On Grabbing the Third Rail

Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, February 22, 2010

{snip} 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.” {snip}

1. Think Through Your “Media Strategy” before You Go Public. {snip} 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? {snip}

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 {snip}, but at other times you may have to explain why events aren’t conforming to your position. {snip}

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{snip} It always works to your advantage when opponents act in an uncivil fashion, because it causes almost everyone else to swing your way

{snip} 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? {snip}

6. The More Compelling Your Arguments Are, The Nastier the Attacks Will Be {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

One more thing: if you’re taking on 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. {snip}

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. {snip} 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. {snip} 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. {snip}

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