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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Don’t debate the debate

Published: December 7, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

I saw a Facebook event for a lecture titled “Brandeis v. Yale Public Debate: Should Israel Assassinate Iranian Nuclear Scientists?” Upon seeing the invitation, I honestly thought little of it. Being on the debate circuit, you become somewhat desensitized as you are exposed to so many different ideas.

After two and a half years debating, I have come to feel that almost no topic is taboo. In my time debating, I have argued topics ranging from contractual necrophilia (don’t ask) to the South’s secession from the Union in 1860 (bitter memories with this case). This Facebook event, however, elicited an outraged response from some and I feel that it is important to to explore why people found it so offensive. This event is not only acceptable, but is indeed important to have. While I am a member of the Brandeis debate team, I do not represent the team, but rather am speaking as an individual. What follows is merely my take on events.

Soon after the creation of the Facebook event, people started commenting on the event wall, stating that the debate was offensive. Some simply said that it was offensive, while others actually pointed out ways in which it could be retooled to make it better. The core idea that I got though, was that it was ridiculous to have an event at Brandeis in which anyone would be defending assassinations of nuclear scientists. This feeling could hail from a variety of sources.

I would, however, say that it boils down to a mentality against intervention in general and particularly the neo-imperialist interventions of Western countries and their allies in the affairs of other nations. Furthermore, there is the feeling that it is wrong to kill in general and particularly wrong to kill civilians who do not have explicit ties to military operations.

While I respect these criticisms, I still feel that the event is acceptable. The core premise behind any debate is that there is a rational argument for each side. One can look at a question and decide that they agree more with one side—perhaps passionately so—and yet this kind of assessment does not deal with rationality. In order to figure out if an idea is rational, you only need to establish whether or not a reasonable person could understand the argument in favor of it.

In the case of this public debate, people were offended by one side and immediately claimed that that side was irrational. They, however, should have thought more about how one could justify the point of view that they disagreed with so much. While I am personally against assassinations of nuclear scientists, there is a rationale for it. Someone in the Israeli government could look at the level of uranium enrichment in Iran and decide it is likely that Iran is producing nuclear weapons. Therefore, the argument follows, one civilian assassination would be acceptable for the purpose of preserving the lives of many other civilians who could die on both sides in the event of a nuclear conflict. No one has to agree with this rationale and, in fact, I call on people to argue against it. But no one can deny that it is there and that there is a rational explanation for it.

Furthermore, this event will help further Brandeis’ path of acceptance of a wide range of ideas. People have been offended by visiting guests such as Noam Chomsky and yet the campus survived. The reason is that since so many ideas have the potential to offend, it is infeasible to avoid offending someone without constraining our dialogue to the point that we only hear the most moderate, agreeable ideas possible. Rather than try to make everyone happy, we should feel comfortable putting out extreme viewpoints and creating an open forum in which people can argue against ideas with which they disagree. This not only makes everyone feel that their opinion is welcome, but it furthermore creates the most stimulating intellectual environment possible, with everyone testing their ideas against polar opposites.

When they complained, many people automatically assumed that their viewpoint was correct. Yet the mere fact that a significant argument ensued shows that they may have underestimated opposition to their ideas.

The fact remains that this is something the Israeli government is doing. Obviously someone finds it rational, or it would not be happening. It is crucial to have a dialogue to explore the reasons why it is still occurring even despite the fact that many people find it abhorrent. If someone disagrees with the action, it is only through understanding the other side and rhetorically clashing with it directly that he can show the efficacy of his point of view.

I ask people to not discount the legitimacy of an idea on face value because of their visceral reactions to it. Just as I was willing to argue fervently against contractual necrophilia and did not get up and leave the room disgusted and angry, I would ask any person who was offended by this idea to attend the event and respectfully make your point of view heard during the discussion portion.