Lately I have been thinking that maybe manners are overrated.
Yesterday, on Twitter, I was having a vigorous yet polite online debate with someone about the right of same-sex couples to adopt. My opponent was unsure about the wisdom of letting gay people raise children, and wanted to see research that children would not be adversely affected by the experience. I was in the process of patiently deploying my arguments when, all of a sudden, someone else who had become furious at my opponent suddenly interjected.
“Fuck off”, he tweeted.
After a short and angry exchange, their conversation ended, and we returned to ours.
Here’s the thing. I was raised to believe that he who loses his temper loses the argument. But every now and then I’m not so sure. As I continued the debate, it rapidly became clear that my opponent wasn’t as interested as I’d hoped in the empirical data that I was offering him. There was ample and recent research, after all, that gay people can raise kids just as well as straight ones. What my opponent seemed to be doing, in the face of the facts, was expressing his discomfort at the rapid pace of social change. Yes, same-sex marriage was absolutely fine; but same-sex adoption just seemed a bit much, a bit too soon.
In my gut I felt rage at the implication that my sexual orientation, of itself, made me less fitting a parent than someone else. Nevertheless, I chose to argue my case with remorseless logic. However, I am not sure what I achieved. I don’t think that I came remotely close to changing his mind. And I fear that my relatively placid tone may have made him feel that this was merely an energetic disagreement, an abstract matter for elegant after-dinner debating contests. I may, in my own way, have enabled an enduring and casual prejudice.
In the hours that followed, I long wondered whether “Fuck off” is sometimes the most eloquent response. Fury can be a tool for progress. It may not score intellectual points, but it may have a greater value in certain cases: it lets people know in the most visceral way of the daily oppressions and disadvantages that people suffer.
This is why, though I can’t bring myself to embrace the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel, I can see its power; and, moreover, its value. Temperamentally, I don’t really do boycotts. My instinct is always to engage in conversation, to drive relentlessly towards consensus. After all, at least these sides are interested in meaningful conversation: as opposed to, say, the bloodbath in Syria, or the situation brewing nastily in Bahrain. The problem with my approach, though, is that it presupposes a desire for social progress, as opposed to what increasingly looks like the eternal delaying tactic of vigorous, polite and elegant after-dinner debates.
By contrast, the academic boycott of Israel represents a “Fuck off”. It represents a refusal to deal in any intellectual way with a state that refuses to address adequately the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. I believe that the longer this refusal continues, the more that the gangrene of anti-Semitism will continue to fester in the wound, taking that land further from a peaceful long-term solution. I have also believed for much of my life that constant engagement in debate is the best way to address this problem. But I look at the urgency with which BDS is being received, at the speed with which it is shaping the public conversation, and increasingly I am not so sure.