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Opinionista

The latest bout of Middle East bloodletting evokes the inevitable ritual of intellectual hand-wringing

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Glen Heneck is a Cape Town businessman and occasional social commentator. He holds law degrees from UCT and Cambridge and was an avid Charterist until the mid 1990s.

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 can have profound practical consequences. Think Robespierre on Twitter. Or Mao on Tik-Tok.

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. 

#no-one-is-born-hating DM

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All Comments 5

  • John Lennon’s Imagine a world, in particular with ….”no religion” immediately came to my mind, but I have to acknowledge that he and others like me should also examine our agnostic hard wiring.

  • Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth. – Lynyrd Skynyrd

    Analysing motivations of intellectual critiques is certainly valid.
    Particularly the partisan commentary regarding the M.E.

    Their is no place for moral relativism in the immediate situation.

    The latest bout of bloodletting in the Middle East does not fit into a good guys/bad guys dichotomy.
    Israel and Hamas understand their relative capacities.
    They deliberately choose when to exercise options resulting in predictable death and destruction.
    Both antagonists are playing out a cynical cycle of annihilation.

    Objective analysts should not prefer sides
    “Truth to power” scrutiny is necessary here.
    Where Truth does not fall victim to the the detestation variable you describe

  • I had to read this article thrice…to make sure I try to understand it! I have been where the writer is trying to convince us to go…I think. For several decades I completely believed what most media were putting out there …that the real culprits are the Palestinians & Hamas (founded in the 80’s – I think…long after the state of Israel in ’47/48)& was the devil incarnate! Wasn’t the ANC in the same boat under the apartheid regime? Recently the live pictures of the ‘security forces’ activities across that State to implement the Trumpian ‘law and order’ (an excuse for brutish thuggery a la- George Floyd) against an essentially unarmed population of Palestinians, has raised several concerns & reappraisal for me. The bombing of an entire building housing media houses & journalists (on the pretext that there were Hamas activists there also) was the cherry on top! My family was the victim of the SA group areas act removal (& apartheid laws in general), and to see an identical system at work in Israel…has clinched the deal. Silence or reluctance is not an option any more. I have noted a number of Jewish persons who still “hand wring” about their faith and the actions of the state of Israel. That is most unfortunate and tragic. Not satisfied with the ‘spoils of war’ of the 67/68 period the state has ignored all UN & international calls for restraint in extending its occupation & land grabs by building settler communities on occupied land, with full US complicity.

  • Glen, your call for “thoughtfulness” is coming across as an elaborate and obtuse defense of fence-sitting.

    Being outraged in response to evidence of gross human rights violations and apartheid doesn’t make one “self-righteous”. Was the global community self-righteous when they boycotted apartheid SA? Perhaps for some.

    And to suggest that Palestinian solidarity is an intellectual exercise for rich progressives is simply untrue.

  • Thanks Kayla, for taking the time to respond, and for doing so half politely. Here’s my (brief) defence to your various challenges:
    1. I can see why you would want to cast me as a fence-sitter, but I prefer to think of myself as an inveterate (and unashamed) middle pather. I think Hamas presents a very serious problem, and that a one state solution is unviable, given the manifest antipathy between the protagonists. I believe that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish majority state, within secure borders, but on the other hand I’ve always been (a) opposed to the settlements; (b) in favour of reparations (and express acknowledgement of the suffering caused to Palestinians by Zionism); and (c) inclined to having Jerusalem as a shared city under third party control (though god knows I’m not sure that can work). Do you have a different view on any of these points?
    2. I have never argued for (or believed in) neutrality as a per se good. To the contrary, I understand partisanship and I respect (and admire) those who take a public moral stance. What I do have a problem with, and what prompted my article, is over-the-top expressions of such preferences. I have no quarrel with you, or whoever, favoring the Palestinian cause, or criticizing Israel or its government. Rather what concerns me is when the contest is cast (from either side) in simple, binary, good-versus-bad terms. Complete with various kinds of hyperbole. It’s when that position is adopted, and not subjected to ongoing scrutiny, that I’m postulating something akin to addiction. Intense loathing of some “other”, initially based on a moral assessment, but then used, reflexively, to provide relief from boredom and meaninglessness (in the way that most people use things like religion, nationalism or fandom). I’m not sure of the correct terminology – righteous indignation is my preferred shorthand – but the underlying sensibility is at least somewhat reductionist, better-than, wegocentric. It’s what we do – we less-than-enlightened primates – and I’m saying we should try cut down. Especially when the object of our disaffection is far away and the challenge they’re addressing is complex, and fraught. Or do you really do believe, deep down, that most Israelis are callous bastards, indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Semites?
    3. Of course I don’t mean to parody your position, or any pundit’s. I know that hostility to Israel (and Israeli-ism) is also informed by (inter alia) genuine compassion, by Third World solidarity, by the dream of a Lennon-esque future, and by a considered critique of capitalism and colonialism. I can’t say for sure what set of considerations applies in any particular case – but then again I’m not urging anyone to abandon their support (let alone to change sides). I’m just asking everyone, and especially those who are far removed and finely educated, to think (and explore) as deeply and honestly as they can.
    4. I actually got to discuss Israel and Apartheid with Oliver Tambo, when the ANC was still banned. It would take another whole essay to do justice to that exchange, but there are three points that bear mentioning here. One, all analogies suck, especially when they’re designed to cast aspersions. Two, there’s much to ponder in Nassim Taleb’s observation that all nation states are “apartheid states, without the political incorrectness”. And three, what people want to conjure when they describe Israel as an apartheid state is the horrible stuff like the pass laws, the overcrowded single-sex hostels, the segregated amenities and the white supremacist ideology and iconography. I don’t see much evidence of the like in Israel today. Though again that might be own prejudices at work.