Sunday, January 03, 2010

Discussing Discussions vs. Disgusting Discussions

With thanks to Binny, who made the point so well.

There is an oft-used tactic in modern debate which is extremely effective, yet quite obfuscating were one to consider not just its methods, but what exactly it's about. Confused yet?


While many public debates are debates over the substantive issues at hand, there are issues where this is not the case; rather, the issue at hand is itself whether a discussion should even be held. In other words, the debate is about what the discussion would be, not what the discussion would be about.

In cases like this, the oft-used tactic is to paint those on side A of the issue as "intolerant", and those on side B as very "tolerant", because side B is open to "discussion" and side A is not. However, this is incredibly twisted: It is not that side A is not open to the idea of discussion, but that in a particular subject, that the "discussion" itself is the issue and they are against it. Side B, itself unwilling to accept this as a legitimate point of view, then tries to paint this as an intolerant approach and tries to sway those who might otherwise agree with side A by claiming their "intolerance" shows them to be "extremists". After all, they argue, "What's wrong with just having a discussion?"

This happens with so many issues, but the recent panel at YU on homosexuality in the Orthodox world is a perfect example. A number of people mentioned to me that after the hubbub began, a group was started on Facebook for people who "Support a YU that Engages the Issues". What these people so obviously miss is that those in YU who were against the panel did engage the issue - and felt strongly that what YU did was wrong. As is clear from the group's introduction*, the group is one that strongly supported the panel that occurred and wishes for more such panels to take place. What they are not accepting of is discussion as to whether or not such panels are appropriate in the first place. (One person who tried to question as much on the group was quickly shot down, labeled as a "bad guy", his views as "bigoted", and was told that those who support the group were "good guys" and "open-minded" - and that was all in the first comment!)

It is important to recognize, particularly in issues regarding morality, that often the debate is over whether a topic is itself even up for discussion. Both sides of such a debate are well aware that even having such a discussion is itself a shift of the lines of debate and one which often is used to blur the discussion itself completely. Again, using the YU panel as an example, by taking halacha out of the discussion it shifted the debate from "how should we work with someone who is struggling with homosexuality but wishes to be Orthodox" or even "to what extent should homosexuality be a public subject" to "how should we react to someone who has homosexual relationships" (as two of the panelists openly acknowledged having or craving such relationships). Without many people even being cognizant of it, this shifts the debate into one of how to accept and make someone feel accepted despite their actions instead of whether they should be accepted because of those actions.

Just to switch the example to another subject briefly to show this approach is not confined to this situation, this is similar to how one can shift the discussion of abortion with ease {note: in conversation, not in historical political discourse}. Instead of allowing that abortion is a wrong, sad event, but that there may be exceptions where it should be allowed (if not encouraged), people will note that abortion is a necessity in some types of cases and therefore should always be legal - just in case. This then shifts the debate to whether abortion should be allowed only in specific cases, or even for anyone who wishes to abort her child early on in a pregnancy for any number of a variety of arguable reasons. That then sometimes shifts the debate even further as to whether partial-birth abortion** should be allowed to those who wish it as well. The shift of debate through the argument of "discussion" is a brilliant but immoral maneuver.

Switching back, it is clear why so many in, around, and outside of YU were upset with what occurred, and more importantly for the future, how some completely missed the primary focus of those who spoke out against it. What is especially important moving forward - not just in this situation, but in any - is that people such as the ones who joined that Facebook group understand that oftentimes, "engaging an issue" occurs by deciding that an issue is inappropriate for the venue, the crowd, or the university it represents. That many people feel an issue should not be publicly discussed does not mean it is not being engaged; nor does the fact that it is not being engaged in the manner that so many have come to or have been taught to expect as the norm translate into any other approach being incorrect or intolerant. Tolerance is not a free-for-all where anything goes; it is a respect that others have differing points of view, even ones we don't agree with or much like at all. Most importantly, tolerance is not acceptance, but balancing how one reacts with how one feels about a person or subject versus how they act upon the same.

* Quote from the group: This is a group for alumni, students and others who care about Yeshiva University to express their support for events that allow for open, nonjudgmental and safe dialogue and discourse on issues of importance to Orthodox Judaism in the twenty-first century. In light of YU’s noble decision to hold a panel last week on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” this group actively encourages such people to email President Joel and others in the University Board/Administration to express support for such events, and to ensure that the university administration is aware that, despite some voices to the contrary, such discussions are welcome and vital to a vibrant YU campus and community."

** Wikipedia: The fetus is turned to a breech position, if necessary, and the doctor pulls one or both legs out of the birth canal, causing what is referred to by some people as the 'partial birth' of the fetus. The doctor subsequently extracts the rest of the fetus, usually without the aid of forceps, leaving only the head still inside the birth canal. An incision is made at the base of the skull, a blunt dissector (such as a Kelly clamp) is inserted into the incision and opened to widen the opening,[8] and then a suction catheter is inserted into the opening. The brain is suctioned out, which causes the skull to collapse and allows the fetus to pass more easily through the birth canal.