Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Instrumentalising Suffering

On 'Rape Culture' & the Denigration of Progress

"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
 - Amanda Marcotte, Feminist Blogger
Marcotte is one of a number of prominent feminists vehemently arguing that America - and the West in general - is presently in the grip of an epidemic of sexual violence, normalised and institutionalised by what they call 'rape culture'. Such arguments have gained considerable traction in progressive discussion, but they have not done so without meeting resistance from the libertarian Right, and from dissenting voices within feminist circles and the broader Left.

Disputes over whether use of such a sweeping term is justified by actual incidences of rape and sexual assault have focussed on fiercely-contested statistics derived from wildly divergent empirical studies (more of which in a moment), and the murky grey areas regarding what does or does not constitute meaningful consent.

But when Rolling Stone published contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely's essay "A Rape On Campus" in late November [since deleted, but cached here], it ground all debate to a halt. Front-and-centre of Erdely's sensational article was a story of male sexual sadism, institutional indifference, and innocence defiled, so stark in its moral simplicity, and so devastating in its implications, that it appeared to bulldoze all nuance in its path.

In the autumn of 2012, a beautiful and guileless young University of Virginia (UVA) freshman named 'Jackie' was invited to a party at an elite fraternity house by a 3rd year student with whom she worked as a lifeguard. Jackie, we were told, was a "chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town . . . initially intimidated by UVA's aura of preppy success". She had dressed herself in "a tasteful red dress with a high neckline" and "she wasn't a drinker":
"I remember looking at the mirror and putting on mascara and being like, 'I feel really pretty,' " Jackie recalls. "I didn't know it would be the last time I wouldn't see an empty shell of a person."
Upon arrival at the party, Jackie's naive faith in the goodwill of men allowed her to be lured by her date into a darkened room on the second floor of the fraternity house. Once inside, she was grabbed by unseen hands and thrown through a coffee table. Pinned down on the shards of broken glass and pacified with a blow to the face, she told Erdely that she was then raped by seven men and vaginally assaulted with a beer bottle as jeers and catcalls rang in her ears. Jackie claimed this horrifying ordeal lasted an agonising three hours.

But, nauseating though the specifics of Jackie's gang-rape were, it was from the implications of her subsequent treatment at the hands of callous friends and colleagues and an indifferent campus administration that the article drew its full impact. As the subheading forewarned, it was when Jackie tried to hold those responsible for her ordeal accountable that "a whole new kind of abuse began".

Abandoned by her tormentors, Jackie fled the fraternity house past partygoers - not one of whom expressed any concern for her well-being - and, stumbling into the street, she telephoned three friends, begging for help. But when they arrived they displayed a grotesque lack of concern for her distress, instead professing themselves preoccupied by how their involvement might affect their social standing at the college. The counselling and advice she subsequently received from university admin and support groups likewise proved grossly inadequate.

Erdely's article purported to expose, not just a singularly terrible crime, but also the rotten culture which allowed such acts of sadism to be committed with impunity by the privileged against the vulnerable. The curtain had been pulled back on the hidden squalor of American rape culture, and Erdely was inviting her audience to appraise a fraudulent civilisation unmasked, and daring them to turn away.

Knowing what we know now, it is hard to believe that this narrative - which owes more to the lurid exploitation films of the 1970s than to anything approaching the reality of contemporary American college life - was ever considered remotely credible. That it took nearly a fortnight for serious cracks to appear in Erdely's story, while uncritical outrage swept through social media like a forest fire, suggests that America is in the grip - not of a culture of rape glorification and apologetics - but, rather, a kind of moral panic.

But questions were inevitably raised - tentatively at first, and then with greater insistence - about the extraordinarily callous behaviour of the story's supporting cast. Was such behaviour possible? Well, theoretically, yes. Was it plausible? No, not really. Not unless one is prepared to accept, a priori, a view of humanity so jaundiced and unforgivingly misanthropic that it can only be described as nihilism. Erdely's feminist narrative, marbled with a crude anti-elitist populism, presupposed that the civilising influences of Enlightenment thought, progressive politics, and feminist activism had succeeded only in constructing a veneer of privilege-serving hypocrisy, beneath which lay a society as pitiless and cruel as that of the world's most backward theocracies and failed States.

What has been most disturbing and fascinating about the unravelling of Rolling Stone's story is the vehemence with which Jackie's ostensible defenders have clung to Erdely's apocalyptic version of reality and its politics of despair. As the evidence stacked up that Jackie had almost certainly not been subjected to a three-hour ordeal of torture, it became apparent that there were many who preferred and, indeed, desperately wanted to believe that she had. Without even realising what they were doing, those earnestly presuming to speak on Jackie's behalf were systematically depersonalising her and until her name was little more than an ideological cudgel.

When it transpired that Erdely had not approached the accused for comment, and was unwilling to confirm whether or not she even knew their identities, legitimate doubts about the prima facie plausibility of her narrative gave way to equally legitimate questions about the rigour of her reporting.

