way presidential candidates interact with their opponents. His points can easily extend to any discussion:

The antonym of respect is disdain or (better) contempt; the
antonym of charity is selfishness or (better) stinginess. It is much worse to be
disrespectful than to be uncharitable. Politicians who show respect--Senator
McCain is a good example--tend not to attack the competence, the motivations, or
the defining commitments of those who disagree with him. Politicians who show
charity as well as respect--Senator Obama is a rare example--tend to put
opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those
who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the
defining commitments of all sides.

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