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Against Conversation

When language itself becomes a political battleground, it’s time to stop talking

Liel Leibovitz
May 08, 2015
Noam Chomsky.(Andrew Rusk via Flickr)
Noam Chomsky.(Andrew Rusk via Flickr)

I worship the Almighty, and so have had very few occasions to agree with Sam Harris, American atheism’s predominant champion. This week, however, Harris embarked on a quest that us folks of faith may recognize instantly as divinely inspired, an ordeal as spiritual as it is intellectual: This week, Sam Harris tried to have a reasonable exchange with Noam Chomsky.

You may think that engaging in conversation with the chap for whom the 2 million slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge were little less than extras in “a campaign to reconstruct the history of these years so as to place the role of the United States in a more favorable light” would be hardly worth the trouble. But Harris, true to his belief in the power of reason, gave it his best shot, reaching out to Chomsky and suggesting they debate their disagreements about American foreign policy.

The result, recently published by Harris on his website, is one of the best works of theater you’ve read in a while. Imagine a more malicious Pinter, or a Monty Python skit designed to harass rather than to amuse. Any attempt at explication would rob this precious bit of literature of its strange power; to be believed, it must be read, preferably with a stiff drink at hand. But for those whose schedules or spleens cannot tolerate 11,248 words of confusion, obfuscation, and other assaults on clarity and sincerity—all of them Chomsky’s—here’s a brief breakdown, presented not only as a guide to this particular interaction but as an argument for a far more extreme but necessary proposition: the immediate abolition of all attempts at conversation with those whose worldview is fundamentally different from your own.

If the above seems a tad harsh—all of us, after all, were raised to believe that a well-tempered remonstration is the epitome of civil society, if not its very purpose—behold the rhetorical limberness of the Sage of MIT. “Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false,” was Chomsky’s cheerful reply to Harris’ polite invitation to debate. “I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings. If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine. But with sources.”

Thinking that there could be no better source than Chomsky himself, Harris quoted a few choice lines from Chomsky’s book ­9-11, the basic thesis of which is that we must all remember that no matter what you may think of al-Qaeda, “the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.” Among the heinous crimes of Yankee imperialism, thundered the ancient linguist, was the 1998 bombing of Sudan’s Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant, which deprived innocent Sudanese of much-needed medicine and which made the attacks of September 11, 2001, somehow understandable. “For the first time in modern history,” Chomsky wrote in his book, “Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.” It hardly takes a PhD in the structure and usage of language to identify this argument as a rather streamlined case of mindless moral equivalency.

Try telling that to Chomsky. “Your response,” he wrote in reply to Harris’ citation of his own book, “is interesting both for what it does not say and what it does say. What it does not do is answer the question raised: What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair, the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan. That aside, if the U.S. or Israel or England were to be the target of such an atrocity, what would the reaction be?”

Harris, ignoring the miraculous appearance of Israel in a debate with which the Jewish State had absolutely nothing to do, replied by saying something about the moral significance of intention, a nuanced and pertinent view which was greeted with a fierce barrage of definitional warfare. Read it, and Chomsky’s technique becomes obvious, a three-step bit of linguistic legerdemain that begins by emptying words of their meaning, continues by assigning them some random and temporarily advantageous value, and ends with accusing anyone who questions the new meaning as a depraved monster oblivious to the misfortunes of others.

This despicable trick, sadly, is hardly Chomsky’s alone. It’s the same one applied by those who speak of safe spaces and trigger warnings; those who require 58 alternative terms to describe their gender, including neutrois and two-spirit; and those—from confused college students to asinine authors—for whom free speech is a form of power play afflicted on the suffering world by a small group of affluent, insensitive, and lecherous straight white devils. It’s logical to believe that these defilers of logic have always kicked about, but it took the era of social media and abundant blogs to give these factless, feckless flops a perch and a sense of empowerment. Engaging these cats leads nowhere but into a brick wall of disarray and bad faith. And the institutions that once cultivated and oversaw the structured exchange of diverse and contradictory ideas—academia, mostly, and the press—have long been parodies of themselves; The Onion had it just right last week when it captured the state of discourse on campus these days with the headline “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea.” Those of us determined to remain sensitive, sensible, and spirited, then, hardly have any choice but to doff our hats and take our leave.

Which is hardly as final as it may sound. As anyone who has spent even one day in a good yeshiva knows, there’s a distinct pleasure that comes only from engaging in heated conversation with those who share your most profound beliefs. Rather than depleting your energy trotting around in search of some elusive common ground only to find that it’s ultimately barren, limit your conversation to those who more or less agree with you and you’ll find yourself busy building infinitely intricate structures from which the view is both clearer and more striking.

But conversation is one thing and education another: While the former has grown too toxic for anyone’s good, the latter remains more crucial—and more rare—than ever. The resources conserved by abstaining from futile tiffs with linguistic luchadors ought to be invested in a thorough and relentless questioning of our most deeply held beliefs, genuine inquisitions made not on the shaky ground of computer-mediated outrage but quietly and alone, in the company of great books and haunting thoughts. Read something that truly upsets you. Ask yourself questions you may not be able to answer easily. Whatever you do, just stop talking.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.