Stridency: The Enemy of Persuasion

After the pool closed at the end of summer, there wasn’t much to do on kibbutz.

During our year in Israel, on a youth movement leadership programme, my group and I spent half the time on an isolated socialist idyll that sustained itself by operating a large plastics factory.

When Autumn arrived, the recreation choices diminished to backgammon, drinking, and reading. My skills in the first two were negligible so, along with a few other like-mindeds, anything that had the printed word on it became a valuable means of not losing our marbles.

In such an environment, what might have been a mildly enlightening read, was transformed into an epiphany that had to be discussed into the early hours of the morning. And it was in this frame of mind, at age 18, that I discovered the feminist author Katie Roiphe.

I’d been a feminist since I was old enough to balance on one leg, and use the other to express displeasure at rude boys in kindergarten; however, Roiphe provided a completely new framework for understanding feminism.

She showed me how certain feminists impose victimhood on females, how men are unfairly cast as villains by virtue of a chromosomal accident, and how a new puritanism was sweeping colleges in the US under the guise of protecting young females. Roiphe strenuously objected to the removal of agency from women – the disempowering of our gender.

My friends and I babbled endlessly about this for a brief period, and then moved on to the next hot thing.

Unbeknown to us, however, an older Australian woman who lived on kibbutz, herself a youth movement graduate, had heard through the grapevine that there was a Roiphist among the programme kids.

A group of us was innocently eating something that was probably not fit for human consumption in the condemned shack which we called home, when, like a tornado of feminist separatist fury, this older Australian burst in.

“Who’s the one that’s been talking about Katie Roiphe?” she demanded.

The cowards I had thought were friends all pointed to me.

“Are you serious?” she screeched. “Are you serious? How can you be talking about that woman? Do you know she defends rape?”

“Er… no she doesn’t…” I stammered.

“YES SHE DOES!”

A lot more was said. I don’t remember the exact words.

I tried to defend Roiphe’s honour, but the woman’s screaming-to-listening ratio just wasn’t in my favour.

When she had finally exhausted herself and stomped away, there was a moment of stunned silence.

Then the laughter began. It was the sort of mirth that racks the whole body and we were in agony by the time we calmed down. For weeks afterwards, whenever someone would mention the tirade, we’d explode into giggling fits all over again.

Mind you, there wasn’t a whole lot else going on, but still, the woman had made quite an impression.

And I can guarantee you that it was not the impression she had wanted to make.

No doubt she was a passionate feminist, devoted to her cause.

But so was I.

She and I would have been able to agree on so much. She may even have been able to convince me that Roiphe was not the answer to all of womankind’s problems.

But we’ll never know.

All I can remember of that day was the fury, the condemnation, the accusations that I supported a proponent of rape. The whole thing sits in my mind as a comic episode – certainly not an example of true debate or intellectual inquiry.

I tell this story because it’s a perfect illustration of what we in the Jewish community, and people of the sub-communities, must remember: when we yell, condemn, or speak stridently, we are never going to convince anybody of our cause.

The people who already agree with us, may feel empowered or vindicated by such behaviours, but that comes at the expense of convincing those who are not already of like mind.

There are also those who will always be implacably opposed to us, to Israel, or to whatever cause we might advocate. Those who are intransigent will not be swayed by stridency either.

By yelling at them, however, we only seek to alienate the undecideds and perhaps to confirm the negative things our opponents say about us.

We also devote utterly wasted energy to the task. When we should be focusing on building relationships and understanding, we instead become distracted by the fight.

Defending our community or sub-communities against unfair attack is simply too important to allow ourselves to be seduced by the instant gratification of a rant.

Rants win no friends, and they do not influence people.

Genuine persuasion is a far subtler art.

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16 Responses to “Stridency: The Enemy of Persuasion”

  1. leon-in- jerusalem says:

    Shana tova and keep punching with your blog, its entertaining and incisive and extremely thought provoking. I know that you’re garnering many followers (in Israel as well) and lets hope that schedules a bright future for the Australian Jewish community.

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  2. Morry says:

    Those kibbutz discussions clearly were not wasted, you do it so very well. That was a wonderful read and insight. Your descriptions transported me back to endless placid kibbutz nights exploring ideas over chunks of watermelon on the lawn in front of my house, or during illegal night paddles in the pool, to the calm moonlit lapping of water. It wasn’t till I moved to Haifa that one lesbian friend quite quickly bacame an entire lesbian/feminist social group. As a heterosexual male I felt very privileged to be adopted and included in everything, and I recognised it as a unique situation which nobody else in the world would have experienced. There was one feminist who was a lovely mother and housewife, you would rarely meet such a kind good-hearted person, yet she was ostracised, mocked and condemned for choosing to be a housewife. It seemed that in an environment that advocated choices for women, one choice was simply not on … you could choose any colour you liked, so long as it was black. Sadly, I was the only person defending her and her right to choose.

