7 Rules of En­gage­ment

Here Are the 7 Rules of En­gage­ment

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By J.J. Gold­berg

In times of peril and un­cer­tainty, there’s no greater threat to a demo­cratic so­ci­ety than the break­down in civil di­a­logue. A po­lar­ized so­ci­ety, un­able to air its dif­fer­ences and seek com­mon ground, fails the most ba­sic test of democ­racy; a so­ci­ety with­out trust is a so­ci­ety that can­not make de­ci­sions.

Whether the task be­fore us is car­ing for the sick, de­fend­ing our­selves from en­e­mies, ed­u­cat­ing the young or pre­par­ing for stormy weather, mis­trust and in­ci­vil­ity quickly po­lar­ize and then freeze the dis­cus­sion, caus­ing grid­lock and paral­y­sis. Prob­lems go un­treated and get worse, which brings even deeper mis­trust as each side in­evitably blames the other: If only you’d lis­tened to me we could have licked this thing. Now look where you’ve got­ten us. Things are col­laps­ing around us, and it’s all your fault.

What’s true of a vast so­ci­ety like Amer­ica is dou­bly true of a small en­tity like the Jewish com­mu­nity. While get­ting Jews to agree on where their shared in­ter­ests lie and what threat­ens them, much less what to do about it, has been near-im­pos­si­ble for cen­turies; it’s get­ting worse as Jews be­come more di­verse and find less in com­mon with each other. As a re­sult, we are see­ing in the Jewish com­mu­nity the same break­down of civil di­a­logue as in the rest of our coun­try. In other words, the Jewish com­mu­nity is be­com­ing all but un­govern­able.

The root cause of in­ci­vil­ity isn’t a great mys­tery: It be­gins with a feel­ing of ur­gency, a height­ened sense of threat, of the stakes in­volved. With that in mind, how does one go about con­duct­ing and main­tain­ing a civil dis­cus­sion, es­pe­cially when the stakes are high?

I’ve spent hun­dreds of hours over the years de­bat­ing and di­a­logu­ing with peo­ple I dis­agree with on top­ics rang­ing from the Is­raeli-Arab con­flict to Jewish ed­u­ca­tion to cli­mate change and the econ­omy. I’ve picked up a few in­sights into what works and what doesn’t — not nec­es­sar­ily in win­ning a de­bate, but in keep­ing the lines open for next time. Here are the rules of en­gage­ment.

Rule No. 1: Be pleas­ant.

That may sound ba­nal, but it’s es­sen­tial. Whether you’re ar­gu­ing with some­one you dis­agree with, rais­ing a point in a meet­ing or de­bat­ing on a stage in front of a crowd, you don’t score points by be­ing un­pleas­ant. If you’re in a one-on-one ar­gu­ment, the per­son fac­ing you is prob­a­bly just as de­ter­mined to stand his or her ground as you are. The per­son is not go­ing to open up to op­pos­ing ideas if there is a feel­ing of be­siege­ment, but he or she might lis­ten if the ex­pe­ri­ence is pleas­ant.

It’s even more im­por­tant in front of an au­di­ence. You’re there to in­flu­ence their think­ing. Most of them will have for­got­ten the ma­jor­ity of the spe­cific points they’ve heard by the time they leave the hall, but they’ll re­mem­ber whom they liked. Un­less there’s a wild im­bal­ance be­tween the de­baters in knowl­edge or ar­tic­u­lacy, the per­son who wins the de­bate will be the one who comes off more lik­able. Even if there’s a skills im­bal­ance in your fa­vor, bul­ly­ing or brow­beat­ing your op­po­nent will only help your op­po­nent.

And if you’re fac­ing an au­di­ence that tilts against you — if you’re a set­tler de­bat­ing in a Reform sy­n­a­gogue, or an abortion-rights ad­vo­cate at a Catholic Church event — the only way to have any im­pact is to get the au­di­ence to like you.

I once saw Ralph Reed, the Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, ad­dress­ing a packed au­di­to­rium at the na­tional pol­icy con­fer­ence of the Amer­i­can Israel Po­lit­i­cal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, the pro-Israel lobby. This was back in the day when most AIPAC del­e­gates were, like most Jews, lib­eral-lean­ing Democrats. Reed started off by ac­knowl­edg­ing that he rep­re­sents a com­mu­nity that’s at odds with the Jewish com­mu­nity on a host of is­sues. His mes­sage: Let’s work to­gether when we agree on some­thing, like Israel’s se­cu­rity. And when we dis­agree, let’s try to be ad­ver­saries rather than en­e­mies.

