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On Grabbing the Third Rail

Published by on April 13, 2010

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by Stephen M. Walt

LAST WEEK a colleague who has been facing repeated and unfair attacks in the media and the blogosphere (for making arguments that cut against the conventional wisdom) sent around an email asking a number of friends and associates (including me) for advice on how to deal with the attacks. Having been smeared in similar fashion myself, I circulated a list of the lessons I learned from my own experience with “grabbing the third rail.” A few of the recipients thought the list was helpful, so I decided to revise it and post it here. If any readers are contemplating tackling a controversial subject — and I hope some of you will — you’ll need to be ready should opponents decide not to address your arguments in a rational fashion, but to attack your character, misrepresent your position, and impugn your motives instead. If they take the low road, here are ten guidelines for dealing with it. (The advice itself is politically neutral: it applies regardless of the issue in question and no matter which side you’re on.)

1. Think Through Your “Media Strategy” before You Go Public. If you are an academic taking on a “third rail” issue for the first time, you are likely to face a level of public and media scrutiny that you have never experienced before. It is therefore a good idea to think through your basic approach to the media before the firestorm hits. Are you willing to go on TV or radio to defend your views? Are there media outlets that you hope to cultivate, as well as some you should avoid?

Are you open to public debate on the issue, and if so, with whom? Do you plan a “full-court” media blitz to advance your position (an article, a book, a lecture tour, a set of op-eds, etc.), or do you intend to confine yourself to purely academic outlets and let the pundits take it from there? There is no right answer to these questions, of course, and how you answer them depends in good part on your own proclivities and those of your opponents. But planning ahead will leave you better prepared when the phone starts ringing off the hook and there’s a reporter — or even someone like Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart — on the other end. Don’t be afraid to listen to professional advice here (such as the media office at your university or research organization), especially if it’s your first time in the shark tank. It’s also a good idea to let your superiors know what’s coming; deans, center directors, and college presidents don’t like surprises.

2. You Have Less Control Than You Think. Although it helps to have thought about your strategy beforehand, there will always be surprises and you will have to think on your feet and improvise wisely. Sometimes real-world events will vindicate your position and enhance your credibility (as the 2006 Lebanon War did for my co-author and myself), but at other times you may have to explain why events aren’t conforming to your position. A vicious attack may arrive from an unexpected source and leave you reeling, or you may get an unsolicited endorsement that validates your views. Bottom line: life is full of surprises, so be ready to roll with the punches and seize the opportunities.

3. Never Get Mad. Let your critics throw the mud, but you should always stick to the facts, especially when they are on your side. In my own case, many of the people who attacked me and my co-author proved to be unwitting allies, because they lost their cool in public or in print, made wild charges and ad hominem arguments, and generally acted in a transparently mean-spirited manner. It always works to your advantage when opponents act in an uncivil fashion, because it causes almost everyone else to swing your way

Of course, it can be infuriating when critics misrepresent your work, and nobody likes to have malicious falsehoods broadcast about them. But the fact that someone is making false charges against you does not mean that others are persuaded by the malicious rhetoric. Most people are quite adept at separating facts from lies, and that is especially true when the charges are over-the-top. In short, the more ludicrous the charges, the more critics undermine their own case. So stick to the high ground; the view is nicer up there.

4. Don’t Respond to Every Single Attack. A well-organized smear campaign will try to bury you in an avalanche flurry of bogus charges, many of which are simply not worth answering. It is easier for opponents to dream up false charges than it is for you to refute each one, and you will exhaust yourself rebutting every critical word directed at you. So focus mainly on answering the more intelligent criticisms while ignoring the more outrageous ones, which you should treat with the contempt they deserve. Finally, make sure every one of your answers is measured and filled with the relevant facts. Do not engage in ad hominem attacks of any sort, no matter how tempting it may be to hit back.