    All of that, besides being a lovely walk down memory lane, goes to the issue of tolerance. Truly tolerant people are not strident, they can accept that another thinks differently and don’t have the need for samethink or to be agreed with. There was no judgement in that statement, for there are clearly many things that we shouldn’t tolerate, but we can choose our battles wisely, and, as you say, SJ, reason is far more convincing than bullying.

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  3. I feel, perhaps in part, this topic has arisen because of some of whirl-wind I have brought about recently. Then again maybe it isn’t, and it’s just me being a little sensitive. I get like that at times, because growing up I was always on the outer, just a little different, and often the topic of conversation, or so I thought.

    I might take you on my own little journey. I too was on a kibbutz, briefly, back in 1993, Tzorah to be precise. Nothing of any particular note came out of that visit for me, except that there were two other people with the same surname as me there at the same time, one of whom was my brother. There was definitely no watermelon for me, but I do recall the food was questionable.

    That’s not where the journey starts though. Rewind to about 1979. Finishing primary school, about 10 years old, I started seeing the world around me just a little differently. I started having feelings about boys I had seen around the place, in the school change rooms, at the pool, and other places. I guess I was going through puberty.

    These feelings developed over the years and they had their toll on me. I didn’t know how to date girls because I didn’t know how I should feel toward a girl. It was like trying to feel an emotional attraction to a store mannequin, not very successful. My parents encouraged me to date girls so I gave it my best shot, but those attempts never amounted to more than perhaps a dinner or drink out and a waste of time for both of us.

    Guys around me had girlfriends, girls around me had boyfriends. I had no one. This was my lot until I was 26. I never had a single relationship until I was 26 years old. The reasons behind this are complex and I don’t think I can explain them fully, although I have some thoughts as to why.

    What I didn’t have though was the support around me, from my friends, from my family, from my community. I had everyone around me wanting me to be heterosexual, because that’s what good Jewish boys and girls were. I tried my hardest to fit everyone’s expectations, but it was a struggle.

    I distanced myself from gay people, I distanced myself from anything remotely to do with being gay or being attracted to men, not for religious reasons, because I wasn’t brought up to be religious, well sort of but not in the way religious people consider themselves religious. I was religious enough. I went to shule, I kept Shabbat as best as I knew, I said (and still do, but only for token reasons) the brachot for the wine and challah every other Friday night when I alternated with my brother. I kept milchic and fleishig and pareve foods and cutlery and tea-towels and pots and other stuff separate. I fasted on Yom Kippur, I did all the stuff that I was taught at Sunday School and religious eduction classes at the Jewish day schools I attended. But whatever religion I had in my life, that had no real bearing on how my family and I lived our lives. We weren’t “the real deal” if you know what I mean. We made it up as we went along. A compromise between having one parent who was brought up frum and another who was brought up being a little more pragmatic about life.

    In all of my hiding from myself I tried to hide from everyone around me as well. My parents had strong suspicions I was gay but were unable to broach the topic with me. Perhaps they didn’t want to, perhaps they were scared to. I suspect mostly, they didn’t have the language and the particular skills to. My parents weren’t scared of being different to those around them though. They had made a number of life decisions that put them outside of the community norm on many occasions. But amongst all of the things they did differently to everyone else, the one thing they probably didn’t know how to be different about was to have a gay son.

    And the one thing I didn’t know, in the 16 years between me realising I was attacted to other boys or men and leaving home was that if my father found out I was gay I’d be kicked out of home. I don’t entirely know how I came to that conclusion, but it was probably founded on enough stories of having heard other fathers kicked their gay sons out of home when they found out the embarrassing truth and didn’t want other people to find out. How wrong was I. When I actually did tell my father I was gay I was so overwhelmed with the fact that he actually didn’t want to disown me, but that he told me he still loved me as much as ever (I wish I had heard those words more from him over the years but that’s another story) and wanted to find out more about how to support me as the father of a gay son. He even came to a PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) support meeting with me and met the wonderful Nan McGregor. Now she’s an inspiration and worthy of bottling. :)

    So there was I, shrivelling up on the inside, feeling miserable because I had these feelings I couldn’t express, being constrained by expections of people around me, not having relationships and not having a life. I was locked in a miserable existence for 16 of some of the best years of my life. I was lonely, loveless, ugly, worthless and felt that no one liked me. I guess I was a candidate for suicide, although the only thoughts I had about suicide were in year 11 when I wasn’t getting through my exams, and fortunately that was the only time before I came out that I wanted to kill myself. But I guess I wasn’t too far off having those thoughts because of my sexuality.

