Monday, February 9, 2009

On Having an Opinion, and Publicizing One

Well, it looks like I'm getting flak for that previous post: do you mean to say, Yaacov, that one needs truly to be an expert and know the right languages before having an opinion? So here's some clarification:

First, there's a difference between having an opinion and publicizing it in a public forum, such as the BBC. The larger the forum, I'd argue, the greater care one ought to take when expressing one's opinion. Yes, I stand by that - and the BBC is one of the most public of forums the world can offer, and it even comes with a mantle of respectability that was acquired, sometimes at great price, over generations.

Second, if you read my response, it contained a twist: Not only was I castigating the ignorance of the BBC person, who lacks the qualifications to educate us on her topic; I was also saying that even after I had spent something like 15 years on acquiring the qualifications, some experts still felt I was wrong (and they may have been right).

Third, I pointed to the silliness of her methodology: in order to say something about the Israelis, she asked some Palestinians.

I was not saying one must have a PhD in order to have an educated opinion, nor that academia is necessarily better at reaching the truth than journalism. Actually, academia is often a poor way - look at Prof. Juan Cole. And journalism can be a very reasonable way for understanding reality - keep in mind the number of times I have praised Avi Issacahroff, a journalist who really knows what he's talking about.

That was my point. That some people take the time, acquire the languages, and make the effort - a never-ending one, by the way - to become experts. Other people don't. The first group are worth listening to, whether we like their opinions or not. The second are harmless if they talk to themselves, and an affront to our intelligence if they pontificate from a public stage.

To Shaul who reproves me for doing the same, my response is that I try not to. At times I link to things other people write, but as a general rule, I talk about the things I've acquired some expertize about: Jewish things, German things, American things. I'm told the Spanish are virulent antisemites these days: yet I haven't written about this, because I lack the language, the background and the context; so I leave that to others. Nor, to my best recollection, have I written about the Iranians, the Kurds, the Turks, or the Iraqis, even though they all touch upon the story I do tell. The two exceptions are the Palestinians and the Islamists. But even then, I try to be careful. Not knowing Arabic, the most I can say about the Islamists is that according to what I can see and read, they have patterns of cognition and behavior which resemble earlier patterns I actually do know a lot about, as an expert. As for the Palestinians, I really don't know what makes them tick, but unlike the BBC lady, I've been watching them from close up for my entire life, I read lots about them that comes from experts who know more than I, I read translations of things they say - and after all that, I try to limit my statements about them to what I feel competent to say.

It's a free world (part of it, though not the Gazan part), and people can say what they will. Even BBC folks can. But by putting themselves in the public square, they also put themselves up to our scrutiny - and to our derision, if justified.

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