Abraham Lincoln once famously remarked: “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Why did President Lincoln, an attorney, feel compelled to make that statement? And could the same logic be true for modern-day Israel advocates who try to explain Israel’s case without relying on outside help?
To understand the answer to the question of whether a person should retain an attorney – or whether a dedicated Zionist might consider consulting with someone who knows almost nothing about Israel – one need only look to the basic problem of trying to go at it alone: lack of perspective.
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Source of Bad Writing,” Harvard Professor Steven Pinker suggests that the “curse of knowledge” may lead a writer to assume that a reader will know as much about a subject as the writer does. Pinker cites examples of how experts with deep knowledge on a subject may be unable to share their insights not only with laypeople, but also with well-informed peers. Pinker claims that this kind of “curse” has nothing to do with ignorance or low intelligence; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.
This may be where the fresh perspective of an outsider may be invaluable.
Most people in the world know little about Israel. However, even the most uninformed person who has never studied Israel’s history, its security challenges, nor even where Israel is located on a map, may be better positioned to place themselves in the shoes and mindsets of the average person than nearly every Israel supporter. An Israel advocate may know all the facts inside and out, but an outsider with fresh perspective may be better positioned to explain how to connect most people with Israel.
Many pro-Israel advocates may believe that forceful persuasion is the best way to advance Israel’s case. Their goal may be to counter all Israel “critics” as they attempt to convince the whole world to see Israel as they do. However, after 66 years of clinging to this method without proof of its success, perhaps it is time to try a new approach?
Good listening skills and patience are critical to gaining new insights. When speaking with someone who knows little about a subject, it is essential to avoid argument and attempts to dominate the conversation and “correct” misperceptions. Instead, it may be more fruitful to participate in an honest dialogue using an open, courteous, and hospitable manner. To learn from another’s perspective, we must respond with genuine interest through real conversation. If we want to determine new ways to engage the average person, we must be willing to let go of our old positions and time-hardened ideas.
The give-and-take process of talking and listening to another’s feedback is critical to crafting a more compelling message. Many rounds of open conversation with a variety of outsiders who lack the Zionist’s “curse of knowledge” may be required. As writer John Keats once penned, “I have written a long letter … because I did not have time enough to write a short one.” The process is no different for learning new shortcuts to understanding how to engage others on Israel.
In the famous Rock Island Bridge trial of 1857, lawyer Abraham Lincoln was able to avoid the “curse of knowledge” and prevail against his powerful adversaries, the steamboat operators who wanted to prevent the construction of new railroad bridges. While Lincoln’s pre-trial work included in-depth research on the mechanics of railroad bridge construction, the velocity of Mississippi river currents, and the navigation of steamboats, at trial, he presented simple arguments that were easily understood by jurors without any special knowledge: “A man has just as much right to cross a river as another has to go up and down that river.”
Modern-day Israel supporters can learn from Lincoln. With intractable problems in the Middle East dominating the news, there is a huge opportunity to build new relationships with the great majority of people who suddenly may be curious about Israel’s case. However, because of the “curse of knowledge,” those of us who know the most about Israel may be the least able to connect with these newcomers. To engage the average person, it may be time to learn fresh approaches from people who know almost nothing about Israel.