Rolling Stone published Erdely's story on November 19. It was not until December 1, with gaps in Erdely's story multiplying, that Robbie Soave at Reason found the courage to print the word "hoax" for the first time, albeit qualified with a question mark. At the New Republic, Judith Schulevitz cautiously echoed Soave's doubts and wondered whether Erdely and Rolling Stone had not fallen victim to confirmation bias. In the LA Times, Jonah Goldberg implied the same, pointedly remarking that Erdely had disapprovingly referred to UVA as a college lacking a "radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy".

In a sign that the disinterested search for truth was already in direct conflict with radical feminist dogma, opinions like these were met with a scornful backlash. In articles and blog posts which were long on invective but noticeably short on reasonable argument, Soave, Goldberg, and other understandably sceptical journalists found themselves accused of stupidity and bad faith, and of participation in a cynical campaign to smear the victims of rape. The feminist writer Jessica Valenti took to twitter to declare that Soave's article was "the last nail in [Reason magazine's] credibility coffin". This rather over-hasty judgement, offered without substantiation, was retweeted 73 times.

On December 5, the fraternity at the centre of Erdely's story released a statement refuting key elements of the story. Rolling Stone responded by hastily appending an unpardonably self-serving update to the top of their story, distancing themselves from their source. Erdely went to ground, refusing all further requests for interviews and has not been heard from since. At this point a number of journalists realised that the game was up and decided to cut their losses rather than run the risk of looking any more silly.

Others, however, doubled down, adopting a new line that rested on the following conflicting premises:
1. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's testimony is to be uncritically accepted.  
2. As a victim of a violent sexual assault, Jackie's account will obviously contain 'discrepancies', all of which can be explained away with reference to post-traumatic stress affecting the clarity and reliability of memory.  
3. Erdely ought to have been more sceptical of Jackie's account.
4. Anyone now displaying precisely the kind of scepticism Erdely lacked, was almost certainly pursuing a suspect agenda. 
Reconciling these claims resulted in arguments as comical in their incoherence as they were defiant in their unapologetic contempt for objectivity.

In an article for Politico, Julia Horowitz, assistant managing editor at UVA’s student newspaper, fretted about the manifest shortcomings of Rolling Stone's reporting before deciding that "to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake." Was hypothesising that something might have happened really so different from asserting it had? she wondered.

In a thoroughly retrogressive OpEd piece for the Washington Post arguing that upholding the presumption of innocence in cases of rape and sexual assault was "in important ways...wrong", the feminist writer Zerlina Maxwell wrote: "'Rape culture,' as it is often called, is real. Because rape it is [sic] such a poisonous charge, we are so careful not to level it until we can really prove it." Maxwell was apparently unconcerned that the second sentence directly contradicted the first.

And in an unintelligible piece of rage-blogging on the Feministing website, self-declared (presumably in order of importance) "feminist and former fact-checker" Maya Dusenbery concluded:
[J]ournalism can lie, just as feminism can lie, because they are both created by the fallible humans who live in it. And journalism lies far more than feminism does about the nature of the truth. Journalism lies and acts as if it’s the only game in town — as if it is not just one of many ways of telling the truth.
Some writers and activists insisted openly, and without embarrassment, that the truth of what actually happened to Jackie was less important than the political value of her fabrications. Others sought to re-describe truth as lies so they could continue to pretend they were upholding the former, largely by assailing the corrective reporting of Washington Post and others as "irresponsible" and attempting to discredit the reporters in question with a battery of crass and childish ad hominems.

For those ideologically so-inclined, stratagems like these were feminism at its most fearless, radical, and uncompromising. For the rest of us, they were intellectual dishonesty at its most breathtaking.

By December 12, the three friends libelled in Erdely's story as heartless sociopaths had come forward with an alternative account of events, letting it be known that Erdely had never approached them for comment, either. Whatever remained of Jackie's credibility as a witness now lay buried beneath the rubble of Erdely's own reputation.

The same day, the New York Observer reported that Rolling Stone's deputy managing editor Sean Woods had offered his resignation to the magazine's founder and publisher Jann Wenner (who - for reasons best known to himself - declined to accept it). A post-mortem is now underway at Rolling Stone, which will in time doubtless produce a lengthy correction and apology, featuring all the usual contrition-speak about mistakes made, lessons learned, and changes moving forward.

Sabrina Rubin Erdely is surely finished, her sacking and disgrace now a mere formality. It is unclear at this point whether the single source on whom she so unwisely relied is a mendacious fraud or a damaged and disturbed fantasist. If it turns out to be the former, then 'Jackie' should be stripped of whatever remains of her victimhood mantle and made to answer for the defamatory falsehoods she has helped to circulate. But if it turns out to be the latter, then Erdely's responsibility for exposing a vulnerable and unstable young woman will stand as a further indictment of her unscrupulous and disgraceful abdication of journalistic ethics.

It is a rather satisfying irony, however, that, in seeking to expose America's culture of victimisation, Erdely has instead exposed a cult of victimhood run totally out of control, and the self-discrediting lengths to which its adherents will go to defend it.

There is, after all, a self-refuting paradox at the heart of Erdely's story. If her article had been published in a country in which, as Marcotte would have it, "rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes", then Jackie's ordeal would have had no purchase on precisely the kind of moral outrage it was designed to generate. Jackie's gang-rape was somehow at once a shocking indictment of American culture, and at the same time almost banal.

