Nuance and nastiness — Part I

I don’t like the euphemism “the n-word.” While the actual word is unbelievably vile when hurled as a racial epithet, hiding behind a letter when discussing rather than using the word seems childish and actually weakens our revulsion (unless an African American objects to its use).

So I’ll try not to be guilty of that error and mention up front two other n-words that I believe are having a serious negative impact on our politics — both national and Jewish — as well as on civil discourse: nuance (or the lack thereof) and nastiness.

Nuance means subtle differences in meaning, opinion, attitude, analysis, or facts, and subtlety appears to be in short supply today. We don’t simply disagree strongly about our president; rather, he’s either the worst or the best president we’ve had in our history.

Or — to bring things closer to home — President Barack Obama all too often has been called anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, although his administration, unlike previous ones, has not permitted passage of any Security Council resolution specifically critical of Israel. For example, it vetoed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements and blocked the Palestinians’ attempt to become full U.N. members. These extreme attacks on President Obama also overlook the facts that under the Obama administration, the United States often has stood alone or been one of very few nations voting in support of Israel in the General Assembly and other U.N. bodies; boycotted Durban II; authorized the sale of bunker-buster bombs to Israel for the first time; reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense after the release of a very negative U.N. report concerning the Gaza War: and continued strong military funding and financial support for the Iron Dome program.

On the other hand, calling the Obama administration the most pro-Israel one ever, as some have done, ignores, for example, its frosty, perhaps arctic, relationship with Israeli leadership; its harping on settlements as a core issue in Middle East problems and objecting to any building in Jerusalem; its entering into the Iran nuclear agreement despite Israel’s strong objection and position that it will be harmed by it; its unfairly pressuring only Israel to resume negotiations with the PA, together with its unfairly blaming only Israel for the negotiations’ non-restart; its misstatements about the reason behind Israel’s creation and the Jewish relationship to the Land of Israel; its stating that there should be “daylight” between the two countries; its supporting labeling foods from the West Bank; and its publicly calling for a return to pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps.

Anti-Israel? Really? The most pro-Israel? Really?

I understand that each camp would have additional items to add to its side of the ledger and would dispute items on the other side. I’ll leave that discussion to my (and your) Shabbat table. (No, I don’t intend to get into partisan politics in my columns, although I make no promises since we all know what’s at the end of the road paved with good intentions.) But some of the items on both lists are simply indisputable. What can be in dispute, however, and what should therefore form the core of any serious discussion, is the weight given to each item, together with a careful analysis of what they really mean and the context in which they arose. And that’s the point; such nuances, severely lacking in all too many discussions, are critical, indeed essential, to understanding this particular issue, as well as so many more.

Another issue close to my heart is the importance of First Amendment values continuing to be a force on college campuses, and the claim that they are under attack. While there are certainly real problems that must be confronted, like intersectionality and the stifling of views supportive of Israel, in some areas nuance is lacking. For example, when a highly controversial speaker comes to campus, how should students who oppose the speaker’s view react?

There’s no easy answer, because there are many different types of speakers and many different types of reactions. A commencement speaker receiving an honorary degree is not the same as a speaker invited by a student group to give an address on a controversial topic followed by a Q&A period, which is not the same as a faculty member giving a class.

Similarly, barring a speaker from entering a venue or shouting her down so she can’t speak is not the same as hissing or booing (full disclosure: I once wrote an article entitled “In Defense of Hissing”), picketing, or signing petitions, holding up placards, or turning your back on the speaker. And yet I’ve seen too many articles and posts where easy, blanket answers are given, lumping all these different types of speakers and reactions into one large ball, with no attention given to how the specific circumstances relate to First Amendment values.

There’s also the issue of safe intellectual and emotional spaces on campus. Of course we want our children to feel safe at school. But we also want them to be challenged by new, different, even difficult and uncomfortable ideas and messages. That’s a large part of a university learning experience, and it helps students grow and mature. So which spaces should be safe, how safe they should be, what they should be safe from, and where students should be allowed to be comfortable or uncomfortable — these all are difficult questions that cannot be answered in broad-brush fashion. But again, too many of the discussions about these issues make no distinctions — we are either coddling our children too much or unfairly putting them in danger. Period.

In all these discussions — about the president, free speech, safe spaces, and all the rest of the myriad of difficult issues that confront us — what we need to do first is take a deep breath (always a good idea) and then use some nuance in understanding their complexity. Many of us still won’t agree — and that’s how things should be. Discussions of complex issues resulting in a unanimity of opinion often is proof that there was something wrong with the discussion. But hopefully, at the end of the day we’ll see that many of our opponents are reasonable people who have some basis for their positions, even if we still believe that ultimately those positions are wrong.

Or perhaps we’ll change our minds. Surprisingly enough, that’s actually possible.

I see that I didn’t get to the second n-word — nastiness. So I’ll go back to the title, add a “Part I,” and be back in a few weeks (I hope) with the second half.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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