5. Explain to Your Audience What Is Going On. When refuting bogus charges, make it clear to readers or viewers why your opponents are attacking you in underhanded ways. When you are the object of a politically motivated smear campaign, others need to understand that your critics are not objective referees offering disinterested commentary. Be sure to raise the obvious question: why are your opponents using smear tactics like guilt-by-association and name-calling to shut down genuine debate or discredit your views? Why are they unwilling to engage in a calm and rational exchange of ideas? Let others know that it is probably because your critics are aware that you have valid points to make and that many people will find your views persuasive if they get a chance to judge them for themselves.

6. The More Compelling Your Arguments Are, The Nastier the Attacks Will Be. If critics can refute your evidence or your logic, then that’s what they will do and it will be very effective. However, if you have made a powerful case and there aren’t any obvious weaknesses in it, your adversaries are likely to misrepresent what you have said and throw lots of mud at you. What else are they going to do when the evidence is against them?

This kind of behavior contrasts sharply with what one is accustomed to in academia, where well-crafted arguments are usually treated with respect, even by those who disagree with them. In the academic world, the better your arguments are, the more likely it is that critics will deal with them fairly. But if you are in a very public spat about a controversial issue like gay marriage or abortion or gun control, a solid and well-documented argument will probably attract more scurrilous attacks than a flimsy argument that is easily refuted. So be prepared.

7. You Need Allies. Anyone engaged on a controversial issue needs allies on both the professional and personal fronts. When the smearing starts, it is of enormous value to have friends and associates publicly stand up and defend you and your work. At the same time, support from colleagues, friends, and family is critical to maintaining one’s morale. Facing a seemingly endless barrage of personal attacks as well as hostile and unfair criticisms of one’s work can be exhausting and dispiriting, which is why you need others to stand behind you when the going gets tough. That does not mean you just want mindless cheerleaders, of course; sometimes allies help us the most when they warn us we are heading off course.

One more thing: if you’re taking one a powerful set of opponents, don’t be surprised or disappointed when people tell you privately that that they agree with you and admire what you are doing, but never say so publicly. Be realistic; even basically good people are reluctant to take on powerful individuals or institutions, especially when they might pay a price for doing so.

8. Be Willing to Admit When You’re Wrong, But Don’t Adopt a Defensive Crouch. Nobody writing on a controversial and contested subject is infallible, and you’re bound to make a mistake or two along the way. There’s no harm in admitting to errors when they occur; indeed, harm is done when you make a mistake and then try to deny it. More generally, however, it makes good sense to make your case assertively and not shy away from engaging your critics. In short, the best defense is a smart offense, even when you are acknowledging errors or offering a correction. For illustrations of how my co-author and I tried to do this, see here: http://hbpub.vo.llnwd.net/o16/video/olmk/setting_the_record_straight.pdf , and here http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a908660944&db=all , and here http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/A0047.pdf.

9. Challenging Orthodoxy Is a Form of “Asymmetric Conflict”: You Win By “Not Losing.” When someone challenges a taboo or takes on some well-entrenched conventional wisdom, his or her opponents invariably have the upper hand at first. They will seek to silence or discredit you as quickly as they can, so that your perspective, which they obviously won’t like, does not gain any traction with the public. But this means that as long as you remain part of the debate, you’re winning. Minds don’t change overnight, and it is difficult to know how well an intellectual campaign is going at any particular point in time. So get ready for an emotional roller coaster-some days you might think you’re winning big, while other days the deck will appear to be stacked against you. But the real question is: are you still in the game?

The good news is that if you have facts and logic on your side, your position is almost certain to improve over time. It is also worth noting that a protracted debate allows you to refine your own arguments and figure out better ways to refute your opponents’ claims. In brief, think of yourself as being engaged in a “long war,” and keep striving.

10. Don’t Forget to Feel Good about Yourself and the Enterprise in Which You Are Engaged.Waging a battle in which you are being unfairly attacked is hard work, and you will sometimes feels like Sisyphus rolling the proverbial stone endlessly uphill. But it can also be tremendously gratifying. You’ll wage the struggle more effectively if you find ways to keep your spirits up, and if you never lose sight of the worthiness of your cause. Keeping your sense of humor intact helps too; because some of the attacks you will face ar bound to be pretty comical. So while you’re out there slaying your chosen dragon, make sure you have some fun too.

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