Why It’s Okay That Politicians Flip-Flop

“When Did I Say That?”

Countless times I’ve stepped off the bima, and a congregant has come to me puzzled.

“Nice sermon, Rabbi.”

“Thanks,” I say, waiting for the but.  There is always a ‘but’.

“But, a few weeks ago I though you said the opposite.”

I scan my memory.  Nothing.  Who is this lady? Who asked her to pay attention?  I thought our tacit agreement was that rabbi talks and people politely sit, and then the service continues.

Finally, I ask, “What did I say a few weeks ago.”  After being reminded, I say, “And I meant that too.”

We often say contradictory things… and politicians, as the word suggests (representing the polis – the people, citizens), and for better and worse, are no different from the rest of us. We change what we say from moment to moment for a number of reasons.  We’re all flip-floppers.  First, most conversations we have are not about conveying a truth or a fact. If human conversation was that simple, we would speak almost exclusively in lists and bullet-points. In fact, most of human conversation is about making a connection, or at least something more elusive than “truth”. This is an idea gleaned from Kamran Nazeer’s remarkable book, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism.

This is why a teenager, in describing a surprising anecdote to her friend, can string together twenty sentences in a row without taking a breath and at breakneck speed pepper in between the question, “…You know what I mean?” a few times, and her friend, “Like, totally does.” Conversation may very well be more about tone and intension than content. If you know the other person well enough, even if they say the wrong thing, you know what they mean.

In the Talmud (Berachot 42b) Rabbi Abaye was seen saying a blessing over each cup of wine he drank at the Shabbat table – implying that he held the opinion that one blessing at the beginning was not enough (which is the general practice). So Rabbi Isaac ben Josef asked him about this, “So I guess you don’t hold by the rule that one blessing covers the blessing for Shabbat and any subsequent cups of wine during the meal?!” To which Abaye replied, “ I changed my mind.”

“I changed my mind…” From the context it seems that Abaye simply changed his mind about wine, first he planned on only having the one cup, but since he then latter wanted a second cup with the meal, and therefore didn’t have that second (or third, or fourth) cup in mind, he needed to say another blessing.  Flip-flopper!!

This seems to be a question of personal preference but not of law… Can one simply change one’s mind in more substantive things?

Second, context changes everything.
One of the most common phrases in the Shulchan Aruch, the great compendium of Jewish Law is the phrase of the introduced in explaining changes in law and practice between the basic text, and the Ashkenazi variations: B’medinot Elu, U’Bazman H’Zeh, “In these land, and in this day and age, we do things differently.” And with that the idea of context, the reality that is lived and is understood to be fluid takes a guiding role in shaping Jewish law. Bob Dylan sang that “the times they are a changing,” and he was right. If you haven’t read his most recent Rolling Stone interview, you’ve gotta try – He argued that ‘you can’t change your present, nor the future, but you could change your past,” (bizarre, but provocative).  Nonetheless, context, especially time, especially time, changes everything.

Context is Everything…
The late PLO leader,Yaser Arafat, was once caught on tape saying something impolitic about Israel. “That’s not fair,” he suggested, “I said that in Arabic! To an Arab audience!”

The Daily Show has turned the “you said this, but then you said that” into an art form that “real” news organizations are using competing video clips more and more. Where once the subtleties of context was understood, maybe even celebrated, now it’s the political kiss of death, and context is most often left on the ‘news’ room’s cutting room floor. No wonder political punditry so often feels so homogenized and bland.

If You Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?

The Observer Effect, whether applied to Physics or Psychology, or Politics, or Economics, suggests that mere fact of observing an effect has an effect on that which is being observed. The truth about a specific economic sanction, or a large stimulus, or a large scale public health policy, is that we don’t really know until we try it, and the likelihood is that tweaks or a change of direction altogether will be needed. The idea that a person’s words have to be spoken like the Book or Proverbs, or the Art of War, each sentence a golden and impermeable ‘Truth’, is impossible. There were Hassidic masters who forbade the printing of their talks. Sure facts matter, and so is honesty, but something about the power of context dies a little when it can be fact-checked.

Changing what one says because it’s expedient is disingenuous and usually people can tell. So, that’s not what I’m thinking about. Politically speaking, I am less concerned about a modification of one’s position on a specific topic – changing times and changing context require it – I am more concerned about a consistency of character, and honesty about why a person changed position. Let the reporters ask, “Why did you say ‘X’ this week and ‘not X’ before that?” Let us hear them when they explain the change of context and the necessary development of their ideas.

If in a fit of honesty a politician says, “I changed my mind,” let us not freak out.  Let’s just ask a question.
“You know what I mean?”

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