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An article donated by
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

About "Yes, But..." responses like:
"Yes .... is horrible. But they ...."

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I have been reading Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book "Antisemitism Here and Now". It is a thought-provoking book. I hope many will read it. 1 Unfortunately, I suspect, those who would most benefit from reading it, won’t.

On page 79 and 80 she lists four categories of antisemites: the extremist, the enabler, the dinner party, and the clueless. I think this book can help all of us become more aware of how our words are viewed or understood by others. I also hope that people can begin to see that the same tactics that are used by antisemites are also used against homosexuals, transgender persons, and other marginalized groups.


On page 115 she discusses "yes, but" responses to complexing problems, using the experience of Salmon Rushdie and the fatwa called down upon him for his book "The Satanic Verses." 2

In regards to Rushdie, some of the "yes, but" responses were like this:

"Yes, it is horrible: the call for a fatwa. But he brought this on himself by blaspheming Islam."

This kind of response places some of the blame for what happened on the victim. We have seen it used for years against women who get raped or beaten:

"Yes what happened to her was horrible but she shouldn’t have been drinking alcohol," or "she shouldn’t have been wearing those clothes," or "she shouldn’t have been been out jogging in that neighborhood," or the most egregious in my mind: "she should have kept her legs together and not had sex."

Another example cited were the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and the responses they elicited:

Yes they had the right to draw and publish the cartoons, but they were wrong for showing such insensitivity.

I confess I was a fence sitter (what Deborah Lipstadt might call the "Dinner Party" person) on this issue -- condemning the violence but also thinking that people should try to show more consideration for others feelings.

As a society, we still haven’t addressed this issue of whether there should be some limits placed on uncivil discourse and behavior. I am fully aware of the problems on many college campuses over who should or shouldn’t be allowed to speak or participate in a symposium or other forum. Political correctness has run amuk. But, having the right to do or say something doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do or say.

When I was a college undergraduate I was an Environmentalist and Animal Rights supporter who frequently got into trouble. I pointed out that spiking trees (which can kill or maim a logger) as a way to save an old growth forest was WRONG. I pointed out "liberating" lab animals by setting them loose outside the lab was WRONG because the animals couldn’t survive on their own. Outside, it would be far more humane to kill them outright than to set them loose knowing they will succumb to the cold or starve to death.

There are at least two sides to issues. People who are self-righteously sure about their position don’t want to hear what others friends and foes might have to say.

We need to have an in-depth discussion about respecting and balancing other people’s "sensibilities", free speech, political correctness and incorrectness!

I am reminded of a conversation I had one day with an evangelical Christian who was trying to convince me that Christianity was the only TRUE religion. I asked him if he knew anything about the other world religions or had ever read their sacred texts. He replied no; to do so in his mind would be to commit spiritual adultery. I confess that comment left me speechless. When I regained my wits I managed to say that IF there is any truth to his beliefs they won’t be harmed by learning about other people’s beliefs AND doing so might actually help confirm his beliefs and give him information to use to strengthen his arguments. IF on the other hand he learns that there is something wrong with his beliefs it can only help make him a better person.

This same argument applies to college students afraid of hearing something that they disagree with! Lipstadt pointed out the "yes, but" response is an attempt to rationalize an action. By this she means it is an attempt to say yes they were wrong but here is why they did it. It is an attempt to excuse or justify another person’s behavior. I agree.

But…..I think "Yes, But" responses are also used in other ways, some of which I mentioned earlier:

Yes it is good to want to save old growth trees but it is wrong to kill a logger to do so.

And I think it is really important to try to understand how the "yes, but" response is being used and not just dismiss it as a rationalization.

I think some people use this response when they find themselves caught in the middle and are honestly unsure (morally confused) about how the case should be handled. I call these folks "fence sitters." Lipstadt might place these folk in her "Dinner Party" category.

Sometimes people aren’t clear in their own minds about what is right or wrong.

Sometimes people have never been taught how to question, think about, and analyze moral issues, and show their confusion with their response.

For some on one side of the issue the morality of the situation is clear. There is no question in their minds about what is right or wrong.

Instead of trying to help the fence sitter sort out the moral dilemma/complexities of an issue, they condemn the fence sitter for not seeing the issue as clearly as they do. In both cases the fence sitter needs help sorting through the moral complexities, not condemnation or accusations.

Sometimes I think those who are the most virulent and self-righteous, those who are the first to shout down the opposition, do so because they know their position is on shaky ground and can’t be defended.

I think there are also two other ways "yes, but" responses are used! I will address these below.

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Part 2 "Yes, but:"

In part 1 above, I introduced people to Deborah Lipstadt’s book " Antisemitism Here and Now" and how "yes, but" responses are used. Here are two more ways these responses are used in arguments.

One we see all the time with children. The mother said you hit your sister, and the child replies yes but she hit me first! My mother’s response to me was just because someone else does something doesn’t make it right for you to do the same thing!

Another common response is "two wrongs don’t make a right"!

The child’s reasoning is a twisted version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what they have done unto you!

