Letter: Socratic discussion: frank but ultimately a sign of respect

Re: “Just rude or talking truth?” (Oct. 9): In commenting on my question-and-answer period following the showing of “The Case for Israel” at Yale on Wednesday night, both writers failed to describe the unusual format. Those who attended the event can attest to the fact that because of the controversial and emotional nature of the Israel Palestine conflict, I requested that critical and hostile questioners be given the first opportunity to speak, that they need not ask a question but could make a comment and that they be given an opportunity for a follow-up comment as well. It was a format designed for active dialogue and controversy. Moreover, it was I who insisted on calling on the hostile questioners who then complained to the News.

Yes, I interjected my views into some of their lengthy comments. I always do that. It is my Socratic style of teaching and conversation. Some may consider that rude. I consider it respectful. I take students seriously. I treat them as adults. I refuse to pander. The end result is that all views are fully aired, as they were Wednesday.

Other speakers simply allow the questioners to go on and on, then they praise them in a pandering manner and avoid answering directly. This may seem respectful but it is the ultimate put-down.

I will continue to conduct my discussions in a Socratic manner. Those who disapprove need not participate. But don’t expect to make hostile comments and get a free pass if you can’t persuasively respond to contrary assertions.

Alan Dershowitz

Cambridge, Mass.

Oct. 9

The writer, a 1962 graduate of the Yale Law School, is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and spoke at “The Case for Israel” at Yale last Wednesday.


  • Yalie in europe

    Which is more rude: Having an open and frank debate in New Haven between Alan Dershowitz and Palestinian partisans or
    Palestinian partisans in the US being quiet when fellow Palestinian partisans blow themselves up in a pizza hut populated by Jewish teenagers in Jerusalem or disco in Tel Aviv?
    Which is more rude: Palestinians jumping for joy in the West Bank and Gaza on 9/11 after 3000 Americans were killed or Palesitnians in the US remaining silent against the murder, the hate, the intolerance??
    Where were they after the bus bombings in London, the train bombings in Madrid, the hotel bombings in Mumbai?
    People get maimed and killed by Muslim terrorists, and those who criticize Dershowitz turn the other cheek, so to speak, when it comes to murder committed in the name of Allah.

  • hbc

    Socrates asked questions rather than “interject his views,” and he was unfailingly courteous, relying on the content of what he asked, rather than a beligerent manner, to make his point.

  • not an american

    Absolutely! Second that, hbc.

    Those that call upon ancient ideals like Socratic discussion to justify their manipulation techniques are the most dangerous affront to the failing democracy, since they call such discussions democratic.

    More to the crux of the matter, I find the comment by “yalie in europe” to reflect the truth but to be irrelevant to the matter. Extremist views need not be taken into account when the greater good of any population (which is be definition -not being militant- pacifist) is into question. And this is Gaza, among other oppressed groups that occupy more or less of the same spotlight.

    Finally, Dershowitz is a gifted speaker, an expert of manipulating an already biased audience, given the context of the speech. Instead of giving equal opportunities to case studies he applied double standards to the sufferings of both peoples comparing the incomparable and presenting the suffering of the Palestinians as a reparation for the Holocaust.

    I am disgusted to have been there to witness this insult to my university’s supposed ideals.

  • other issues?

    Thank you, YDN, for making this entirely about the conduct of the dialogue; for limiting the spectrum of issues discussed (that’s what journalism’s for?).

    If we may enumerate the arguments made by the more critical article (see under “RUDE”–thank you YDN):

    –Body paragraphs 1&2: criticism of film elements
    –3: treatment of Goldstone (both a criticism of conduct and of argumentative techniques)
    –4,5,6: discussion of a “dangerous relativism”
    –7-8: conduct during questioning (though NOT just limited to criticizing his interruption)
    –9: criticism of the Warsaw analogy (touching again on relativism)

    As we see here, what Dershowitz today describes as the “Socratic method” (duly corrected by “hbc”) only addresses a small portion of the critical response to his presentation. Why does Dershowitz not comment on these other issues, i.e. the criticisms of his arguments themselves?

  • An Israeli Perspective

    Dershowitz doesn’t respond to the substance because he, like most American Jews, and like many Israelis, cannot engage on the facts of the occupation, on the foundation of my country on the ethnically cleansed land of another people, on the systematic violence and persecution against our Palestinians citizens.

    Dershowitz, saying you are critical does not make it so. Invoking Socrates doesn’t change the fact that your wicked attempts at humor to a room full of Zionists are, substantively and ideologically, nothing more than a Jewish, anti-Arab regurgitation of Glenn Beck-style rantings.

    Dershowitz, you and your friends are a disgrace to Jews and Israelis the world over.

  • Hieronymus

    Y’all got yer pan’ies inna wad o’er this: Dershowitz, a classic liberal (which, these days, looks like a conservative) has the right idea.

    Pansies before Panzers.