In an "I-Believe-Jackie" article for the Guardian, the feminist writer Jessica Valenti blithely remarked that "one in five women is sexually assaulted at American universities – so Jackie’s story wasn’t so uncommon." With predictable cynicism, Valenti presented this hair-raising statistic unburdened by either qualifying caveats or links, intentionally creating an impression that it is uncontested.

In fact, this figure has long been the subject of intense controversy, with critics arguing it is little more than alarmist agitprop, extrapolated from unrepresentative studies, themselves disfigured by low response rates and deeply problematic methodologies. On December 15, two of the researchers responsible for one such study were moved to detail their own caveats in an article for Time, echoing many of their critics' key concerns.

Meanwhile, on 11 December the Bureau of Justice Statistics (a sub-division of the US Department of Justice) published their latest findings which revealed, inter alia, that the rate of rape and sexual assault is 0.61% of female students aged 18-24, and 0.76% of female non-students. These findings have remained almost unchanged since publication of the previous BJS study in 2005, which found rates of 0.6% and 0.79%, respectively. But even if one is tempted to argue that the BJS studies are an over-correction, the 1 in 5 (or 20%) statistic remains an affront to common sense.

In a brilliant and detailed essay critically analysing claims of a rape epidemic on American campuses, the Slate columnist Emily Yoffe noted that this figure - if accurate - "would mean that young American college women are raped at a rate similar to women in Congo, where rape has been used as a weapon of war." The implications of this comparison make it clear just how absurd the casual fetishisation of victimhood in radical feminist discourse has become. For if young women in America are no better off than those forced to survive the Congo's war zones, then it follows that women in the Congo are no worse off than those studying on American college campuses. To say this diminishes the suffering of Congolese women is an understatement.

It is doubtful that such a comparison will give the prophets of Western rape culture and their credulous disciples much cause for reflection, still less embarrassment. An unthinking denigration of the West and its achievements is, after all, a characteristic hallmark of self-regarding radicalism in First World Left-wing politics. But it is unsurprising that a Somali-born dissident like Ayaan Hirsi Ali subjects this kind of thoughtless cultural equivalence to withering scorn. Having crossed the yawning chasm that divides the patriarchal societies of the East from the egalitarian societies of the West, she understands the incalculable value of progress far more clearly than those fortunate enough to have known nothing else. 

It is long past time that the falsehoods and distortions undergirding the rape culture myth are subjected to the scrutiny, derision, and scorn they so urgently merit. Not simply because they are reactionary and false, but because the irresponsible fear-mongering they encourage has the power to inflict enormous damage on men and women alike.
  • At the moment, widespread belief in a pandemic of campus sexual violence is somehow managing to co-exist with a 4:3 ratio of women to men enrolled in American universities. But should America's rape panic gain further traction, it could start to affect the willingness of young women to enter university at all. 
  • As Emily Yoffe's Slate essay documents, a mass media hungry for click-bait sensationalism, combined with an opportunistic and intellectually lazy political class, has already produced deeply illiberal legislation which is feeding a feverish assault on egalitarianism, due process, and civil liberties.
  • A prevailing climate of paranoia and fear is being allowed to foster an unnecessary but deeply corrosive suspicion and mistrust between the sexes. Young women are being instructed that the campuses on which they live and study are in fact threatening arenas of predatory male hostility and violence, and young men are being told that it their own base sexuality necessitates the introduction of draconian new legislation which will ensure they experience "a cold spike of fear" before they even contemplate sex with a partner.
In the quote with which I opened this essay, the American feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte revealed perhaps more than she intended when she explained:
"Rape culture" is a very useful way to describe the idea that rapists are given a social license to operate by people who make excuses for sexual predators and blame the victims for their own rapes.
Notice that Marcotte does not defend the term on the basis of its accuracy, but on the basis of its utility. She concedes, in other words, that 'rape culture' is less a matter of objective fact than an instrument of ideology. And, as the Rolling Stone affair has so clearly demonstrated, so are its purported victims.

Herein lies the value of 'Jackie' as a pawn of gender warfare, and the reason why Marcotte, Valenti, and like-minded allies steeped in their reactionary cynicism were not prepared to give her up without a fight, no matter how ridiculous it made them look in the short-term. Contrary to their own pious and self-serving claims, the interest of these activists lies not in alleviating the suffering of women, but in manufacturing and instrumentalising it.

UPDATE 6/4/15: The Columbia School of Journalism's investigation into Rolling Stone's reporting of Erdely's 'A Rape On Campus' story has finally been published. It is a careful, sober analysis and a devastating indictment, cataloguing failures of journalistic ethics, of editorial process, of basic fact-checking and fair-mindedness, and of dispassionate rigour and critical thinking. "The problem of confirmation bias –" the report's authors observe with characteristic understatement, "the tendency of people to be trapped by pre-existing assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones – is a well-established finding of social science. It seems to have been a factor here."

While I take on board the distinction made in the report's conclusion between Erdely's failures and the whole-cloth fabrications of Jayson Blair, I nevertheless find it astonishing that Jann Wenner has announced that not a single head will roll over this fiasco, and that Erdely will remain a Rolling Stone reporter.

