Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza Shock Talk Isn't Engaging People, It's Scaring Them Away

Tal Abbady's editorial in the LA Times today argues that posting polarizing content on Facebook is a bad way to conduct political debates and a good way to lose friends. Abbady's point speaks to a broader irony of posting such content. Activists pushing polarizing content do so in order to engage new supporters. Yet those standing outside the cacophony of Middle East politics are often pushed away rather than pulled in by such posts.

During Operation Protective Edge, both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists have engaged in a rhetorical "Shock and Awe" campaign. Pictures of death and destruction, appeals to save women and babies, and "what would you do if it were you?" questions are the more innocuous elements of these campaigns. More notoriously, some in the conflict have misappropriated words that have no place in analysis of the ongoing conflict: Genocide. Extermination. Pogrom. Holocaust. As political scientists Evgeny Finkel and Sarah Parkinson point out, this language has been particularly present in the current conflict. 

Radical (or just ignorant) activists justify using these rhetorical trump cards by noting what they see as a desperate situation in the region. Appealing to desperation, they argue, engages people. But the problem with desperation as an engagement strategy is that it is based on radical constructs of how the world works. And these constructs are usually completely out of touch with reality. They state that the public is not in support of a given side because of propaganda or intimidation from the enemy, or else is too stupid to be aware of the conflict or care about it. Shock language is necessary, therefore, to "wake up" these complacent dullards or cause great moral reckoning among those who have thrown in their lot with the other side.

These ideas are easy to understand and compelling. They are also complete nonsense. The public is not "asleep" or "ignoring" Gaza. As of August 5, 2014,  81% of the American public has seen at least "a little" coverage of Gaza on television, 79% have seen something online, 79% have seen something in newspapers, and 80% have seen something on social media. 

The idea that support for the "other side" is based only on baseless propaganda is also out of touch with reality. Smart, educated, experienced, and highly informed analysts from across the political spectrum concur that the causes and effects of the current violence in Gaza are not black and white. While there are clear cases on both sides of wrongdoing, both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate and unaddressed claims too. Those who support the "other side" do so because the conflict is complicated, not because of evil schemes. More importantly, the use of shock language does not create a moral reckoning among supporters of the "other side." Rather, it causes anger, resentment, and fear - the exact drivers of the conflict in the first place.

More concerning, earnestly interested people turn away from discussions of the conflict when it becomes a rhetorical minefield. Rather than engagement, shock activism is breeding reluctant complacency from people who want to help but do not want to offend. This attention drain harms both Israeli and Palestinian civilians who so desperately need and deserve care. While those who use shock language might have good intentions, they are actively harming the chance for all people in the region to obtain safety, freedom, and empowerment.

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