Thursday, February 11, 2010
The Social Free Discourse of Opponents
I have been engaged in a back and forth with Off the Derech in regards to my last post. I argued that the actions of the anti-Israel students at UC of Irvine are the rejection even of dialogue let alone peace. They are the charge that representatives of the State of Israel are satanic. This is not an enemy that you can ever hope to talk to. Furthermore, there is the implicit issue of intimidation. Those students are not only refusing to engage in the dialogue of a free society, but they are also holding the rest of society hostage. This makes them a threat not just to Israel, but to liberal society at large. OTD objected to my defining Israel as a Jewish State on the grounds that Judaism is a religion. Furthermore, he argued:
I think your analysis of the students is extremely unfair. But calling them a threat to liberal society at large and butchering their argument by claiming they think Israel is "satanic" is a bit rich. You don't agree with them, but can't you show some respect? As some people like to say, "can't we all just get along?" From their perspective they're doing the right thing (as you are from yours) and don't they get to be judges by their own criteria, rather than their opponent's?
Jews are both a religion and an ethnic group/culture. Israel was founded as a homeland for ethnic Jews. Germany also has had their own right of return laws used for ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe. I see nothing racist in this. This does not preclude equal rights for non-ethnic German citizens of Germany. Yes, there is a religious component to Israel, which I personally oppose. I think Israel is a good example of the sort of trouble that even a well-meaning secular liberal state will get itself into if it does not have a firm separation between Church and State.
One of the things that my readers know about me is that even if you disagree with me, I operate according to specific principles and will operate according to these principles even when they go against me. I would say the same thing if Muslims, joined by Christians and Jews, were to do to Richard Dawkins what was done to Ambassador Oren.
For free speech to function in practice, in addition to government protection, there also needs to be a social component where we are inclined to view our intellectual opponents as people who, while wrong, are well-meaning, deserving of dialogue and to be respected for the courage of their convictions. For example, I have my views on health care. I accept that there are reasonable rational and much smarter people who believe very differently. That is ok. We can debate this in the public sphere and I might win or lose. Regardless, I value the process of this open discussion above its ability to give me the results I want. There is a point at which I would shut down this social free discussion (but not the political free speech rights). I cannot possibly freely debate the proposition that I am not acting in good faith as part of this free society. I cannot prove that I am not a member of the Elders of Zion and any serious discussion of this proposition serves to exclude me from the social free society. It would frame me as a "satanic" figure, which knows the TRUTH but rejects it anyway. Thus if my university were to invite David Duke precisely to talk to students about the threat posed by Jews as individuals, I might engage in the sort of tactics used by these students. This is a full-on declaration of war and the consequences are real. It would mean that the university itself had chosen to declare war on its Jewish students. (This is why in general you may have noticed I am so hesitant to launch into ad hominem attacks or anything that challenges the legitimacy even of my opponents.)
Ambassador Oren was not challenging the legitimacy of Muslims to take part in the social free discourse. So what does it mean that these Muslim students acted in such a way as to inhibit his ability to present his ideas? (I would have no objection to peaceful demonstrators outside the building or even people in the hall holding up signs.) It means that they are willing to even come after people, who by all rights should be legitimate opponents. Thus they reject the very distinction between legitimate and illegitimate opposition. This is the breakdown of the free social discourse and a blow to the free society.