We need to talk. About talking.
Everywhere these days, we’re busy engaging in dialogues about engaging in dialogue. In Israel, a Mediterranean version of Alexander Payne’s Election is playing itself out, with a student and a high-school teacher in a charming suburb of Haifa engaged in a very public scuffle. The student claimed that the teacher repeatedly spewed staunchly anti-Zionist views; the teacher denied the spewing, and argued that the airing of divergent views is the foundation of a good education. Closer to home, Hillel has been embroiled in a tempest of its own when it sought to bar local chapters from inviting anti-Israel speakers. And a hundred floors above them in the ivory tower, the Modern Language Association’s massive conference earlier this month generated much heat when the organization’s directors scheduled a panel in support of boycotting Israel but refused to permit a panel expressing the opposite viewpoint.
These are diverse cases, and each has its own folds and nuances, all worthy of more careful consideration. But they share a common thread, and it’s not political but epistemological. Roughly speaking, we seem to be obsessed with the idea that debating each other is mankind’s noblest pursuit, the only truly transcendent form of communications, opposed only by zealots and rogues. Before we get further mired, before we waste any more time and energy, we should be clear on one thing: Many truly wonderful things can happen when an honest and robust debate takes off, but debate as such is not a virtue and certainly not an obligation. Sometimes, it’s wiser to end conversations than to start them.
If you expect society to operate according to the same rules governing a graduate school classroom, refusing to engage in an exchange of ideas is the most shameful of all scarlet letters. But as the three aforementioned cases show, life in the real world is likely to result in the realization that there are principles far worthier of our devotion.
Take, for example, the case of the Israeli teacher. The facts are still hotly contested. To hear the student tell it, her philosophy teacher, Adam Varta, has been engaging in an ongoing campaign of left-wing propaganda, claiming that the Palestinians were the land’s only legitimate sovereigns and that the Israel Defense Forces were a corrupt and murderous organization. Varta and his supporters have rejected this narrative, framing things differently. “The atmosphere in his classes was always one of openness,” read a letter of support sent to Varta’s superiors by a group of his current students. “You could always express diverging and even opposing viewpoints and know that they would be taken seriously and respectfully.”
A larger question, then, looms large: Is the nurturing of “diverging and even opposing viewpoints” the educator’s goal? It is if you believe you can serve your students no better than by exposing them to all available arguments and let them talk their way to enlightenment. That’s a deeply flawed model. For one thing, it assumes that people—young, unformed people at that—have the capacity to coolly analyze the facts, present them eloquently, and then alter their perceptions as necessary whenever new information becomes available. You needn’t watch more than 15 seconds of any cable news political talk show to realize that we are far from such mindful elevation. More likely, we interpret the notion of debate as exercising our right to airing our opinions, no matter how uninformed, erroneous, or just plain crazy. I’m wrong about vaccinations making kids autistic? Hey, that’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it.
Rather than letting a thousand benighted knee-jerk reactions bloom, all of us, but especially teachers, ought to cling to something less sexy and more steely and infinitely safer, namely the facts that are available to us. Calling the IDF immoral, if that is indeed what the teacher Varta had done, is a boorish statement, not because it is necessarily false but because it is rooted not in fact but in the looser earth of emotional impressions. Study the army’s policies and their implementation. Look at recent conflicts and ask yourself whether the civilian causality rates that ensued were high or low. Analyze tactical decisions. Read the statistics. Only then—providing, of course, that you have a firm grasp of what it is that armies do and how it is that they do it—would you have arrived at that rarest of gems, an actual informed opinion. There’s no other kind worth having, and you won’t get it by listening politely as idiots spout lies.
Even an informed opinion, however, is not enough. In 1922, two of America’s most formidable men, communications scholar Walter Lippmann and the philosopher John Dewey, debated the ideal form of government. Lippmann believed that a modern republic was too complicated an undertaking to leave to the masses and advocated government by a class of highly educated bureaucrats. Dewey objected; people, he argued, were smart enough to deliberate in their own matters. But Dewey was no debate purists; for the deliberation to be meaningful, he insisted, people needed not only command of the facts but also “common concerns.” This is why Hillel was right in issuing its strictures: Those who support a strong, thriving Israel and those who wish to see it annihilated have no common concerns and therefore no reason whatsoever to engage in conversation.
When it comes to dialogue, then, we should take Dewey’s wise counsel and proceed with caution. We should not, of course, shut out anyone who disagrees with us, and, whenever possible, should entertain dissenting views. But when we do, we must insist that they be grounded not only in facts but in an explicit consent that facts—and not feelings or grudges or other resentments—reign supreme, and we must insist also on some common ground, no matter how icy or how small. And if these two conditions aren’t met, let us heed the words of Isaiah and know that in quiet and in confidence shall be our strength.
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