He prob­a­bly didn’t con­vince any­one present to join his Chris­tian Coali­tion, nor even to vote Repub­li­can. But he made a lot of friends that day who would lis­ten to him with an open mind the next time he spoke.

Rule No. 2: Avoid name-call­ing. Al­ways — al­ways — treat your op­po­nent with dig­nity.

Talk about facts and ideas, not about your op­po­nent. Noth­ing shuts down a di­a­logue faster than a per­sonal in­sult. You may think the per­son you’re ad­dress­ing has demon­strated a char­ac­ter flaw or de­fi­ciency by ad­vanc­ing a par­tic­u­lar ar­gu­ment, but say­ing so — by word or ges­ture — shuts down the dis­cus­sion on a hos­tile note. You’re no longer at­tack­ing the per­son’s

logic or facts; you’re at­tack­ing the per­son, your in­ter­locu­tor. Un­less your op­po­nent is un­com­monly pa­tient and for­giv­ing, you’ve just lost the de­bate.

This in­cludes com­ments that might seem like le­git­i­mate ob­ser­va­tions in the mo­ment, such as “You don’t know what you’re talk­ing about” or “What gives you the right to say that?” The ar­gu­ment should be about the is­sues un­der dis­cus­sion, not the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of the per­son de­bat­ing them.

It’s nat­u­ral to get an­gry when we’re ar­gu­ing pol­i­tics, in­ter­na­tional af­fairs or so­cial val­ues. And when we get an­gry, it’s nat­u­ral to want to lash out. We’re de­fend­ing the things we care about from peo­ple whose stated goal is to take away those things. It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize the in­stinct and get con­trol of it be­fore it gets con­trol of you. The per­son who loses con­trol loses cred­i­bil­ity in the eyes of lis­ten­ers. It looks to the ob­server like you’re los­ing con­fi­dence. If you don’t trust your po­si­tion, why should any­one else? Al­ways re­mem­ber that anger loses de­bates.

That’s not nec­es­sar­ily the case with pas­sion. On oc­ca­sion, get­ting heated up while mak­ing a cer­tain point may show your op­po­nents that they’re tread­ing on sen­si­tive ground, per­haps by touch­ing on a sore point of yours that’s more deeply felt than they’d un­der­stood, per­haps even some­thing they need to re­con­sider. The au­di­ence, too, may sit up and no­tice that some­thing im­por­tant just hap­pened that they need to lis­ten closely for a mo­ment. But don’t let it last more than a mo­ment.

And there’s this: You’re talk­ing to a fel­low hu­man be­ing who has feel­ings and a sense of worth and dig­nity, some­one who’s guilty only of hold­ing a view you don’t share. If you’re talk­ing about how to make the world a bet­ter place for your fel­low man, which is the ob­ject of most heated dis­cus­sions, why not start with the room you’re in right now and the per­son sit­ting next to you?

Rule No. 3: Never as­sume that you know what the other per­son is re­ally think­ing.

We don’t know what oth­ers are think­ing un­less we ask. That’s the point of en­gag­ing them in de­bate. And once you’ve asked,

lis­ten to their an­swers. If you think they’re mask­ing their real in­ten­tions be­hind some high-minded rhetoric, chances are high that you’re lis­ten­ing to your own thoughts and ig­nor­ing theirs.

Here’s why: Most of us tend to think that what’s ob­vi­ous to us must be ob­vi­ous to oth­ers. If we be­lieve that A causes B, then we’re likely to as­sume that any­one ad­vo­cat­ing ac­tion A wants to see out­come B. But that’s usu­ally wrong. Most of the time, they’ve sim­ply con­cluded that A doesn’t lead to B but rather to C.

Take, for ex­am­ple, abortion-rights ad­vo­cates. They be­lieve that re­strict­ing abortion vi­o­lates a wo­man’s free­dom. Be­cause they are con­vinced of this causal­ity, many con­clude that abortion op­po­nents want to see women con­trolled and sub­ju­gated. That may be true in a few cases, but the vast ma­jor­ity of anti-abortion ad­vo­cates are mo­ti­vated by ex­actly what they say mo­ti­vates them: a de­sire to save hu­man life. Con­versely, many abortion op­po­nents as­sume that abortion-rights ad­vo­cates are cal­lously in­dif­fer­ent to hu­man life. Pro-lif­ers, too, of­ten can’t or won’t per­ceive that pro-choicers are act­ing from a dif­fer­ent be­lief sys­tem, one as an­cient and hon­or­able as theirs, in which hu­man life be­gins at birth. What’s scream­ingly ob­vi­ous to pro-life ad­vo­cates isn’t ob­vi­ous at all to pro­choice ad­vo­cates.

