This quote from Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay The Anti-Semite and the Jew, written in 1944, is remarkably relevant today – and I think provides a way forward for political discourse in the current era.
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.
I’ve recently, out of a sense of perverse rubbernecking, taken to reading Fox News Facebook page thread comments.
Where it might be tempting to dismiss them all as Russian Trolls – this would be to ignore that a significant chunk of people really do say and act the way they do – without being part of a concerted, organised effort.
Reading the comments – you get a sense of the leaps in reasoning people make to justify the double standards required to hold two simultaneous positions.
- Sarah Sanders being kicked out of a restuarant is uncivil and discrimination, but a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is ok, because the cake is a ‘custom job’.
- The shooting of journalists at The Capital newspaper is the fault of Maxine Waters, for here recent remarks about uncivility, (and just ignore Trump’s remarks about journalists being the enemy).
- It’s ok to hold off confirming Merrick Garland because that was a presidential election, but this one is a mid-term election.
- Name calling and violence and uncivility is bad, but ignore it when Trump and the alt-right do it.
- Criticise any suggestion that left should push back, but ignore Trumps calls for ‘bomb their families’, ‘bring back waterboarding and worse’, ‘don’t treat them too gently’ etc.
Reading these comments can be disheartening, knowing that there are apparently lots of real world people that genuinely think this way.
It can therefore be tempting to want to jump into the comments section to point out the flaws in their thinking – in an attempt to change their mind, and change the way they think.
However – as the Sartre quote suggests – anti-Semites, and if we extend this to the modern equivilent of anti-Semites, are aware that their their arguments aren’t consistent. They don’t care, and infact they relish in it, winning by dragging the people into what was a mud fight from the start.
The solution then – is not to completely ignore them – but to not play on their terms. Keep focused on what the truth of the matter is – and make sure that narrative is onmipresent (it’s when the objective truth of a situation is hidden from a good chunk of the population, that a 1984 style dictatorship is possible).
This perhaps does mean that posting in Fox News threads is a good idea – but not as a response to commentators narratives – but just reminding everyone what the context is.