The arguments around the latest bout of bloodletting in the Middle East are depressingly predictable. That’s partly because the issues involved are complex and fraught, but there’s also another reason; one that hardly ever gets airtime. It’s got to do with we humans and the way we’re wired. All of us.
It’s not just that we’re genetically predisposed towards loyalty and then conditioned by parents, teachers and sundry influencers to go further in that direction. That bit of evolutionary theory helps explain our taking sides, wittingly or otherwise, but what it doesn’t account for is the intensity of our (partisan) feelings. If we want the answer to that question — and that’s a big if — we need to look deeper.
What we are dealing with, I think, is a mass addiction to righteous loathing. Or to self-righteous indignation, to be more precise.
No one is immune — certainly not me — and what makes the problem especially acute is the fact that it is never called out. We are admonished, from early childhood, to not be greedy, nasty, jealous, deceitful, arrogant etc; but whoever heard of anyone being taken to task for lording it over others morally? It just doesn’t happen. Not at school, not at university, not in the workplace and not in the media. If anything, the opposite is true: people who rage about the evils of others tend to be lauded and encouraged.
Nowhere is this more apparent, or consequential, than it is in the case of public intellectuals, the group of people who should be the very exemplars of moral rectitude. These are among the most privileged individuals on earth — enjoying high levels of comfort, security, esteem and influence — but despite all this, they routinely lapse into hyperbolic denunciations of their various adversaries. They (must) know Madame de Stael’s maxim “to understand all is to forgive all”, but they seem to take endless pleasure in pronouncing just the opposite. And if they, supposedly the wisest among us, can fall into this trap, this love of hatred, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Of course, this turbo-charged sanctimony is explainable too, if one looks deep enough. Bringing up complexities, nuances, mitigations, and so on will always feel like social disloyalty or betrayal — and when it comes to those who do criticism for a living, the incentives all point squarely in the same (negative) direction. Bashing the enemy in print, or from a podium, is not just personally energising and morally uplifting, it’s also a good career move. Where is the value in anything other than an orthodox, categorical, good-versus-bad formulation when that’s just what your peers, your bosses, your audience and your conscience are looking for?
But so what, you could say. What’s wrong with backing a particular side, however intemperately, especially if it’s the side which is (on your sincere reading) the more deserving of the two? After all, by the nature of a free society, there will inevitably be those who will take up the cudgels on behalf of the others, with the same level of resolve. Thus resulting in a kind of balance, in any event. So, again, what’s the problem here? Am I, an educated, affluent Jew, not just carping, in a roundabout way; effectively batting for the (presumed) bad guys, in this case, the Israelis?
That’s one possibly valid counter — we all have prejudices and blind spots — and there are also two others. The first is that there are cases in which intense indignation is an entirely appropriate attitude to hold. And the second is that, unlike guns and money, it can’t do any actual harm (this while it can provide significant solace and satisfaction, to the relatively powerless).
As for loathing having its place, there’s no question that’s right. I’m a serious believer in balance, measure, empathy, compassion, compromise etc — but if you’re doing that in the face of imminent attack, or egregious evil, you’re taking things way, way too far. Not to put too fine a point on it, if some marauding Vandals are nearing your city gates, or flashing brightly on your radar, you’ve got not just a right but an obligation to deploy all the detestation you can muster in order to defeat them (along with arms, cunning and any other weapon you can usefully muster). I’m making the case for thoughtfulness here, not timidity; for being more judicious in playing this card, not for being supine. Righteous anger isn’t wrong per se, it’s just very easily abused.
Turning, finally and briefly (and, therefore, glibly and inadequately), to the issue of impact, here I think there is a tendency to underestimate or to underplay the power of both polemics and the ordinary populace. Progressive intellectuals, especially, tend to see themselves as being in the noble business of “speaking truth to power”, with that power resting overwhelmingly in the hands of the government and the rich. In reality though, their words — their attacks and exhortations — can have profound practical consequences. They can rile up regular people, in a trice, and those people, far from being powerless, can be key agents of either radical change or bloody mayhem. Think Robespierre on Twitter. Or Mao on Tik-Tok.
Summing up then. This is not an argument for neutrality or indifference. It’s not even an argument for limiting robust language or intense organising, agitating and lobbying. Rather it’s one for recognising our propensity for sustained and intense detestation as a significant independent variable in the realm of politics.
I have friends, of generally modest opinions, who are only too willing to believe (and to say) that Jewish Israelis are, in the main, entirely indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians. And I have other friends, also well-educated and far removed, who insist that it’s not just zealots in Hamas but the average person in Ramallah who is either a millenarian suicide bomber or lacking only the courage to be one.
I don’t know how to prove that both these imputations are outrageous, but I do have a suggestion. If this is how you see the situation, you really should do a bit more probing; of your hoary (self-reinforcing) myths and, more importantly, your hidden (self-righteous) motives. We’re routinely encouraged to check our own privileges. What we need to get better at is examining our prejudices too, and our priggishness. While there’s still time.