I once at­tended a lun­cheon of Amer­i­cans for a Safe Israel, a hawk­ish or­ga­ni­za­tion that sits some­where to the right of the Likud on the Zion­ist ide­o­log­i­cal spectrum. There were two gen­tle­men at my ta­ble who were hav­ing a fierce ar­gu­ment over Israel’s two best-known left­ist politi­cians, Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid. This was shortly after the Oslo Ac­cord be­tween Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Pales­tinian leader Yasser Arafat. Ter­ror­ism was pick­ing up again, the worst in years, and the right was blam­ing the Oslo agree­ment. Beilin and Sarid were among the loud­est voices urg­ing Israel to stay the course and main­tain the peace ac­cord. The two gen­tle­men at my ta­ble, a rabbi and a writer, were fu­ri­ously de­bat­ing whether the two Yos­sis were de­lib­er­ately try­ing to have Is­raelis ex­ter­mi­nated in a sec­ond Holo­caust or were just trag­i­cally blind to the im­pli­ca­tions of their ad­vo­cacy. My table­mates weren’t able to reach an agree­ment on the Yos­sis’ at­ti­tudes to­ward geno­cide, but I was pleased to see they could agree to dis­agree.

Most de­bates are more grounded in re­al­ity than the one I over­heard at that lun­cheon. Yet they can feel just as re­moved from re­al­ity. Pales­tini­ans and their al­lies of­ten as­sume that be­cause Is­raeli re­stric­tions are hu­mil­i­at­ing, that’s the pur­pose — to hu­mil­i­ate Pales­tini­ans. But most Is­raelis have lit­tle in­ter­est in Pales­tini­ans’ self-es­teem; their pur­pose is, rather, to pro­tect them­selves from vi­o­lence by re­strict­ing Pales­tini­ans’ abil­ity to at­tack them. Con­versely, many Is­raelis be­lieve Pales­tinian hos­til­ity is driven by a me­dieval Euro­pean-style ha­tred of Jews, while the truth is, for most Pales­tini­ans, the con­flict is over a mass mi­gra­tion that turned their home­land into some­body else’s coun­try. Both sides im­pute fic­tional mo­tives to their op­po­nents, seem­ingly avoid­ing the painful truth that theirs is a con­flict be­tween two rights (though I may be breaking my own rule and im­put­ing a mo­tive that isn’t there).

Rule No. 4: If the is­sues look in­tractable, pivot to le­git­i­macy.

You may be fac­ing an in­ter­locu­tor — or a hall full of lis­ten­ers — who can’t be ex­pected to buy into your ideas. It could be that your hosts in­vited you be­cause they over­es­ti­mated their own ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb chal­lenges. You may sim­ply have been led by cir­cum­stance into an en­vi­ron­ment that’s im­pla­ca­bly hos­tile to your ideas.

If that’s the case, then there’s no point in try­ing to con­vince your lis­ten­ers to agree with you. At best you’ll fail. At worst you’ll leave your lis­ten­ers an­gry at you and more hos­tile to your ideas than they were be­fore. This hap­pens more of­ten than we’d like to think.

In this sit­u­a­tion, don’t try too hard to sell your po­si­tions; it won’t work. In­stead, con­cen­trate on con­vinc­ing the lis­ten­ers that your views emerge from a le­git­i­mate, well-in­ten­tioned be­lief sys­tem. Con­vince them that you are after the same ba­sic goals they are — peace, health, se­cu­rity, pros­per­ity — but have dif­fer­ent ways of get­ting there.

Hey, Thomas Jef­fer­son and John Adams had starkly op­pos­ing views, yet they were fast friends. So were the Tem­ple-era sages Hil­lel and Sham­mai. If they can agree to dis­agree, so can we.

Rule No. 5: Re­spect democ­racy, and lose gra­ciously.

Un­der the norms of democ­racy, the ma­jor­ity rules. We for­get that this works only if the mi­nor­ity agrees to lose. If it’s le­git­i­mate to of­fer com­pet­ing ideas and let the public choose, it must be le­git­i­mate for the public to choose the other side’s ideas. The im­pli­ca­tion in de­bates over pol­i­tics and ideas is that the other side’s ideas and pro­pos­als may be dis­agree­able to you, but they are le­git­i­mate — that is, un­less they can be shown to be out­side the bounds of what our so­ci­ety con­sid­ers de­cent.

