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Discourse and demagogues

Needed: A genuine public sphere where we can encounter individuals face to face in reasoned discourse

I like Anat Hoffman. There, I said it. Having heard her speak for the first time at the GA, I am impressed by her voice, her dignified manner, her reasonable argument. In fact, it doesn’t bother me at all that she is far left, Women in Black or supported by the NIF. Despite being right of center politically, a fiscal conservative and a National Religious woman who believes that ‘peace’ for Israel actually means ‘suicide’, I like Anat Hoffman. I disagree with much of what she stands for, but I think her voice is compelling. She has well thought out, rational and respectful arguments.

At the core of these arguments is a principle that is very dear to me: respecting the rights of others who are different than ourselves. We can like each other, we can respect each other and we can disagree with each other. And we can do all of these things simultaneously. Disagreement and respect are not mutually exclusive, even in Israel. Even in Cyberland.

The one major issue I have with the whole Battle for the Wall is the amount of interest and funding it has garnered from American Jewry, and the amount of space this war of attrition has been given in the Israeli media. One would think that this is the main struggle facing women in Israel. Not underemployment, not unequal pay, not lack of access to education, not rampant child abuse, not gang rape in elementary school, not domestic abuse, not honor killing. Just the Wall. In fact, I think the tremendous focus on this issue is so ridiculous that I have chosen to reinterpret it, give it yellow feathers and dress it as a canary. Women of the Wall have been fighting for the right to pray in accordance to their interpretation of Jewish custom for two decades. Why has it only now become the spark in the tinder?

I think what it comes down to is not a struggle for women’s rights. If that were the struggle, all of these far more pressing issues would be on the forefront. The main issue is the inability of divergent groups to recognize the validity of others’ wants, needs and beliefs. The Jewish world is divided into many segments, it has always been so, and historically the groups had very little to do with one another. Each resided in their own neighborhoods, went to their own synagogues, learned in their own schools. As the contraction of our world gains momentum, this is reflected in a similar contraction within the Jewish world. We are thrown up against each other, but rarely face-to-face. Take for example the Wall Women supporters who meet each other once a month at the Kotel, and spend the rest of the month arguing on-line. It is easier to hurl insults when the object of criticism is removed from one’s peripheral vision, behind a computer screen. It is easier to forget the conventions of respectful discourse from this artificial distance. It is easier to turn to demagoguery, resorting to incitement and mud-flinging instead of reason.

The brilliant French Jewish philosopher Levinas describes ethics as being necessarily inter-subjective. Only through a face-to-face encounter with the Other, the individual who sees us and is seen by us, can we recognize our own humanity and determine how we ought to behave. Ethics is the visceral and intuitive sense of obligation to other individuals. It commands us to recognize the person before us and it obligates them to the same.

So what happens when we do not encounter one another face-to-face? What happens when the number of individuals we encounter expands infinitely, but these encounters only occur virtually? We have lost the ability to recognize our inherent obligation to one another. We have lost mutual respect. We have lost our ability to hear and be heard, to see and be seen. This is the real danger, this is the real issue. However, it is also the greatest potential. Take for example the fact that I like Anat Hoffman. I disagree with her, I think some of the causes she supports are a potential threat to the survival of the Jewish people. But I hear her. I can empathize with her. I feel obligated to her. This happened when I heard her speak, in person and face-to-face.

Prior to this encounter, I was suspicious of Anat Hoffman. I thought the worst of her, based on things I had read on the internet. That was wrong. It is one thing to debate issues, it is another to fight with people. In the contracted world this line is blurred. Ad hominem attacks have become standard modes of argument. Rational dialogue is being destroyed by name-calling, misrepresentation and ignorance. I have weathered my own share of low blows. A friend recently told me that an acquaintance of hers had told her about a group of women in the park who were heatedly insulting me, tearing me down, loudly and in public. In the talkbacks I have received countless jabs. I have been told that I am shallow, a bad mother, a bad Jew, lazy, cowardly. So I say this: I may be bad, but I have yet to be convinced that I am wrong. Perhaps if the arguments had remained in the boxing ring of rational discourse, instead of the mud pit of personal insults, I would have been convinced.

After my last piece, I was asked if the struggles faced by Beit Shemesh are not an indication of the downward spiral the country is facing. It is an important and intelligent question, and one that I have been mulling over ever since. I think that this is not a question of fundamentalists taking over. It is not about the Western Wall. It is not about civil marriage. These are all symptoms of a far more dangerous and systemic disease. The real culprit is the loss of a genuine public sphere where we can encounter individuals face-to-face and speak in a meaningful and respectful way. It is the death of discourse. As long as we sit behind screens pretending the people on the other side are not real, as long as we argue against people instead of against arguments, we will only sink deeper into dissent. We will continue to believe unsubstantiated rumors. We will continue being judgmental and inflexible. We will never see the Other.

But there is hope, a flickering light towards which we must throw all of our canaries. The destruction of the public sphere is simultaneously the opportunity to build a new one. We can imagine the person on the other side, and recognize our obligation to them, even without the actual seeing. We can continue arguing, but choose to enrich dialogue with critical thought and mutual respect. We can avoid attacking one another personally, and try to view one another’s perspectives through an objective lens. We can bring discourse back to life.

I am an argumentative person. Since 9th grade debate team I have loved and relished heated arguments. I tend not to back down, unless I have the opportunity to play devil’s advocate. Then I will happily take the other side and argue the crap out of it. It’s a passion that has guided my academic and career choices. It has also taught me the difference between arguing and insulting. One argues a point, and insults a person. There is no vice versa.

I like Anat Hoffman. She is impressive and inspiring. She has argued her cause and has changed my mind about several micro-points, while I still take issue with some of her meta-points. The raging media storm around her is an indication of how far we have strayed from discourse. The numerous threads and talkback posts dedicated to insulting her instead of posing any rational objection are further indication of this trajectory. But what goes up can still come down. If we all commit to seeing one another, despite being alone at our computers, maybe we will find a way to recognize our mutual responsibility. Maybe we will see each other’s humanity. Maybe we will find a way to compromise. Maybe we can save discourse. Maybe we can save ourselves.

The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation.”

– Emmanuel Levinas

About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.