The noted professor Stanley Fish recently published a book, a slim but insightful volume, entitled “Winning Arguments.” Even after concluding the book, I could not determine whether the “Winning” of the title was a gerund (a verb meaning that the book instructed one how to prevail in arguments) or an adjective (that is, which arguments would be the most persuasive in rhetorical combat). And then I realized that it was neither, and that I misconstrued even the word “Argument.” Don’t judge a book by its title, or its cover.
When we think of “arguments” today, it is almost always associated with acrimony, protests, vindictiveness and insolubility. These encompass the riots in the streets, the harassment of people who articulate views that are unpopular with the masses or the advocates who are averse to dialogue and prone to violence, and the sheer inability of people to talk to others with different and certainly opposing views. Even “we agree to disagree” would be a step up in public discourse but a return to that halcyon era seems way off in the future.
The “Arguments” of the title, I think, refer to the classic arguments of yore, advocacy that was free of rancor or insult. A legal argument is typical of the genre. Often judges will say, “we will hear arguments on that matter tomorrow,” which in the current climate would be taken to mean that each side should come prepared to scream, then scream louder, and be bolstered by the boisterous supporters of its side that it had assembled in the audience. Of course, legal arguments mean nothing of the sort but are rather dispassionate discussions of the legal issues at hand in which each side musters all the precedents and logic underlying its case and tries to counter, rationally and orderly, the arguments of the other side.
There was a time when such arguments were not limited to the courtroom but, in fact, people could sit around a table in a social setting, discourse on the issues of the day, enlighten each other, have a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions about life, religion, politics and the like, and remain friends, and even look forward to the next gathering.
Those are the arguments to which Professor Fish refers, and the “Winning,” I assume, means “pleasing, appealing, or charming” rather than “triumphant or unbeatable.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could return to those days when people could have a friendly dialogue, learn from each other, agree to disagree, meet again – rather than fear being ostracized from one’s social circle, rendering one’s children unmarriageable to families of another viewpoint, having water thrown in one’s face, being verbally harassed on the streets, fired from one’s job, and being stalked and maligned as an enemy of society? And those intellectual arguments need not be that much different in kind from domestic or personal arguments – an exchange of views (who’s doing the dishes and who’s taking out the garbage) in which each side’s concerns are heard and addressed.
What, then, is the problem, which, to a large extent, has infiltrated our Torah world as well?
It is largely that modern arguments never end because there is no yardstick that can be employed that will lead definitively to a conclusion. Fish: “We live in a world where God and truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences…absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may someday hope to see…”
We have forfeited the capacity to have reasoned dialogue because G-d’s word has been neglected when it is not altogether being distorted; even truth has been pounded into oblivion. It is not uncommon to hear people today speak of “my truth,” something which is synonymous with their “feelings.” But “feelings” are not truth, by definition subjective, and what we have generally is a passionate exchange of feelings about which there can be no common ground. It is why people – on television and often around tables – just talk past each other, and why we live in “a world of argument.”
To give just one example: we hear repeatedly the famous Torah verse “You should love your neighbor as yourself” used to justify all sorts of things of which the Torah disapproves, because the sentiment expressed is so noble and universal. Yet, one rabbinic explication of the verse is that because we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we have to “choose for him a pleasant mode of execution” (Masechet Sanhedrin 45a and elsewhere).That is, if we must execute someone for a crime, we must choose a mode of execution that causes the least pain. A person guided by feelings might think that a better way of expressing our love for another would be not to execute him at all! But such a person would be devoid of true Torah knowledge and oblivious to the Mesorah. And that is just one example of how G-d’s word can be so trivialized in these modern arguments and truth the first casualty of the rejection of G-d. Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves does not vitiate any of the Torah’s commandments even as it simultaneously influences our performance of many of them.
Towards the end of the book, Fish quotes from another book written twenty years ago by the sociologist Deborah Tannen, always incredibly prescient in her analysis of societal trends. The book was entitled “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” and it portrayed the impending poisoning of public discourse, in which “your goal is not to listen and understand [but]… to use every tactic in order to win.” People, she wrote, thus “search for the most foolish statement in a generally reasonable treatise, seize upon the weakest example, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views and focus only on those that support yours.”
This is why the word game has become so popular in this genre – finding the one word or phrase than can be construed as offensive and use that as a pretext not to deal with the substance of the contentions that are being raised. It is as obvious as it is phony and hypocritical.
The America of 1998 when Tannen’s book was published was certainly not as polarized as it is today, but the argument culture is alive and devouring us. Witness the people who can no longer talk to each other civilly, friendships that have cooled, relationships that have ended, and all because of this gross incapacity to open one’s mind to the views of another, to agree or disagree pleasantly and to evaluate by the objective barometers given to us – especially in the Torah – what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is contemptible.
Rational arguments are impossible in a world that glorifies the primacy of feelings above all. Where contentions need not be proven by resort to conventional resources (“I don’t have to prove anything; I feel I’m right, I know it in my heart”) then dialogue becomes impossible and we are on the brink of “might makes right.” That can only be followed – and has already been followed – by physical attacks on those with disfavored views, the banning of the expression of certain moral notions in university classrooms, and the creation of an underground where traditional morality can still be taught and discussed out of sight of society’s self-appointed hall monitors and truth suppressors.
Where relativism predominates, true virtue cannot exist. In the wake of its disappearance we find only competing personal “moralities” that cannot enlighten or ennoble anyone. What passes for sophisticated discussion are puerile and vacuous Facebook posts and tweets that sock it to the disfavored.
Jews, whether we admit it or not, live in a binary world. We are presented with the blessing and the curse, with good and evil, with the choice of following or disobeying G-d’s will. Some have forsaken that for lack of faith or the desire to curry favor in the general world, but we abandon that approach at our peril.
There does not appear to be a way out of this morass, short of repentance. Perhaps the only true consolation is the Talmudic statement (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) that the generation in which the Messiah comes will be either entirely righteous or guilty. It will be a generation in which people simply cannot agree or even dialogue about what is right or wrong or good and evil. The righteous will know they are righteous and have little to do with the evil, and the evil will think they are virtuous and that the so-called righteous are misguided or worse.
If indeed the era of argument is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, then at least we can (not) enjoy it while it lasts.