Fail­ing to ac­cept your op­po­nents’ un­der­ly­ing le­git­i­macy can kill ci­vil­ity. Our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cul­ture tends to en­cour­age apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric about the hor­rors that will en­sue if the other side’s vi­sions come to pass. It’s not aimed at en­cour­ag­ing se­ri­ous thought. It’s not even aimed at mov­ing to­ward so­lu­tions. It can’t help bring so­lu­tions, be­cause it makes di­a­logue, com­pro­mise and agree­ment all but im­pos­si­ble. What it does well is fire up our own ranks so that we can put up a good fight.

That might be good pol­i­tics, but it’s ter­ri­ble di­a­logue.

If the pur­pose of di­a­logue and de­bate is to ex­am­ine the mer­its of com­pet­ing ideas, that comes to a halt when one of those ideas is de­clared il­le­git­i­mate, off-lim­its and not up for dis­cus­sion. Here’s a rule of thumb: If it’s part of the pro­gram of one of the ma­jor par­ties in our sys­tem — Demo­cratic or Repub­li­can, Likud or La­bor, Reform or Or­tho­dox (and, yes, smaller play­ers like Greens, Meretz, Re­con­struc­tion­ists) — then it is by def­i­ni­tion a le­git­i­mate view­point. Try to show it’s mis­taken rather than be­yond the pale. Then you can de­mand the same treat­ment.

Rule No. 6: Bal­ance what you at­tack in your op­po­nent with what you grant him or her.

Look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to point out ar­eas of agree­ment. Noth­ing does more to cre­ate good­will to­ward your­self than show­ing it to­ward oth­ers.

It also keeps the dis­cus­sion grounded in re­al­ity. The truth is that most peo­ple are well in­ten­tioned and want only the best for them­selves and those around them. If you don’t be­lieve that, pre­tend you do. Go ahead and flat­ter your op­po­nents and your au­di­ence. They’ll like you for it and open them­selves up to hear­ing your ar­gu­ments more sym­pa­thet­i­cally. You might even con­vince your­self to love your neigh­bor (Leviti­cus 19:18) and en­joy your world just a lit­tle more.

It’s im­por­tant, too, be­cause iden­ti­fy­ing ex­ist­ing points of agree­ment makes it eas­ier to look for oth­ers. If the pur­pose of de­bate is to solve prob­lems and re­duce con­flicts, a good place to start is where you can show there isn’t re­ally a con­flict. That low­ers walls and makes it eas­ier to con­ceive that fur­ther agree­ments are pos­si­ble.

Fi­nally, the most im­por­tant rule and the hard­est to fol­low:

Rule No. 7: Re­al­ize it’s not the end of the world.

This one is sim­ple to un­der­stand: If you are con­vinced that the op­pos­ing view­point will bring ir­repara­ble dam­age, it’s very dif­fi­cult to ac­cept it as le­git­i­mate and dis­cuss it in civil terms.

That’s the catch in Amer­i­can Jewish dis­cus­sions of Israel: Many op­po­nents of Is­raeli with­drawal and Pales­tinian state­hood firmly be­lieve that com­pro­mise would leave Israel de­fense­less and vul­ner­a­ble to its en­e­mies’ geno­ci­dal de­signs. It’s hard to re­main civil in the face of that threat.

You can re­ply that those aren’t the stakes in this evening’s dis­cus­sion. Or that they’re wrong and that com­pro­mise, even if it is a mis­take and would leave Israel weaker, wouldn’t spell Israel’s demise as long as the Israel De­fense Forces are around.

If ex­pe­ri­ence is any guide, though, those ar­gu­ments will fail. If that’s the case, your best al­ter­na­tive is prob­a­bly to re­mem­ber that their rage isn’t the end of the world, ei­ther, and that even if they can’t see it, we’re all one fam­ily, Jewish, Amer­i­can and hu­man. And as Jews, we’re com­manded to cut our op­po­nents some slack. As the an­cient sages put it in Pirkei Avot, the Tal­mud trac­tate known as “The Ethics of the Fa­thers,” “Judge ev­ery per­son to­ward the scale of in­no­cence.” Or, as it’s more loosely but com­monly trans­lated, “Give ev­ery per­son the ben­e­fit of the doubt.”


Most of them will have for­got­ten the ma­jor­ity of the spe­cific points they’ve heard by the time they leave the hall, but they’ll re­mem­ber whom they liked.

Fail­ing to ac­cept your op­po­nent as le­git­i­mate can kill ci­vil­ity.

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