Building Bridges With Your Ideological Opponent Is Best Thing You Can Do to Promote Peace
David Lange is a proud Zionist from Australia who moved to Israel and started this website. He writes about Jewish and Israeli issues with a particular focus on antisemitism.
I first interacted with David Lange after he read an article I wrote about my experience working at an Orthodox Jewish School in NYC. He liked how I described how students can bravely express their opinions and we struck up a conversation. David agreed to publish an essay I wrote about peanut allergies and Israel and how I resolved my love of Roald Dahl’s books with his antisemitic remarks.
David and I had planned to record a Zoom call where we explored issues and challenges within Jewish education. I was very much looking forward to learning about how Jewish education in Israel contrasts with what I experienced in NYC. I still hope that can discussion happen down the road, but then the brutal and awful attack of October 7th occurred. Naturally exploring other issues has to take a back seat.
Marc Lamont Hill is a scholar, activist and journalist. His academic interests are focused on social justice, antiracism and colonial history.
I don’t have any personal connection to Dr. Hill. I have watched many of his videos on YouTube. He strikes me as a thoughtful man who has deep convictions about justice and how race has played a role in denying justice throughout history.
These two men see the Palestine-Israel conflict as two completely different narratives.
They decided to have a debate on YouTube – and it is absolutely wonderful.
What is the telos, or purpose, of a debate?
Is it to convince the other side? Is it to score points and win by demonstrating how much more you know than your opponent? Is it to preach to the choir that already agrees with you?
If that is the case then I guess you can say both men won the debate. They had points that people who agree with them would cheer.
But if the telos of debate is to hone your own views, while at the same time trying to understand your opponents views, and maybe even find common ground, then I think everyone wins, not just the participants.
I consider myself a bridge builder. Someone I worked with gave me that title a few years ago when my school was deep in navigating the acrimony that erupted after the George Floyd was killed. I wrote about that experience in an essay titled Activists, Academics and Bridgebuilders.
I tried, in those tough months, to help students navigate through their anger, while at the same time helping students to direct the anger in productive ways that weren’t ultimately self destructive. In that time, a coworker told me that I was a bridgebuilder.
It is a title I wear with pride. I think that there are too few people out there that are willing to engage people with whom they completely disagree. This is particularly acute in the age of social media and subscription services; both of them risk losing income if they anger their base. David was asked why he was giving a terrorist apologist the time of day while Dr. Hill was asked when he became a Zionist spokesperson.
Despite the blowback they both felt that the discussion was important.
The cynic might say that they are each trying to gain followers or views or whatever. But I have watched and read enough of both men’s work to see that they are strongly committed to their respective causes. And both of them spoke with conviction and lack of fear of offending, without seeking to engage in ad hominem attacks – they attacked each other argument’s without attacking each other.
Whether they intended or not I think the quote below written by John Stuart Mill from his book, On Liberty, influenced both men in their decision to engage in debate both men agree with the quote below.
I think this is one of the most important concepts that has been lost in modern discussion
Unfortunately, this sentiment is incredibly rare today.
Social media allows people to live in ideological bubbles. We are capable of never listening to anyone that disagrees with us if we want. Social media also lets us assume that the other side must be entirely filled with people who are purely evil. Because we do not engage with the ideas of our opponents we create strawman arguments with the worst possible assumptions. It has allowed the notion that “you are either with us or against us” as a permanent state of being.
There are many groups that want us to stay in silos. Governments, corporations, non-profits; anyone who benefits from us not looking at issues with a sense of nuance and context would prefer us to not engage with the other side if it risks their agenda. I prefer to seek out the truth that can be found in a point of view and discard the parts that are inconsistent with evidence and morality.
For example I don’t automatically think that expressing critical opinions about Israeli politics or the military makes you an antisemite. People and government institutions are two separate entities and criticizing the government does not mean that you are against the people.
