December 7, 2019

The Polemic Effect: The Role of Emotions in Contemporary Discourse

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In his seminal 1869 essay, “The Subjection of Women,” celebrated British social philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it.”

One wonders whether Mill foresaw all those who rage on the internet and social media, who summarily dismiss facts as fake news and for whom only opinion matters.

In November 1945, the advertising industry journal Advertising & Selling, published an article that described a meeting between a group of ad agency executives and one of their clients. Having presented a market survey that showed how the promotional policies their client was following were disastrous for his company, the client nonetheless told them he wanted to continue with the current strategy.

“But how can you say that in the face of all this evidence?” they asked him.

Undeterred, he replied, “Don’t confuse me with facts.”

This remarkable line somehow entered popular consciousness as the ultimate example of self-defeating irony.

This bizarre riposte has now made the return journey from the sphere of humor and lodged itself firmly back in the real world — or as real as one considers the social media world to be.

Some years ago, as an avid collector of Jewish polemical publications, I noted the difference between a thesis and a polemic. It dawned on me that a thesis is the attempt to draw conclusive information out of all available evidence. A polemic deliberately uses carefully selected evidence to support a predetermined conclusion.

What has become notable in recent years is that much of the discourse on all matters of public concern — particularly but not exclusively on social media — is colored by a polemical handicap, despite being presented as factual and impartial.

I was not yet an adult at the time of the Watergate hearings, but I have read numerous books and articles on the subject of President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation. None was more jarring than the 2004 interview with G. Gordon Liddy, chief operative of the so-called “White House Plumbers” unit, who was convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping for his role in the Watergate break-in, and served almost five years in jail.

The danger of involving feelings when it comes to disagreements and disputes is that it turns what is possibly legitimate into something rancid and destructive.

“The official version of Watergate is as wrong as a Flat Earth Society pamphlet,” Liddy snapped at journalist Johann Hari after Hari gingerly broached the subject of Liddy’s role in the infamous affair.

Liddy went on to tell Hari that the Watergate burglary was never about Nixon being reelected in ’72, but was actually the brainchild of White House counsel John Dean’s efforts to find and destroy evidence of his fiancée’s involvement in criminal activities.

The most remarkable aspect of this claim is not its outrageousness, rather, it is that the claim was made in the heat of anger well over 30 years after the events took place.

The danger of involving feelings when it comes to disagreements and disputes is that it turns what is possibly legitimate into something rancid and destructive, leading to smoldering hatreds that long outlast any meaningful aspect of the matter at hand.

Leaders and opinion formers have a sacred duty to those they influence to temper their public utterances so that any harm done by the fray is short-lived, mitigated by their dignity, rather than aggravated by a public display of emotion.

The inevitable alternative is that the argument will long outlive the issues that caused it in the first place.

One of the notable quarrels recorded in Genesis is the territorial dispute between Abraham’s shepherds and those of his nephew Lot. It would appear from the text that they found it difficult to occupy shared land, ultimately resulting in a firm parting of ways, which Abraham arbitrated.

The verse recording the breakdown includes a curious repetition (Genesis 13:6): “the land could not support them staying together, for their possessions were so numerous; and they could not remain together.”

Abraham and Lot’s shepherds certainly had legitimate concerns; they were rightfully worried about how the land they lived on could comfortably support ever-increasing flocks. With sensitivity and finesse, this problem could certainly have been resolved amicably. However, what began as a valid dispute soon degenerated into wanton hatred. It no longer had anything to do with the facts; rather, it was a matter of “they could not remain together.”

At that point, the only available option was complete separation — an unbridgeable gulf that led to a pointless rift between two close family members and resulted in the descent of one of them into the degenerate world of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have no doubt that had social media existed in that era, the self-righteous shepherds would have blasted their “facts” all over Twitter and Facebook, feeling entitled to prove their point of view, enraged by their adversaries’ audacious refusal to see things their way.

The shepherds on both sides of this dispute might have tweeted: “Even the Torah says we cannot remain together.”

I fear they would have been missing the point entirely.


Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues.