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The Curse of the Straw Man: Reflections on How We Argue About Iran

Discussion of the Iranian issue calls for a measure of those quintessentially Jewish values of humility and self-doubt
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

What would we do without the straw man, without the ability to make a caricature of the position we want to argue against? How many op-eds, debates and political speeches count on the ability to present a dumbed-down version of the position we contest, and then revel in knocking it down?

Examples abound, but the argument over Iran is a recent treasure trove of how shallow debate can sometimes become. Given how much complexity and uncertainty surrounds the Iranian nuclear issue, the easy conviction with which the policy being opposed (sanctions, military action, negotiations, etc…) is regularly dismissed is stunning. The utter confidence of many public pronouncements promoting military or other action is no less dramatic. Perhaps because the stakes are so high some feel the need to mount a zero-sum argument. But these stakes are the reason to pursue a nuanced and intricate conversation, not to seek comfort in false conviction.

“Military action against Iran would be catastrophic,” declared one recent opinion piece, ominously. Time for some “creative destruction,” announced another with abandon. Unless there has been a sudden eruption amongst the chattering classes of experts on sanctions and military strategy and nuclear fuel cycles and Iranian society, this kind of discourse is, to be blunt, simplistic and largely irrelevant.

The list of factors one needs to be familiar with in order to speak intelligently about Iran, let alone persuasively, is long indeed. Some of them are simply not in the public domain, and available only to a handful of people (most of whom are obliged to refrain from public debate). Other factors – such as how best to impact the decision-making of Iran’s ruling clerics – can only ever be partially known, and are at most educated guesses.

So, given this picture, what would serious thinking and debate about Iran look like? Three initial guiding principles come to mind. The first is to have the courage to acknowledge what is weak and uncertain about one’s own position. An argument can sometimes be rendered more, not less, persuasive by taking account of what is not known or contested. For example, we can support strong sanctions against Iran even if we admit that we do not know their ultimate affect on Tehran’s decision-making. The preponderance of evidence suggests that pressure has altered the regime’s calculus in the past, but we need not fake certainty that, this time, sanctions will soften rather than harden Iranian resolve.

Second, to have our own position taken seriously we should be willing to recognize that which is legitimate or compelling in the position that we are opposing. In a challenge as thorny and charged as Iran, it cannot be that all the good arguments lean only to one side. Accepting the difficulty of an issue, whatever position one ultimately favors, does not betray a failure of conviction but a connection to reality. Advocates of an armed strike against Iran, for instance, should be able to acknowledge their opponent’s point that the consequences of military action cannot be easily predicted and may be far-reaching. Support for such a strike need not emerge from absolute confidence, but from a balance of risk assessment that admits the many dangers and conflicting concerns involved.

The third principle is a little trickier. Following the first two principles alone can sometimes lead us to seek refuge in nuance and complexity, without actually offering proposals for how to proceed. We can become so enamored with the trees that we feel no obligation to offer our own way out of the forest.

It is always easier to criticize a policy – especially if one makes a straw man of it – than to suggest a feasible alternative. Arguments would be more serious if striking down a position we opposed obliged us to suggest our own approach and expose ourselves to the kind of criticism we readily direct toward others.

In reading the views so vehemently expressed on Iran, I am reminded of the groundbreaking work of behavioral psychologist and Israeli Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman. His newest book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a study of the complex, and sometimes deeply irrational, ways humans formulate their opinions. It gives scientific evidence for something we might well have hypothesized: that the way we think is not just the product of cold, rational, analysis. Our opinions can be shaped by experience, illusion, intuition, trauma, and a variety of biases that Kahneman’s experiments have substantiated.

Given this, it is amazing that so many of us are committed dogmatically to our own beliefs and views and can be so easily dismissive of the views of others. We hold our own opinions in such high regard and never seem to wonder how people with opposing views (even with intellect and maturity not fundamentally different from our own) can hold positions that are so flimsy and easily punctured.

Kahneman’s studies are not a reason to avoid serious debate and dismiss any view as ultimately driven by irrational (or unknowable) forces. But they are an argument for humility and circumspection; for a willingness to be conscious of the possible flaws in our own reasoning, and the possible strengths in alternate positions.

The Talmud in Eruvin (13b) expresses a similar sentiment. It asks if both the views of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are “words of the living God,” why did Beit Hillel merit having the halakha decided according to its view. Its answer: “because they were easygoing and tolerant; because they would study both their own opinion and the opinion of Bet Shammai and, what’s more, they would state Beit Shammai’s position before their own.”

The discussion of the Iranian issue – as of any other – calls for a measure of those quintessentially Jewish values of humility and self-doubt (not always on display, but embedded somewhere in most of us). Not so much self-doubt and humility as to induce indecision and paralysis, but just enough for a meaningful and serious debate.

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