The full 13000 word, 25 page report can be read here:


Friday, 21 November 2014

Stigmatise, Shame, and Silence

Progressive Authoritarianism & the Death of Debate

"It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry." 
                                                                   - Thomas Paine

Before I get into describing the abysmal state of disrepair in which progressive thought currently languishes, I should start by pointing out that there never was a time when Leftist politics existed in a state of harmonious consensus. From the birth of the concept of left-right politics, when internecine quarrels amongst French republicans were settled beneath the blade of the guillotine, through to the bitter intra-socialist sectarianism of the Cold War, the Left have been a disputatious bunch, bickering over the narcissism of their various small differences.

The progressive movements of the early New Left were no different, encompassing a broad plurality of views, often at odds over ends and means. But there was, nevertheless, general agreement that the principal basis for civil rights activism and struggle lay in liberal, egalitarian, and universalist values. Relativist and separatist arguments were advanced by some, of course, but, until relatively recently, they lacked any meaningful currency. What galvanised activists were internalised Enlightenment-derived ideas of liberty, equality, and solidarity. For if people are fundamentally the same, irrespective of skin colour, gender, or sexuality, then on what basis can rights and protections be afforded to some groups or individuals and denied to others?

With the clarity of arguments like these, progressive politics in the West achieved much. Activism, and the emergence of a vibrant and aggressively liberal counter-culture, precipitated a change in societal and political attitudes, which in turn led to the passing of transformative legislation: voting and labour rights were won; segregation was abolished; reproductive rights were enshrined and expanded; discrimination in all sorts of areas was outlawed; hiring and employment practices were reformed; attitudes to everything from racism to domestic abuse evolved (and continue to do so), while sexual and creative permissiveness flourished. As taboos collapsed with stunning rapidity, conservatism and traditional social values were forced into retreat.

But then something interesting began to happen. Having fought for and (mostly) won parity under the law, progressive activism found itself faced with an existential dilemma. What was it now for? It was, after all, not simply a vehicle for social change; it was also a productive receptacle for anti-authoritarianism and a valuable crucible of radical thought. Where was all this energy to be directed next?

In response to this challenge, progressivism took a dismaying and thoroughly retrogressive turn. Since inequity in society indubitably persisted, often disproportionately affecting minorities and women, it became increasingly fashionable to question whether universalist struggles had actually achieved anything of consequence at all.

Having built progressive movements on the basis of liberal values, it became an imperative to kick those values apart with the same enthusiasm, just as a child might destroy a sand-castle which hadn't turned out quite as well as expected. The spread of French critical theory, multiculturalism, and post-colonialism in radical circles midwifed a thoughtless denigration of the West, scorn for the perceived complacencies of "the Enlightenment project", and the dismissal of the 'Dead White Males' whose ideas and writings had done so much to unshackle Europe from feudalism and superstition.

The arrogance of Western cultural supremacism, it was argued, was the status quo now in need of vigorous radical assault. A commitment to universalism was replaced by the fetishisation of difference and specificity; a belief in egalitarianism gave way to demands for exceptionalism and double-standards (only this time favouring the 'oppressed'); and the language of emancipation and liberty was replaced by a cult of victimhood, self-pity, and a brooding, masochistic solipsism. "We have nothing to lose but our chains" was drowned out by the resentful injunction "Listen to my suffering".

In academia, the humanities began a process of decline as the demands of rigorous and fair-minded scholarship gave way to the requirements of a stultifying and increasingly censorious political correctness. The pursuit of objective truth and knowledge fell before endlessly competing claims from subjective 'lived experiences' and 'narratives', and international solidarity fell before a grotesque cultural relativism, itself informed by a neurotic culture of self-lacerating guilt. The lexicon of political activism - originally developed to identify irrational judgements made about people based on their  unalterable characteristics - assumed a metaphysical dimension. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia were no longer alterable matters of law, belief, and practice - they became immovable structural toxins, against which not even the most broad-minded liberal could be reliably immunised, and to which well-intentioned people were often subject without their knowledge.

As the Left's progressive movements splintered into a kaleidoscope of bitter, competing interests, sectarianism was transformed from a by-product of radical squabbles into an ideological imperative, and a divisive grievance hierarchy was constructed, based upon the intersection of privileged characteristics. The jargon of -phobias and -isms proliferated as every group sought to weaponise language to its own advantage, and arguments from remote etymology were deployed to police the expression of views and ideas. Over time, invective replaced argument and persuasion, and those committed to identity politics lost their ability to engage in constructive debate, to disagree, and - most damaging of all - to think critically about their own ideas and suppositions. Why bother when it is less effort to simply accuse your opponent of bigotry of one stripe or another, or of ignorance and bad faith?

We are now reaping the harvest of liberalism's agonising slow death on the Left. Consider the following recent examples:
  1. According to a report in The Guardian, the political director of Huffington Post UK, Mehdi Hasan, has just publicly recommended the introduction of what amounts to a de facto blasphemy law in order to combat what he calls 'Islamophobia'. The press, he announced, has been “singularly unable or unwilling to change the discourse, the tone or the approach” of its coverage. Casually eliding matters of race, ethnicity, and belief, he continued: “We’re not going to get change unless there is some sanction, there is some penalty. This is not just about Muslims; it is about all minorities.” Similarly, on an American talkshow, a visibly distressed Ben Affleck responded to Sam Harris's criticisms of Islam by denouncing them as "gross and racist".
  2. Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the scientists responsible for the awe-inspiring Rosetta satellite mission, found himself vilified by incandescent feminists when he appeared on television wearing a bowling shirt adorned with images of scantily-clad young women. It later transpired that the shirt had been hand-made for him as a birthday gift by a female friend and, as a rather touching token of appreciation, he had worn it on his big day. But an article for Verge decided that it was a symptom of the misogyny allegedly endemic within the scientific community, and reported Dr. Taylor's televised appearance beneath the headline "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing".