We saw this type of response recently in regard to the Covington Catholic High School boys and the confrontations with others on the mall in Washington during the "March for Life" rally. Yes the boys were wrong, but they were provoked.

We should respond: Yes they were provoked but this doesn’t excuse their response. They should have walked away. This is also called "Tit for Tat" reasoning, or morality/justice. We see this frequently between Israeli forces and Palestinians. Sometimes Palestinians throw rocks (sometimes they launch mortar shells) and Israeli forces respond with bullets and/or their own mortar shells. This leads to an endless cycle of "tit for tat" actions and counteractions. The argument over who did what first becomes ridiculous with no way out for either side. Unless that is one side has the moral courage to decline to respond in kind or to do the other one better.

A variation of this response is: yes but what they did was worse! Both of these are also rationalizing responses but it is the tit for tat nature of this kind of response that deserves to be -- and must be -- handled differently.

Sheakespeare taught us about this kind of situation in Romeo and Juliet. The Prince responded by calling for a plague on both their houses. Whether it is the Capulets and the Montagues, the Hatfields and McCoys or Israelis and Palestinians, the outcome is the same: a never ending cycle of violence from tit for tat responses with many innocents caught in the cross fire.

There is a third way of looking at "yes, but" responses. I remember listening to Paul Harvey on the radio and his "The Rest of the Story" episodes many years ago. In these talks he pointed out that there are two (or sometimes more) sides to the stories he was about to tell. Before we pass judgment, we should take a look at all sides of an issue.

Yes that is part of the story but here is another part of the story: I frequently use this kind of a yes, but response in an attempt to get people to look at the broader issues, to see how the other side views an issue. AND, I frequently get attacked for doing so. People rarely want to hear "the rest of the story" especially when it disagrees with their self-righteous position, bias, or prejudice! Some refuse to admit that the other side might see things quite differently and that they might have a legitimate complaint.

In regards to the Israeli/Palestinian problems, I think both sides have legitimate complaints. Both sides respond with a tit for a tat, and use this to justify their response. There will never be peace in the Middle East until the Palestinian problem is honestly and fairly addressed. This is NOT being antisemitic.

Did anyone catch what I did in the above sentence? I said the "Palestinian problem". From the Palestinian point of view this implies that they are at fault, that they are to blame for the problem. I should have said -- as I did in the first sentence -- the Israeli/Palestinian problem. Both sides, in my opinion, equally share the blame for the mess they are in. We all need, this includes me, to choose our words carefully and wisely.

We are seeing a great number of "yes, but" responses from politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, and every-day folk these days. It was one of the arguments people caught in the banking/derivatives scandals a few years back used to justify their behavior: The others in the industry were doing it, and so, if they wanted to be competitive, they also had to do it. Yes I did it but so did everyone else! This is a version of the child’s response combined with rationalization.

There are too many instances of those defending President Trump using "yes, but" arguments to list here. You can catch them every night on the evening news.

I hope people listening to the news and talking heads will start seeing yes, but responses for what they are:

1: Yes he/she was wrong, but this is why they did it

a. is this the response of a rationalizer, making excuses for someone else’s behavior.

b. is this the response of a fence sitter, unsure of what they should think.

2: Yes, but he/she did it too, or what he/she did was worse justifying/rationalizing their own behavior leading to an endless cycle of tit for tat.

3: Yes, that is one side of the story but here is the other side -- an opening for a more rounded or fuller discussion -- possibly leading to a better understanding of the complexities of an issue.

Each case deserves a different treatment and response from us.

I want to make one point absolutely clear--threats of violence and violent actions are WRONG no matter what the provocation. It is WRONG to attempt to silence free speech with threats and acts of violence. Honor killings of women are WRONG. Physical abuse of women, homosexuals, transgender persons, people of other faiths or of no faith or of a different political party is WRONG.

Getting into a fight (not just a shouting match, but a physical fight) at a political rally or demonstration with someone who holds a position different from yours is WRONG.

Driving a car into a crowd of people is WRONG. Shooting up a synagogue or school or a grocery store or into a crowd of people is WRONG. If someone from your political or religious persuasion acts violently it is WRONG no matter what the provocation. Spiking trees to stop the cutting of old growth forests is WRONG. Road rage is WRONG. Cops killing unarmed black men is WRONG, and it is WRONG for anyone to kill or threaten a cop. Intentionally damaging someone’s property is WRONG. Killing or threatening abortion providers or workers in family planning clinics is WRONG.

Words calling for violence or acts of violence are WRONG. They are never the solution to our problems.

Antisemitism, racism and prejudice wherever it pops up is WRONG and need to be called out for what it is. No ifs, ands or BUTS.

P.S. If you aren’t sure what qualifies as antisemitism read the book!

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Deborah E. Lipstadt, "Antisemitism: Here and now," Scribe Publications (2019-JAN) Available in Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover and Audiobook formats. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

  2. book cover Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (2008-MAR). Available in Kindle, Paperback, Hardcover, Audiobook, and Audio CD formats. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2019-MAR-08
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