Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to deal with shameless maligners

If anybody knows what it's like to be smeared and maligned for expressing unpopular opinions, it is Stephen Walt. He and John Mearsheimer are co-authors of one of the most controversial documents, originally disseminated as an online manuscript, and then published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as a book in 2007. Entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," it directly confronts the once taboo subject of the United States' involvement with Israel. Their book describes the role played by supporters of Israel in shaping U.S. foreign policy and distorting it in the interests of Israel. The authors have been credited with creating "political space" for the open discussion of this volatile topic.

Their impressive establishment credentials as leading academic scholars (University of Chicago and Harvard affiliations), and the fact that their presentation was carefully researched and documented, did not save them from vicious verbal assaults and personal vilification. In a current Foreign Policy magazine article, "On grabbing the third rail," Walt offers his advice to those who would dare to publicly dissent from orthodox canon, whatever the subject. He shares his ideas on how to deal with the inevitable personal attacks by people who never rationally address your arguments but, instead, stoop to assaults on your character, while purposely misrepresenting your position, and impugning your motives for expressing your dissident opinions in the first place.

Walt offers 10 guidelines to follow in dealing with such adversaries who "take the low road." It is a fascinating little discourse and should be read in its entirety. Following are excerpts from five of the guidelines:
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3. Never Get Mad. Let your critics throw the mud, but you should always stick to the facts, especially when they are on your side. In my own case, many of the people who attacked me and my co-author proved to be unwitting allies, because they lost their cool in public or in print, made wild charges and ad hominem arguments, and generally acted in a transparently mean-spirited manner. It always works to your advantage when opponents act in an uncivil fashion, because it causes almost everyone else to swing your way. ... In short, the more ludicrous the charges, the more critics undermine their own case. So stick to the high ground; the view is nicer up there.

4. Don't Respond to Every Single Attack. A well-organized smear campaign will try to bury you in an avalanche flurry of bogus charges, many of which are simply not worth answering. It is easier for opponents to dream up false charges than it is for you to refute each one, and you will exhaust yourself rebutting every critical word directed at you. So focus mainly on answering the more intelligent criticisms while ignoring the more outrageous ones, which you should treat with the contempt they deserve. ...

6. The More Compelling Your Arguments Are, The Nastier the Attacks Will Be. If critics can refute your evidence or your logic, then that's what they will do and it will be very effective. However, if you have made a powerful case and there aren't any obvious weaknesses in it, your adversaries are likely to misrepresent what you have said and throw lots of mud at you. ... If you are in a very public spat about a controversial issue like gay marriage or abortion or gun control, a solid and well-documented argument will probably attract more scurrilous attacks than a flimsy argument that is easily refuted. So be prepared.

8. Be Willing to Admit When You're Wrong, But Don't Adopt a Defensive Crouch. Nobody writing on a controversial and contested subject is infallible, and you're bound to make a mistake or two along the way. There's no harm in admitting to errors when they occur; indeed, harm is done when you make a mistake and then try to deny it. More generally, however, it makes good sense to make your case assertively and not shy away from engaging your critics. In short, the best defense is a smart offense, even when you are acknowledging errors or offering a correction. ...

9. Challenging Orthodoxy Is a Form of "Asymmetric Conflict." You Win By "Not Losing." When someone challenges a taboo or takes on some well-entrenched conventional wisdom, his or her opponents invariably have the upper hand at first. They will seek to silence or discredit you as quickly as they can, so that your perspective, which they obviously won't like, does not gain any traction with the public. But this means that as long as you remain part of the debate, you're winning. Minds don't change overnight, and it is difficult to know how well an intellectual campaign is going at any particular point in time. So get ready for an emotional roller coaster. Some days you might think you're winning big, while other days the deck will appear to be stacked against you. But the real question is: are you still in the game?

Read complete article here.


The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

The country that wouldn't grow up, by Tony Judt

Ferment Over "The Israel Lobby," by Philip Weiss

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