It always amazes me how advocates for Israel confuse “selling” with “winning the argument.”
The two are not the same thing.
Not that “winning the argument” is unimportant. There are many fronts – academia, think tags, journals of opinion – in which it is important to field articulate, well-informed, persuasive advocates who can put forward Israel’s position with fact and logic.
But there are other arenas – more of them, and much larger – in which a tightly reasoned line of argument is a waste of time.
The reason is not that the audience is stupid or hostile. It’s simply that they do not come at the whole topic from a position of prior knowledge or deep commitment.
I can illustrate this by asking you to go through a simple exercise.
Imagine that you are evaluating, not Israel vs. the Palestinians, but some other conflict that was, or is, intense and long-running. The Protestants vs. the Catholics in Northern Ireland. The Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. The Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
Let’s stipulate that you are a well-informed and fair-minded person. You deplore – rightly – violence and the death of innocent civilians, particularly children. You are aware, certainly, that these conflicts have been, if they are not still, of long duration and very difficult to solve…whatever “solve” means.
Now imagine that you are in a room for half an hour with the partisans of one particular side. Let’s use Northern Ireland as our example. In you go, and in comes a member of the IRA, and he harangues you for half an hour about the evils inflicted upon the Catholics. He leaves, and in comes a member of the Orange order, and he delivers the same harangue about the violence visited upon the Protestants.
Both speakers can, I assure you, inundate you with facts, figures, outrages committed by the other side, violated treaties, broken promises, documented cases of deceit and double-dealing. They have a limitless supply of dates, times, places, signatories, examples of reasonableness on their part, criminal deeds by their enemies.
What are you left with?
Most probably, the feeling that you really can’t decide. That both sides are somewhat to blame. That regardless of the rights and wrongs, the violence should end…if only for the sake of the children.
There is no way you can sort out all the details.
So if someone is going to “sell” you on their side of the argument, they can’t do it by “winning” the argument. You simply don’t have the background, the heritage, the investment, to be able to pick your way through the barrage of equally fact-loaded information deployed by both sides.
An effective advocate – dealing with an audience who is not too familiar with the conflict – will therefore try to simplify, and to reduce the issue to a few powerful components: an image, a metaphor, an association (particularly if you can compare your enemy to some other widely-agreed-upon Bad Person or Bad Entity).
The Palestinians have done this brilliantly by portraying themselves as underdogs, as victims. That one image, that single identity, trumps everything else, because even if they’re “wrong” – as determined by logical “fact and figures” debate on a given issue – they still wind up being “right” because, as victims of oppression, what else can one expect from them?
Not that this works against all audiences, of course. But it reflects the fact that the Palestinians are more interested in “selling” than in “winning the argument.”
On balance, the reverse has been true for Israel.
Bottom line: by all means keep the “argument-winners” busy, in those venues where it makes sense. But start to pay some attention to “selling.”
In future posts, I’ll walk you through how such a strategy could be built, and what it might consist of.