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.


  1. by being tolerant to everything and everyone aren't you saying that what they do, and in effect what you do, does not matter?

    We care and argue about things that are important in our lives. But if I am so tolerant that I tolerate everything, nothing is important. I think that jews in general discuss, and yes sometimes argue, precisely because we view what we do as important, and what others do as wrong, and hurtful to the community and themselves.

  2. I don't think what you are saying is right.

    Without getting too meta about this...

    >What they are not accepting of is discussion as to whether or not such panels are appropriate in the first place.

    Why do you say this? They clearly think that YU should hold these discussions. Presumably, they are saying this because there are people who don't think like them. Therefore, they advance a position in line with their beliefs.

    What there suggests that it is illegitimate to disagree with them about whether discussions should be held? The fact that they disagree? If so, there can never be a real dispute where two parties argue, because both parties will always be saying the other perspective is illegitimate, because it is wrong.

    Obviously, Side A arguing that Side B is wrong does not mean that Side A considers any debate on the topic illegitimate.

    In this case, Side A thinks that one of the reasons that Side B is wrong is because Side B's position is intolerant. Equally obvious, just because Side A thinks that Side B is intolerant does not mean that Side A is intolerant. Otherwise, when you accused Side A of being intolerant, you were also being intolerant. And when I point that out, I become intolerant as well. And round and round we go. Can I call the American Association of Bigots intolerant, or will that just mean I expressed intolerance towards bigots? There are limitless examples one could bring to reduce the foolishness of the argument.

    As you can see, this is a stupid argument to have. I'm not going to say that Side B is intolerant or that Side A is, but you can't just say that Side A is intolerant for disagreeing with Side B. That's just stupid.

  3. Vox Populi - I believe the issue is that if Side A holds an opinion, that's one thing. But if Side A paints Side B as adversarial (as opposed to oppositional) for holding a different opinion, they're basically saying that anyone who thinks differently from them is a bad person. Or immoral. Healthy conversation has two opposing sides, sure, but each side is respectful of the other side's right to express opposing opinions. And even open to hearing what the other side has to say.

  4. Harry-er - Well said.

    VP - I think you're actually saying the same points as me. Side A is certainly not intolerant for disagreeing with Side B; but that's often how it is portrayed. Whenever someone feels that a matter is not appropriate to be discussed, they are almost always painted as intolerant.

    Erachet - Yes/no. It's how the sides set up expressing opposing opinions that is the real issue.

  5. You're conflating two kinds of "discussion." The abortion "discussion" is a debate, while the YU "discussion" was merely a "here's our story." So it's stupid to compare them, and this whole post is a red herring.

    The position that not only is X wrong, but we can't even allow any public discussion of people who do or might do X because it might somehow lead people to start wondering whether X is really wrong to begin with is, yes, less tolerant than the position that X is wrong but we should discuss it just so people who have urges to do X don't end up miserable, ostracized, and/or suicidal. But the fact that you're somewhat less tolerant than the supporters of this event isn't really that controversial, is it?

    It's a stupid argument anyway, because it pales in comparison to the ultimate intolerance in this case -- the Torah itself orders death for those engaging in male-male sex and declares the act an abomination. So anybody who says that God is good AND God wrote the Torah is in theory as intolerant as intolerance gets.

    You take a morally bankrupt position and you defend that position by trying to shut down any discussion which might lead to people even questioning that position. Yes that's a different level of intolerance, but it does kind of pale in comparison with the fundamental intolerance.

  6. JA - if one finds homosexual acts to be immoral, where is the line in how far one goes in accepting individuals who perform those acts? How publicly should one announce that one is overcome by the desire to perform those acts?

  7. Erachet:

    Well, are you more afraid of teen suicide, ruined marriages, and lives of quiet desperation or are you more afraid of giving the appearance of acceptance or causing people to maybe ask themselves some obvious questions?

    To me, the choice is obvious, *especially* when you've already explicitly declared that you are NOT accepting the supposedly immoral behavior at the beginning of the discussion. Why be so paranoid about people taking away the wrong impression, when there is such a clear problem that the discussion can help alleviate?

    To me, it seems like those who oppose even having the discussion are just engaging in the typical stonewalling denial that is endemic to all philosophies that cannot withstand the light of scrutiny.

    It's yeshivas refusing to even talk about evolution or the documentary hypothesis. It's Ahmadinejad denying that gays exist in Iran. It's chareidim refusing to let their kids read secular books. It's China censoring websites that describe Falun Gong.

    Nothing should be off-limits for discussion. Saying discussion itself is harmful is a clear sign that your philosophy or institution is held together by secrecy and obfuscation rather than because it fought the best ideas and won.

  8. ahhh, this is so heartening. to know that someone can ignore the jewy blogy sphere for the better part of a year and a half only to find that it is exactly as he left it.

    there's just something homey about it - kind of like driving past the old house in the old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed.

    anyway...time for 2nd seder

  9. >Nothing should be off-limits for discussion. Saying discussion itself is harmful is a clear sign that your philosophy or institution is held together by secrecy and obfuscation rather than because it fought the best ideas and won.

    Putting aside the gay issue, I think some things are felt to be sacred. Like the topic of abortion, Pro-Choices can make any number of great arguments based on economic considerations and other issues in favor of aborting. The other side, simply says life is sacred. There is no discussion. It is actually discussion that allows people like the philosopher Peter Singer to rationalize that killing a new born is not morally problematic.

    BTW, you are right that the Torah is highly intolerant. But then again,—putting the gay question aside— tolerance in and of itself is not always a virtue.

  10. Holy Hyrax: Shutting off discussion about abortion is not a solution. If everyone talks, then even if people don't agree whether it's right or wrong and in what circumstances, people can work toward solutions that would help decrease unwanted pregnancies such as better and earlier sex education, or decrease the number of people who chose abortions because they don't see another viable option.

    The same with homosexuality. Talking can help homosexuals remain in the community and remain observant by letting them know their struggles are respected and appreciated, that they can have meaningful lives in the community and to keep people from saying stupid things that will push these members of the community out or increase their suffering.

    IMHO, the reason some OJ people don't want to discuss the issue may be that it raises such difficult questions about the morality of Torah that proscribes death for something that two consenting adults may do that does not hurt anyone else and condemns certain people to a life of loneliness and lack of intimacy, even though intimacy is a fundamental human need. It was easier years ago when most everyone believed that homosexuality is a choice. Now, drs and scientists almost universally agree that sexual orientation is not a choice which makes the questions much more difficult.