    The most risible offering in this embarrassing row came from (supposedly) sex-positive feminist Greta Christina, who spent the first paragraph of her post on the subject itemising her own involvement in the production of pornography. This, she appeared to think, placed her in the unique position of being able to explain that "freedom for me does not mean freedom for thee" as she policed the clothing of another adult: "[D]oing an interview about your team’s big science achievement while wearing a shirt with scantily-clad pinup girls does not say, “Sex is awesome!” It says, “Women are for sex.”

    Christina seemed oblivious to those who would seize on this argument to call for the suppression of her own work, as well as all other kinds of pornography and erotica she defends in her writing. Nor was she moved by arguments that men, like women, should be judged on what they say and do, not on how they choose to dress themselves. Nonetheless, clearly shaken by the uproar, Dr. Taylor ended up offering a tearful and humiliating public apology to his critics. It will be an individual of uncommonly thick skin who dares to transgress in this way in the future.
  3. Last Wednesday, the Independent ran an article by an Oxford University student named Niamh McIntyre, in which she crowed defiantly about the success of her campaign to cancel a debate between two male speakers, organised by a pro-life group to debate abortion. She explained herself thus: "The idea that in a free society absolutely everything should be open to debate has a detrimental effect on marginalised groups".

    Doubling down on her behalf, Tim Squirrell - the President of the Cambridge Union, no less! - took to twitter to declare that "shouting 'free speech' doesn't help anyone without a more nuanced conception of its impacts + aspects". He went on: "People have the right to feel...[s]afe from the expression of ideas which have historically been used to oppress them in very real ways."
  4. Late last year, in response to long-disputed and empirically dubious claims of an omnipresent culture of rape besieging women on university campuses, activists campaigned to have Robin Thicke's song Blurred Lines banned from their Student Unions. When UCL joined upwards of 20 other Unions in banning the song from its premises, its Women's Officer Beth Sutton said: "UCLU have just passed motion to not play Blurred Lines in union spaces & events. Solidarity with all survivors!"

    [The same panic over 'rape culture' and anger over low prosecution rates for sex crimes has also led to unapologetic attacks from the Left, similarly advanced in the name of "solidarity with survivors", on the presumption of innocence, the rule of law, and due process. An analysis of this disturbing facet of the effort to delegitimise liberalism lies beyond the scope of this post.]
  5. A few months ago, the New Statesman columnist Sarah Ditum wrote a rather good article protesting the illiberal use of 'no-platforming' to silence unpopular views held by those "deemed disagreeable". However, her arguments were offered mainly in support of Julie Bindel, a radical feminist labelled 'transphobic' and 'whorephobic' for her views on trans rights and sex work. Ditum is, from what I can tell, largely sympathetic to Bindel's positions on these issues, which made her defence of Bindel's right to speak a relatively straightforward affair, causing her no significant ideological discomfort.

    But when it came to the no-platforming of a repellent male chauvinist and self-styled pick-up guru named Julien Blanc, Ditum's principled defence of free expression evaporated, and she wrote a new blog post explaining that this was a very different matter. "There is no free speech defence for Julian Blanc" she concluded. (In response to the outcry, Blanc has since been denied a visa to enter the UK.)
  6. This is not to mention the recent fracas over the Exhibit B installation, deemed unacceptable by anti-racist campaigners (which I covered in an essay here), or the hounding of feminist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for her opposition to the veil and the demonisation of 'white feminists' (which I covered in an essay here). The latter post, incidentally, led The Feminist Wire to describe what I wrote as "racist and anti-Black specifically", and an attempt "to maintain white supremacy".
This handful of examples barely scratches the surface of the problem. Not one of the writers or campaigners above was detained by the need to establish a causal link between the expression of ideas they dislike and consequent harm. Censors never are, despite the fact that, in an open society, the burden of proof ought to rest with those who would restrict individual freedom. Instead, those inclined to defend free expression were variously tarred with the brush of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, or rape apologism (depending on what was at issue).

When taken together, these individual cases - niggling and petty in and of themselves - speak to the flowering of a deeply sinister and censorious tendency amongst self-identifying progressives, invariably justified in the name of protecting the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless. In their righteous zeal to place certain people, views, and ideas beyond the pale, and secure in the complacent belief that their own opinions are beyond reproach, not one of these well-meaning men and women appears to have considered that their own liberty will, in the end, fall victim to the very same arguments they advance to silence others.

It should hardly be a surprise that in the midst of this reckless and dangerous onslaught against liberal values and the belief in the axiomatic nobility of the oppressed, there should be no room for sympathy with the Middle East's only functioning liberal democracy. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] campaign, ostensibly mounted in support of Palestinian nationalism, but actually aimed at the disestablishment of the only Jewish State, has been slowly gathering mainstream support and legitimacy in the West.