    So where is this story going? I don’t really know. I think I wanted to not be strident for a change. To try and show that this Michael Barnett, Noisy Jewish Homo, is actually a real person and with a real story. Maybe a story that someone else can relate to, or take something from. I actually don’t like being strident. Strident sucks. But after being not strident for the last decade and going at things softly and when no one does anything to make a difference, I think about those people who may have lost 16 years of their life, or more and that makes me angry. It makes me angry that people can sit by and let other people in a community in which they belong to and love, experience hurt and suffering on a daily basis. It makes me angry that no one spoke out when I was suffering for 16 years and tried to make a diffence to my life and the life of my family. I was so angry with myself and in my relationship with my father that I didn’t speak to him from the day I turned 20 for another 6 years, and we were living under the same roof. Do you know how painful that was for the whole family?

    Thank you Alex for this topic. I have spoken my story before to many people and I’m used to telling it, but I think I need to tell it more often, for the benefit of those around me, and sometimes even for myself.

    Thank you for listening.

    Michael.

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  4. Morry says:

    Michael, I loved that cold cuts that Tzora served on Shabbat at lunch time, no one else did that. Were they still serving cold cuts in 1993?

    As to your story, you’re right, it does make you more human than angry strident does. It was long, and I read it twice because I couldn’t find mention of one of the most important parts. There were the feelings, the women you didn’t date and the men you would have liked to, but the one thing conspicuous by their absence were friends. Did you not have friends? Of either gender?

    It’s not simply about being strident. SJ is absolutely right, of course, that being strident puts people offside and fails to convince, but just leaving it there would make it far too calculating and smooth. The strident tone comes from the anger and frustration you express above, and it would be wonderful if you could lose that anger. You wrote: “It makes me angry that no one spoke out when I was suffering for 16 years…”, but perhaps you might stop and consider that those people had similar difficulties to yours. You tell us you couldn’t speak out to your family for over twenty years. Is it really so hard to understand others not speaking out because it would be too hard, too embarassing, too painful, too something?

    Truth is it’s really none of my business, beyond that you’ve chosen to share your story and thoughts, but if your life is being driven by anger over your suffering when you were 16, you are wasting an awful lot of precious life. It may be time to let go of the anger, and to advocate the best way I know how, not with hatred and trying to impose guilt, but with a gentler open mind ready to try to see the other side, because that, after all, is what you are yourself asking … when not demanding *grin*

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  5. Morry, I have few recollections of the very brief visit I made to Tzora. I think it was only a few days, now some 16 years ago. My brother, who has always had a lean, athletic build, did return to Australia from a longer visit there in far healthier condition that anyone had ever seen him, so he must have enjoyed the food there.

    The people I call my friends have always been few and far between. For the most part there were two people I had as friends during this time, both of them from outside the Jewish community, although one of them has a Jewish heritage but does not practice being Jewish. I maintain strong friendships with Alex and George to this day. Forming friendships back then was as much a struggle for me as anything else, although I don’t find it much easier these days. It’s just my personality.

    I must concur with Alex/SJ. We all have our anger, and we need to express it. My anger now is based on my experiences as a child but it is not because of it. I am best placed to begin to understand what other similar people are experiencing because of my personal experiences.

    Let me put the question back on you. Do you feel anger when someone paints a swastika on a Jewish building? Do you feel anger when Ahmadinejad wishes Israel to be wiped off the map? Do you feel anger when a suicide bomber walks into a cafe in Jerusalem and blows up innocent people? Do you feel anger when a Jewish teacher sexually abuses Jewish students? Do you feel anger when someone calls you and your children dirty Jews?

    I feel anger because I see people sitting back doing nothing in the face of a terrible predicament. I get angry when I give people evidence of this situation and I get excuses and turned backs. I get angry when I know that this problem can be resolved but people chose to ignore it and bury their heads deeper in the sand. I get angry when people say it’s “their problem” and not “our problem”.

    I had a partner who was an alcoholic. Living with him was not easy and it cost me a lot in the seven and a half years we were together. Whenever I confronted him about his alcoholism he told me that I had a problem with his drinking. He was not able to acknowledge that he had the problem.

