Yehuda Kurtzer
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Hearing is not believing

Next time a politician makes an impromptu gaffe, ask yourself some long hard questions before you yell gotcha

One of the moral traps of the instant information age in which we live is an overexposure to the underdeveloped opinions of our leaders, which inclines us to believe that we are bearing witness to their fully formed ideas. We hear everything – every “hot mic” moment, every rushed campaign-trail quote, every offhand misquote to a reporter or joke to a confidante – all of which accumulates to a confusing mountain of messages obscuring whatever underlying sincerity lies in the “true” versions of what people believe or think about complex issues.

A lot of what has passed for analysis of the recent Israeli election, of the challenged Netanyahu-Obama relationship of late, and the continued tensions in the Jewish community about what are considered to be legitimate and illegitimate views on Israel, falls into this trap. This sound-bite culture is exhausting, misleading, and dragging us down.

The first such example was the most contentious. In the heat of a nasty campaign, and nearing the finish line, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a series of regrettable and problematic comments about Arab Palestinian Israelis and about the demise of the peace process, in order to rally his supporters to get out and vote. So problematic were these comments that they garnered widespread condemnation; so regrettable were they that the following day, Netanyahu apologized and retracted both sets of statements.

But which was the real Netanyahu – the hateful comments or the apology? No opponent of Netanyahu was swayed by the retraction; to them, his comments were windows into his true beliefs. Anything said beforehand was shadowy, anything said afterward just slippery.

To his supporters, the comments were desperate and excusable exigency. On social media, Netanyahu’s defenders amplified the apology and played down the criticism, and his critics derided the sincerity of the apology. The same two sets of statements, ostensibly the data being discussed, just served as a smokescreen for ideological positions staked out well ahead of time.

Or, take former Secretary of State James Baker, whose very appearance at the J Street conference proved fodder for mockery and the retrieval of nearly 30-year old allegations that once upon a time, Baker offhandedly dismissed concerns about Jewish response to the tensions between the Bush and Shamir governments by saying, “(Bleep) the Jews – they didn’t vote for us anyway.”

Never mind that the aggression of this rhetoric paled in comparison to the seriousness of the conflict at the time, which invited part of the antipathy of the Jewish community toward Baker; the quote allowed those who opposed Bush’s policy on settlements to make a substantive policy disagreement something personal, visceral, and vituperative. Baker has always angrily denied the comments, but never mind; his appearance at J Street was forever tainted (for those eager to taint him).

This is going to get worse as the obsession with access to powerful people – and the growing technological mechanisms that capture every word and phrase and broadcast every comment in real-time – improve. It is increasingly impermissible for inherently flawed human beings to periodically misspeak without their record being tarnished forever, both at the cost of the integrity of fallible leaders but also at the cost to a general public and its trust. It is terrifying, and it obscures an important question for leaders and followers: whom do we believe, when, and why?

There is an obvious underlying truth in what motivates the polarizing obsession with the “gotcha” games of sound-biting our ideological opponents: our values-narratives dictate our politics, and our politics in turn help us to establish patterns of credibility in our leaders. Complexity is more difficult to manage than coherence, and therefore we construct systems that tilt toward confirmation bias in how we detect when someone’s “real” beliefs slip out from under the veil of the “constructed” identity they ordinarily display and protect. No momentary disclosures change our minds; they reinforce our resolve and our prejudices, while adding noise to an already cluttered atmosphere.

What would happen to our political discourse if we tried to probe beneath these impulses to evaluate our own assumptions – asking a set of self-reflective questions each time we thought we captured the real opinions of a leader in a sound bite out of context: Did I already hold contrary political views, which would incline me to be looking for ways to reinforce my opinion? Am I extracting this tidbit for personal gain, either to win over others or poke holes in this person’s credibility? Does this sound bite advance a meaningful understanding of a policy disagreement or distract us from substance to superficiality? Is what I think I might have heard actually data? Would prepared remarks – a thought-out policy statement for the record – bear out what I think I might have understood? Which is more important: what a leader truly thinks about the issue or what said leader is caught saying?

The urgency of this slow work stems from the seriousness of the political differences being masked and therefore not really debated under the veneer of this nonsense. As with Bush and Shamir, the latest kerfuffle over Bibi’s remarks trades dealing with the substantive consequences of the election for an almost semantic, technical means of “proving” the intentionality of those with whom we disagree.

I am tired and incapable of being a bochen levavot – one who, like God, can discern what is in people’s hearts. Language is important, and leaders have a special responsibility to choose their words carefully, but apologies are possible, and they are also forms of choosing careful words. Words uttered in a moment might sometimes tell a secret truth, but more often than not tell us something unformed and underdeveloped, and should not constitute legacies.

This culture of shorthand helps draw our friends closer and divide us from those with whom we disagree, but it is bad for our moral disposition and worse for our political culture. What can we do to seek sincerity rather than looking for clues to undermine it?​

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.