Reprehensibly, the BDS movement seeks not simply the boycott of Israeli goods (which would be bad enough); it also explicitly attacks academic freedom. In the foreword to a recently released collection of essays entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, the American political theorist Paul Berman argues that BDS activists are only able to make such arguments because they have convinced themselves of a misperception: they see what they are doing as "modern and progressive" when in fact it is "retrograde and disgraceful".

The same must be said of the examples itemised above. Even as they thoughtlessly stigmatise those who defend free expression as "right wing", these activists, writers, and campaigners have succumbed to the right's most regressive autocratic tendencies. Dogmatic and unbending in their misanthropic view of human sexuality and race relations; unapologetic in their advocacy of an infantilising, separatist agenda of 'safe spaces'; ferocious in their intolerance of views they deem unacceptable.

Gazing with mounting dismay at the escalating authoritarianism on the left of the political spectrum where my own political sympathies lie, I have been repeatedly reminded of a post published by the late Marxist theorist Norman Geras five months before his death. With a minimum of preamble, Geras quoted Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the LSE, as follows:
I think the biggest shift that has taken place in my thinking over the past 30 years is that I'm a lot less tolerant of relativist ideas, and multiculturalist ideas than I used to be. And that's something that when you say it, it induces shock and horror sometimes. 25 years ago, I was writing material that, if it wasn't poststructuralist, was at least 'fellow traveling' with the poststructuralists, arguing essentially anti-foundationalist ideas, arguing that the Western liberal tradition was just one tradition among other traditions, and so on. In a way, I think I was in bad faith over a lot of that. I believed that liberalism would always be there, and so one can afford to attack it. The events of the last 20 years have shown that that's really not the case, that a lot of the traditional liberal values of freedom and tolerance are seriously under attack and need to be defended. So I've become a defender of the Enlightenment project in a way that I wasn't maybe 30 years ago - that's a big shift.
Unfortunately, there appears to be scant appetite for Professor Brown's critical self-examination on the postmodern Left. Instead it clings to its metaphysical conspiracism, and disdains empiricism and a meritocracy of ideas derived from free and open debate in favour of the imposition of speech codes designed to stigmatise, shame, and silence.

In the name of a righteously-espoused 'inclusivity', such people have submitted to the worst kind of authoritarian elitism, and forgotten an elementary truism of Enlightenment thought. As the revolutionary 18th century pamphleteer and Dead White Male Thomas Paine observed in the short dedication with which he opened The Age of Reason:
You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Siding with the Philistines

Exhibit B and Index on Censorship's Julia Farrington

A promotional still for Brett Bailey's installation, Exhibit B.
On the 24 September, the UK saw the closure of yet another controversial artwork in response to the mobilisation of protests. The installation Exhibit B, conceived and directed by the South African artist and provocateur Brett Bailey, takes as its starting point the 19th century phenomenon of 'human zoos', and is described by Bailey as follows:
What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them. But what we are doing here is nothing like these shows, where black people were brought from all over Africa and displayed in villages. I’m interested in the way these zoos legitimised colonial policies.
Since 2012, Exhibit B has played in some 19 cities before arriving in London and received considerable acclaim. Lynn Gardner in the Guardian called it "both unbearable and essential", Allan Radcliffe in the Times called it "remarkable . . . powerful and upsetting", and Neil Cooper, reviewing the installation for the Edinburgh Festival (and perhaps putting his finger on the masochistic pleasure in which Bailey invites his Western audiences to marinate), revealed that "the guilt [Exhibit B] provokes is devastating".

Others, like Laura Barnett at the Telegraph were less sure. Acknowledging its merits, she nevertheless found Exhibit B to be "a highly problematic" and possibly exploitative piece of work. She did not, however, call for its closure. Nor, to my knowledge, did any other serious-minded writer, whatever their view of its worth. And, whether it succeeded or not, Bailey's work was generally agreed to have been at least intended as an indictment of Western colonialism.

But self-styled anti-racist activists were in no mood to be so tolerant or broad-minded, and they did not hesitate to accuse both artist and production of outright racism. In Berlin, Bailey's work was greeted with furious protests and, upon learning that Exhibit B would be performed at The Barbican in London, a Birmingham activist named Sara Myers started an online petition, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Bailey's "racist" work. "If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery" Myers instructed, "this is not the way to do it." This sentiment was rewarded with nearly 23,000 signatures.

Protests outside the venue followed, blockading the road, and on 24 September, the Barbican announced, with regret, that it was cancelling all shows:
Due to the extreme nature of the protest outside the Vaults, regrettably we have cancelled this evening's performance of Exhibit B as we could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff. We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
For those committed to the defence of free inquiry and artistic expression, this is not a complicated matter. And it would be only slightly more complicated if the work in question were indisputably racist. The right of artists to express themselves as they see fit must be inviolate, as must the right of audiences to make up their own minds about the merits of what they produce. It bears repeating that an axiom of free speech advocacy is the willingness to defend the expression of opinions with which one vehemently disagrees.