    That is the situation I am facing at the moment. I can see the problem. I know how to fix the problem. It’s the people who have the problem who are not able to acknowledge it. And that’s why I am angry.

    Michael.

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  6. Nice little anecdote.

    I happen to agree. On saying that, yelling is fun!
    :)

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  7. Morry says:

    Michael, yes I feel anger, but it is momentary and fleeting. I don’t live in anger, and please don’t misunderstand me, that’s not a criticism, but a concern, because the stress of constant anger is so unhealthy on every level. I do accept that many people disagree with me, that their thinking is irrational and often tainted by bigotry, that there are antisemites and people who demonise Israel, and that perhaps I won’t change them. Whilst I may be driven to try, I don’t feel a burning anger as much as sadness for their irrationality. But then, I’m blessed with many friends, and perhaps that anger is driven by isolation. It is definitely driven by the frustration of expectations not being realised … and perhaps one of the changes needs to be in accepting realistic expectations. Perhaps I’ve simply learned to dissociate emotionally in order to protect myself, and to accept my limitations, though I hope not. Clearly we respond differently, but we also have different problems, but not entirely different, and it may well be that in 2009 Jews are suffering greater vilification than gays … I don’t know, I just know that it has become par for the course in the mainstream media, with Israel, as the Jewish flagship, needing to be sunk. Our own 60 minutes is the most recent conributor.

    Perhaps, SJ, I have spent so long reining in anger, as you suggest, that this has become my natural state. I certainly had a volatile temper as a child. Today I’m known for a calm demeanour, and am never plagued by regrets for lost tempers. I can certainly relate to how good it feels to come away from an antagonistic discussion feeling that the gap has been bridged to some degree, that I’ve made a difference in that person’s life and they’ve made a difference in mine. It seems far more rewarding than having somebody you always totally agree with … there’s so little left to discuss *smile*

    As to your last, SJ, the bullies, those are the ones I’ve learnt to walk away from, the ones I refuse to be drawn into. I don’t need to always win, but I do need to choose my battles. Sometimes, but so very rarely, a battle needs to be fought that you know you can’t win… perhaps that’s what you mean by “certain wrongs that must be faced head on”.

    The trick is indeed in “identifying what exactly one is dealing with”, and that is to be guided by the rational, rather than react in anger. Everywhere I have been, the one truth that has remained immutable is that anger will always prompt an angry response, we must be hardwired that way, whilst calm reason allows people space to stop and think.

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  8. It’s exactly this sort of response, where someone knows what I’m talking about, and yet would rather argue around the issue rather than confront it directly, or point it directly back at me, that I get angry about. It’s that people hear me say “There is a problem in the community” and yet no one acknowledges what I am saying and further if they do acknowledge it, are not prepared to do anything about it because “it’s someone else’s problem”. And that’s where those people are wrong, because it’s not someone else’s problem. It’s your problem. It’s your problem because it’s your family, friends and community, or even yourself, who are the ones who suffer when there is no support and tragic outcomes. I’d like to say “just you wait…” but that’s mean.

    Does anyone care if people hurt?

    Does anyone care if people suffer?

    Does anyone want to address the problem?

    If you do, what are you prepared to do about it?

    Michael.

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  9. Did I raise my voice? My response was typed in a cool, calm, collected frame of mind. Can’t you tell? If I want to yell I WILL RAISE MY VOICE, which I didn’t do in my reply.

    Why don’t you ask the question why no one bothers to actually express any concern, at a minimum, or the slightest inkling that they really take this seriously, which you just said is “very, very important”?

    Michael.

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  10. TheSadducee says:

    Michael – I’m unsure what exactly your pushing for here?

    Are you asking the Orthodox religious establishment to not criticise homosexual sexual activity as sinful?
    Are you seeking Aleph membership in the JCCV?
    Are you seeking some form of public leadership criticism of bigots like those on AJN Watch?
    Are you looking for Orthodox Jews (people like myself incidentally) to repudiate Rabbis for stating their own religious beliefs?

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  11. Morry says:

    Michael, I was confronting the issue, it was just a different issue to yours. The topic I was addressing was “Stridency: The Enemy of Persuasion”. If you refer above you’ll notice it’s the topic of discussion. Perhaps the problem is that you are so locked into a single issue and into what you want to hear that you choose to hear nothing outside that.