Conversely, I think a lot of social justice/DEI talking points, like microaggressions, try and make people afraid to express a reasonable opinion. I think the idea that all minorities are oppressed and the unequal outcomes that we see between whites and minorities are solely due to prejudice is reductive, simplistic and frankly, a grift.
I don’t want to plant myself into an ideological camp. I don’t want to say I am pro -ist or anti -ist. The more committed a person is to a particular world view the harder it is for them to see the inconsistencies or the negatives of their side.
The courage of the middle
Both sides, at their extremes, try and exact a heavy cost for anyone in the middle for expressing any disagreement. Because of this, most of the time people with moderate points of view don’t bother to express themselves. They don’t want to get caught up in the fracas of people who have significantly greater passion about the topic. Whenever the middle is afraid to speak that allows the extremes to drive policy at the detriment of the the vast majority.
I try, as a general rule, to not express too much on these issues with people I don’t know. Expressing yourself in a forum with strangers can be an invitation for cancellation as people weaponize fear of being called racist. But I have no qualms expressing myself to people who know me in some capacity. If I express my concerns with David, he will, I believe, have enough goodwill towards me to say “Selim doesn’t know what he’s talking about… he doesn’t live here… but at least he is trying to figure things out fairly”. Likewise, when I talk to my buddy in Tunisia, he can say “I don’t agree with you Selim but I kind of see where you’re coming from”.
I feel comfortable expressing myself to people who know me and in long form because anyone who reads my thoughts in good faith can tell that I am an honest broker. I think my searching and stumbling towards the truth is fairly evident. Because of this I feel confident that only people with an agenda would try and take my words out of context or frame my thoughts negatively.
My hope is that nobody with an agenda would bother reading a small time essayist. I hope that anyone who wants to read my thoughts can see the extent to which I am trying to find a middle ground and recognize the good in both sides.
The importance of small contributions
I am a big proponent of the concept of the locus of control. When something bothers me I ask myself “what can I do to affect a small, but positive, improvement? What is in my power to affect positively?”
Towards that goal, rather than share my opinion on social media, I quietly reached out to all my Jewish and Arab friends to check in on them.
My Jewish friends were extremely touched by my outreach. I don’t want to put words into their mouth but I think they mostly feel that it is “us against the world” and as a result, my reaching out was important for their sense of connection.
My Arab friends and family were also touched for the exact same reason. They also feel that they are the underdog and that nobody in the western world knows or cares about their suffering.
David said something very poignant in the debate that I want to recognize – he said something along the lines that when people are suffering you need to be very careful with your language because they will interpret it through their pain. I completely agree with him. Both sides are suffering and both sides feel that their suffering is not being recognized.
So rather than get my ego involved in these conflicts, and in so doing fail to recognize the pain that people are going through, the best thing that I can do is to continue to be a bridge builder. To that end I want to commend my friend David and Dr. Hill on taking a step in building bridges.
It takes courage to talk to your opponents and try and find common ground. Both men could easily cater to their base audience. In talking to the other side both men risk losing some people who don’t want their beliefs challenged.
I’m not trying to ascribe sainthood to these men. I am sure a part of them wanted to “win” the debate. You can definitely see moments where they are trying to score points. There were moments where both were less than ideal. But despite all of that they succeeded in sharing points of view and demonstrating that people can hold the exact opposite opinions and still be good and caring.
I hope that anyone who reads this who is looking for something to do will consider sitting down with someone they know they don’t agree with and having a quiet conversation. Clear the air – find common ground. This is a more useful thing than getting into online screaming matches or calling for people to be fired.
I genuinely hope that David and Dr. Hill have lots of debates that continue to educate and challenge people’s thoughts and preconceptions. I genuinely believe that to the extent that peace is possible, it is through difficult conversations where respect can grow through. These two men are, in their own way, advancing the cause of peace through contentious but respectful dialogue and I commend them for it.
Selim Tlili is a high school biology and chemistry teacher who is devoted to seeking out truth, beauty and goodness. He writes about education, literature, self improvement and whatever other topics attract his attention. If you like his essays subscribe to his blog at https://www.selim.digital/