But in a dismal op-ed for the anti-censorship advocacy organisation Index on Censorship, its associate arts producer, Julia Farrington, found herself unable to do any such thing. Her article, it should be noted, appeared on the Index website on 22 September - that is, after the petition and protests had been launched but before Exhibit B's cancellation. By 25 September, Index had found it necessary to issue an unsigned clarification of their official position, stating:
Those who read [Julia Farrington's] article following the cancellation and our short comment on it have interpreted our stance as one that in some way excuses or condones the protesters and the cancellation of the piece. This was certainly not our intention . . . People have every right to object to art they find objectionable but no right whatsoever to have that work censored. Free expression, including work that others may find shocking or offensive, is a right that must be defended vigorously.
This must be news to Farrington, whose defence of Bailey's right to conceive and present his work is tepid in the extreme. Instead, her article takes the side - with minimal equivocation - of those noisily declaring themselves offended by it.

Although Sara Myers's petition explicitly demands the Barbican cancel its performances of Bailey's work - and although Farrington does mention this fact - she persistently misdescribes Myers's transparently censorious campaign against venue and artist as "a boycott". And it is the protestors to whom she awards credit, without irony, for "ensuring dialogue is happening".

Like them, she had not seen the work for herself at the time of writing. Nevertheless, "what interests me here," she explains, "is the mindset of the institution presenting this piece of work and whether it considered, if at all, the possibility of a hostile response." Contrary to appearances, it is the Barbican which is unmasked as the real villain. They did, she concedes, commission a public debate on the matter, but their hand was forced by the protests which, she argues, were themselves a product of the venue's insensitivity and incompetence. Farrington justifies this conclusion by declaring her belief that:
The role of the arts institution . . . is to manage the space between the artist and the audience.
And with that she burdens the venue with responsibility for the row. Actually, the role of an arts institution - be it a cinema, theatre, or gallery - is neutral: to provide space for the exhibition of work and to promote said work as it sees fit. Those who elect to exhibit challenging material should be supported in their efforts, not presented with further obstacles.

To insist that venues and institutions "manage the space between the artist and the audience" as a precondition to exhibiting potentially controversial content will only help further deter the emergence of provocative art. ("We are thinking of exhibiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò at your local. Please read the attached synopsis and let us know your thoughts.")

Not only would such a process be time-consuming, cumbersome, and - I would imagine - expensive, but it would also present a number of practical problems. Who, for instance, decides what level of potential offence and provocation demands prior consultation with outraged community activists? And who decides which of the activists' subsequent demands are reasonable? And, most importantly, what exactly does this alleged obligation to "manage the space between the artist and the audience" actually require of the venue? 

To Farrington, I imagine the phrase seems collaborative and cuddly. But in this context "manage the space between the artist and audience" sounds a lot to me like a euphemism for "listen to community concerns and make the requested changes accordingly."

It is instructive to listen to Sara Myers debating one of the actresses in the work on Newsnight. Amid Myers's various complaints about offence and bad taste, and her demands for an apology and "holistic reparations", she averred that she would "not necessarily" seek to interfere with an artist's vision. All she wanted, she announced, was to be consulted. 

But then would she feel satisfied if, once her views had been heard and taken into account, the work in question remained unchanged? Interestingly, by way of an answer to this yes/no question from presenter Kirsty Wark, Myers turned her attention to the moral deficiencies she perceived in the production:
There's no whiteness in that exhibition. All there is is black people standing in various cages with chains...
A reductive piece of critical analysis, to be sure. To Wark's hypothetical that scenes involving the degradation of blacks required a "white representation," she nodded: "Yes, it needed to be balanced." I don't know what I dislike more; the presumption of the words in that sentence or the pedagogical tone in which they were uttered.

Myers never did get around to giving Wark a straightforward answer, but it was evident to me that she was not about to be appeased by any amount of consultation so long as the show went ahead unaltered. Had it done so, I imagine she would have denounced the consultation efforts as a cosmetic sham designed to shut her up and pressed for further direct action.

But Farrington was not satisfied that the protestors' concerns had been adequately dealt with either. She described the two hours alotted to the public debate commissioned by the Barbican as "woefully inadequate", and welcomed the activists' call for further "engagement and dialogue":
As anticipated the debate changed nothing in the short term, the work will open this evening as planned, but there was an urgent call for a longer, fuller discussion which hopefully Barbican will respond to as a matter of urgency.
Myers's petition is unambiguous in its demand for the censorship of Exhibit B. And the jubilation with which she and her supporters welcomed the news of the performance's closure, two days after Farrington's article appeared, speaks to their true motivations. These are not people interested in opening dialogue but in policing it and closing it down. 

How on earth did a free speech advocate find herself so far on the wrong side of an elementary free speech debate? The nature of the performance, its subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the skin colour of the protesters, appear to have presented Farrington with a conflict. She is a free speech advocate. But she is also clearly sympathetic to the view that structural racism and institutionalised white privilege are the 'root cause' of everything. Certainly, as far as UK arts and culture goes, she accepts its alleged 'institutionalised racism', a priori. As she puts it:
Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront “colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today” and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.
Index on Censorship does not speak for the victims of 'structural racism'. There are other organisations which devote their time and resources to that. In her capacity as a writer for Index, Farrington ought to have shelved her reservations about such matters, and concentrated on the most immediate threat to free speech: the intimidation of artists and venue by a censorious campaign.