    As to your issue, within the current context of discussion, change in societies is a very slow process. In terms of gays, if you look where we were 40 years ago, you will see we’ve come a long way, but a lot still needs to change. If you look where we were in terms of women, you’ll see we’ve come a long way, but a lot still needs to change. If you look in terms of Jews … well, not much has changed, and undoubtedly many are grateful that there is at least one perennial they can rely on.

    You, Michael are a spokesperson, and your anger and abusive language can put your cause back decades. It’s the difference between “he’s a nice bloke, perhaps I’ve misjudged gays” and “that’s exactly why I don’t like gays”. Am I putting this bluntly enough?

    Clearly the issue of Gay Rights tops your list of priorities, and rightfully so, with the plight of the Tibetans further down your list if it features at all, despite Tibetan suffering. We all have our list of priorities where we put our energies, and gay rights may just not top everybody’s list, which is not the same as saying it’s not an important issue for very many people. You clearly want it to top everyone’s list, and get angry and frustrated that it doesn’t. I think that unrealistic. So many people I know have single issues on which they’re fixated, in the same way you are. For many it’s family to whom they devote every bit of their energy, and they have absolutely no interest in anything remotely political. That is simply the way of the world.

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  12. mikeybear69 says:

    1. I am asking the community to take seriously the issue of intolerance of and hatred toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) Jews. I want the community to stand up to it with the same force and zero-tolerance that it does for anti-semitic intolerance, Holocaust rhetoric and other hate crimes. It is just as serious an issue.

    2. I am asking the community to understand that intolerance of homosexuality significantly increases the likelihood of suicidal behaviour in same-sex attracted people, to understand that this affects everyone in the community, and that it is not a “gay” problem.

    3. I am NOT seeking membership of the JCCV for Aleph Melbourne, as I have already stated on this blog in several other places.

    4. I leave it up to everyone else to determine how they deal with their religious beliefs AFTER they have dealt with 1. and 2.

    I think that’s pretty clear.

    Michael.

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  13. Sisu says:

    I think people are taking the issues pertaining to sexuality very seriously – there wouldn’t be this debate if they weren’t. As an outsider looking in (albeit gay myself, so I have some parallels to do with visibility and acceptance), it seems that the Jewish community is as much cultural as it is religious. And I don’t think that there has been one contributor who has not accepted that same-sex attracted Jews should not have a place at the cultural table (at least not here at the SJ blog – it does seem to be happening elsewhere). But some people have bought up the religious aspect, which is a fair enough commentary as it is going to be a part of the equation.

    Michael, I would suggest that you pick your battles more judiciously. You aren’t likely to rewrite the Torah but do have an important role in education and maintaining the visibility of gay and lesbian issues in your community.

    Drawing parallels to the wider gay and lesbian community, it seems stridency for certain gay and lesbian issues is de riguer (same sex marriage for example)… no matter how it actually works against their cause. The same can be said for any interest group that loses sight of the big picture and focuses just on themselves…which then brings us to many of Alex’s posts within this blog.

    Michael, there is a middle ground that might not be as satisfying to take, but which will in the end get you to where you want to go.

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  14. sensiblejew says:

    Leon, thank you for your lovely message.

    Morry, thank you for your own trip down memory lane. What an extraordinary story! It seems that you and I may occasionally differ on details, but when it comes to the big picture items – tolerance and reason – we are most certainly in agreement.

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  15. sensiblejew says:

    Michael, thank you for telling us your story. Those of us outside the GLBT community often forget the isolation and angst you experience.

    Morry, most of us are angry about something. What I’m learning is that just because I feel angry about something, that doesn’t mean expressing the anger is the best way to advance my argument. And I’m discovering that the discipline of reining in anger is surprisingly cathartic. The moderation of my tone actually impacts on the underlying feelings. And there’s nothing more gratifying than finding common ground with someone whose views might initially have seemed diametrically opposed to mine. That, in itself, is quite a balm.

    On the other hand, there are times when concilliation is impossible. There are certain wrongs that must be faced head on – at least initially. A certain class of bully, for example, will see attempts at rapprochement as weakness. The trick is in identifying what exactly one is dealing with.

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  16. sensiblejew says:

    Michael, I gotta call it as I see it: Morry has consistently argued in a polite, considerate manner and has shown good faith at all times. I don’t always agree with him, but I always admire his commitment to civilised discourse.

    You, on the other hand, seem determined to pick a fight here, and I can not understand why.

    There are plenty of readers who agree with your cause and who would otherwise support you, but your tone discourages them. It’s a real shame because your cause is very, very important.

    Lots of people want to address the problem. But no one wants to get yelled at. It’s that simple. If you want support, you really need to rethink your entire MO.

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