Strategic advocacy, millimeter by millimeter

What I learned from the debate about Orlando mass killing that matters to hasbarah: it’s a game of moving the ball inches, not of touchdowns.

To the extent that I could deal with anything but the horror of the mass murder in Orlando recently (or perhaps because I needed to), I fascinated by a phenomenon in my social media circles, namely, to attribute the massacre to a single cause, to the exclusion of anything else. And typically, that single cause was something people already believed in.

And all this analysis, if you could call it that, came long before all the facts were established. Which is to say: before cognitive dissonance was likely to set in. The fewer facts you have, the more confident you feel about your conjecture.

I bring this up, not because I have a definitive conviction about everything that caused the madness, but because I have thought a bit about the convictions I have about the issues that were raised.

And here are three sincere convictions of mine:

  • I reject the notion that Islam is inherently a force of evil that will inevitably lead to murder such as in Orlando
  • I reject the notion that the availability of guns don’t affect the likelihood of gun violence
  • I reject the notion that LGBT people somehow, for any reason at all, are deserving of these kinds of crimes.

I want you to notice something: whether you agree or disagree with these convictions, did you feel something happen in your brain when you read them? Did you feel something tightening in your head if you disagreed, and something lift your forehead if you agreed? Did you experience something visceral that briefly dominated your intellectual process?

And if not, try replacing the phrase “I reject” with “I embrace,” “I doubt,” “I advocate,” in each of the phrases. See if that makes you feel better or worse.

I happen to feel strongly about these convictions, but they are also constructed differently in my mind. So if someone is going to change my mind, they have to pay attention to how my convictions are put together.

The one on guns has to be empirically disproven, for example: in some possible world, I suppose access to weapons that are easy and deadly doesn’t make a difference.

The one on Islam has to do with my view on religion: I simply don’t think they — any of them — exists except through the medium of humans. So to speak of Islam as a monolithic force doesn’t make sense to me. Islam, to me, is what Muslims believe and say and do. What some of these Muslims believe and say and do in the name of Islam is alarming, to say the least. But that is a different problem that requires a different set of solutions that combating something abstract we call “Islam.”

The one on LGBT goes straight to my religious beliefs. There is much I don’t understand about God, but it is my conscious choice to believe that Her sense of justice and mercy transcends such bigotry. To suggest that God approves of such violence is – to me- blasphemy.

There are two implications to this chain of thought, if it is valid.

The first is that we can only convince people to change their convictions by moving them one step at a time. People, for the most part, change their minds in inches: they move from “absolutely convinced” to “firmly believe” and then to “think most likely”, and so on.

The other is that hasbarah — the real, clarifying, truth-seeking kind — should be about causing cognitive dissonance among detractors who want to be honest. We don’t do this by telling them they are all wrong, or stupid, or evil, but by poking at the construction in their minds that adds up to a demonic Israel. While being scrupulously candid and truthful ourselves. We challenge their assumptions, their premises, and their logic relentlessly by being more rigorous, more honest, more precise than they are.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area