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Seth Rogan has been in the news lately for an interview in which he disavowed many normative Jewish things, such as religion in general, which he called “silly,” and the state of Israel, with which he doesn’t agree. He doesn’t disagree with some of the things Israel does, by the way; he disagrees with Israel – with the very idea of Israel. And he says that he “was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” his entire life.
There’s already been much written about his apparent lack of historical knowledge and mistaken factual references. However my issue with his rant goes beyond his actual opinion on Jews or Israel, or even his factual misunderstanding of history. My issue is his use of the word “lies.” Because I think his use of that word is exactly at the heart of the problem with public discourse today. Remember, he’s saying that the Jewish community in which he was raised lied to him. That means purposeful, nefarious, and because it was an entire community, conspiratorial deceit.
I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to his opinions, or a right to express them in public. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that his is the correct position – that there is indeed no reason for the state of Israel and that religion really is silly. Instead of laying out his positions and describing why the other side is wrong; or saying how he can look at the same set of circumstances that his former community looked at and yet reach different conclusions, he simply accuses them of lying.
The convenient thing about accusing your opponent of lying, is that you don’t actually have to engage any of their arguments because nothing they say is true anyway. So there’s nothing to argue about. You can just wholesale substitute your views for theirs. There is no give and take, no trying to ascertain the best way to move forward based on differing opinions, no discussion, no conversation, not even any argument. There is no respecting one’s opponent, no worthy opponent. Indeed there is no opponent at all. When one side is just plain lying; well, then we have nothing to say to each other anymore.
Maybe he is just a not-very-smart comedian who threw out the word without thinking much about it. Maybe he didn’t really mean it that way. Maybe that’s just how people talk these days. But isn’t that the point? That’s just how people talk these days? The Vancouver Jewish community was made up of a lot of people. Respectable, smart, successful people. People who believed in something. People who thought about issues, built organizations, and endeavored to build continuity within the Jewish community and the state of Israel. You can have a disagreement with them. It may even be that you are correct. But instead of conversing with them; instead of wondering how they came to their conclusions, to simply accuse them of wholesale lying – well, that’s just astonishing to me.
I suppose its part of the so-called “cancel culture” whereby instead of engaging with those with whom we disagree, we just remove them utterly from the stage. Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for “canceling” certain kinds of speech. Speech that is truly racist, bigoted, etc should not be tolerated under any circumstances. But this was an entire, normative Jewish community. To say that an entire Jewish community in mainstream North America falls into the realm of unacceptable speech that shouldn’t be tolerated, can be “canceled,” and can be called simply “lies” is crazy. When we take the extreme realm of intolerable speech, which is a real, albeit small, category, and apply it wholesale to all speech with which we disagree, we find ourselves…well, we find ourselves basically where civil discourse finds itself today.