The boycott law and bullshit

Carlo Strenger writes:

MK Zeev Elkin, who initiated the boycott law that was passed by the Knesset this Monday, said that the law was not meant to silence people, but to “protect the citizens of Israel.” Elkin’s statement would, in and of itself, not carry much interest, if it didn’t highlight a hallmark of the eighteenth Knesset that is undermining Israel as a liberal democracy step by step.

American philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a much quoted paper titled “On Bullshit” in 1986. In 2005, after George W. Bush was reelected, this paper was re-published as a booklet by Princeton University Press, and became a bestseller. Frankfurt’s philosophical concept of bullshit is of much help in analyzing Elkin’s statement and the current Knesset’s culture.

The Bullshitter’s eye, says Harry Frankfurt, “is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

It seems to me that Elkin’s statement is a precise instance of what Frankfurt means by bullshitting. Elkin tries to generate the impression that calls for boycotts threaten the citizens of Israel. The truth is, of course, that calls to boycott do not threaten anybody in any serious way: they call to exert pressure on Israel to end the occupation; nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore Mr. Elkin is trying to give the impression that his boycott law is not an infringement on the right to free speech, and that it does no harm to Israel’s democracy. That, of course, depends on how we understand democracy. Syria and Iran have regular elections, as did Egypt before Mubarak was toppled. But clearly they are not liberal democracies: there is no freedom of speech; there is no open critical discussion; and there is no clear separation of powers.

Liberal democracy depends not only on institutional structures. It also depends on a culture that values clear speech; coherent, logical argument; and truly critical discussion. This is what philosopher Karl Popper called open society. Because we humans are fallible, errors are unavoidable, and the value of open society is to lower chances to get stuck with falsehoods and wrong strategies, because a truly critical discussion allows for falsification of wrong ideas, for correction of mistakes and for innovation.

Bullshitting, to a certain extent, is an unavoidable facet of political life. But once it goes beyond a certain limit, it endangers open society and liberal democracy. Totalitarianism, as George Orwell showed poignantly, hinges on clouding the mind by polluting our speech. This is precisely what the majority of the eighteenth Knesset and the Netanyahu government have done: they have crossed the line where bullshitting pushes towards totalitarianism.

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