But she prefers to resolve her ideological dilemma with a rhetorical sleight of hand. She concludes her article:
I defend Brett Bailey’s right to present these horrendous atrocities from the past – anything else is censorship . . . But the more potent issue here, is the perpetuation of institutionalised mono-cultural bias preventing the Barbican, and the vast majority of British arts institutions, from fostering and delivering a truly relevant cultural programme. This untenable form of censorship must be addressed and continue to be addressed long after Exhibit B has been and gone.
So it turns out that Farrington has been anti-censorship all along. Not the common-or-garden type right in front of her eyes, of course, but something more profound and subtle; the censorship of minority voices by stealth. 

In support of her accusation, Farrington relies on two rather dubious expert witnesses. She quotes Mark Sealy, artistic director at Autograph Black Photographers, who demands that public funding be withdrawn from those who don't fall into line by employing the right people or producing the right kind of content. The basis for this draconian recommendation is a highly implausible (and unsubstantiated) claim that "since 1980s it is progress zero". Part of what is needed, we may infer, is the involvement of more people like Sara Myers who will arbitrate on what kind of material is and is not acceptable to their respective communities.

Then we meet Jenny Williams, described as an "independent arts consultant". Williams appears to think what's needed is a thoroughgoing policy of Multiculturalism in the arts and a stricter balkanisation of funding allocated to minority communities:
The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
The outrage of this apparently monstrous pie-dividing injustice, by the way, appears to rest on an assumption that black and minority ethnic audiences won't look at or listen to anything not made by their own ethnic or racial group. But by enlightened roads such as these will we journey to a land where all art and culture is politically acceptable and socially responsible. 

As Farrington must surely be aware, the fanatical pursuit of this conformist dystopia is not restricted to the arts. A recent article in Spiked by Frank Furedi entitled "Academic Freedom Is a Big Deal" looks at troubling examples of this kind of doctrinaire thinking on campus:
Intolerance towards the academic freedom of other colleagues is invariably represented as not what it really is – the silencing of unconventional or objectionable views – but rather as an enlightened defence of those who would be offended by unconventional or objectionable views. From this perspective, the advocacy of a genuinely open intellectual culture, where scholars are encouraged to take risks and question everything, is an abomination.
Academic freedom and artistic freedom - both of which, in different ways, are dedicated to the pursuit of truth - are extraordinarily precious components of open societies. And both are in danger of being compromised, not just by moral puritans of the right, but also by moral puritans of the left - those for whom the enforcement of their own idea of 'social justice' and the immediate redress of grievance trump all scholarly and aesthetic concerns.

It is fantastically unwise for an organisation like Index on Censorship to indulge such people. Anti-censorship advocates, whatever their views about related issues, owe it to themselves to defend art and scholarship from the manoeuvres of activists like Sara Myers, and to do so without equivocation. Farrington's article subordinates that responsibility to ideological views concerning the nature of racism, social justice activism, and identity politics, which are wildly beyond her brief. In a confused attempt to position herself as the friend of the weak, Julia Farrington has misidentified both villain and victim and sided with censorious philistinism. The people power embodied by Myers and her fellow malcontents, of which Farrington writes with such admiration, was a sinister and coercive force from the start.

I take no pleasure in criticising Index on Censorship. They do valuable work and are, by some accounts, a rather embattled organisation at present. But in their handling of this controversy, they abdicated their responsibility to defend those in whose interests they speak. When their associate arts producer marvelled at the 22,500 signatures the petition to close Bailey's work had by then accrued, she should have stopped to consider this: it is precisely at times like these that artists and performers engaged in challenging work most need the support of people like her.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Euphemism, Dysphemism, and Masochism

On the Quarrel Over Lydda

Lydda (now Ben Gurion) airport, captured by the IDF in 1948. 
At Mosaic magazine, a fascinating dispute recently concluded over an incident that took place during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. The cause of the trouble, at least in the first instance, was a chapter in Ha'aretz journalist Ari Shavit's bestselling book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which deals with the conquest of the Arab city of Lydda. More specifically at issue was Shavit's description of what occurred there as a massacre, for which he held Zionism explicitly responsible.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a quick précis:

On 14 May 1948, as the last of the British forces withdrew, bringing the curtain down on Mandatory Palestine, Israel declared its independence. The next day, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, refusing to recognise the new state, declared war and invaded from the south, east, and north, respectively. Only 3 years after the Holocaust had ended, a state created as a refuge for a persecuted nation found itself faced with an eliminationist - and possibly genocidal - war on three fronts.

On 11 July, as the war turned in Israel's favour, Israeli forces approached the city of Lydda. The operational order of 26 June, codenamed Larlar, described their mission as follows:
To attack in order to destroy the enemy forces in the area of the bases Lydda-Ramla-Latrun-Ramallah, to capture these bases and by so doing to free the city of Jerusalem and the road to it from enemy pressure.
The battle for Lydda began with a charge of armoured vehicles during the course of which dozens of Arabs and nine Israeli soldiers were shot dead. The Arab irregulars stationed in Lydda, stunned by the ferocity of the raid, watched as Israeli forces took up positions in the town. The inhabitants were rounded up and ordered to report to the Great Mosque and the Church of St George where they were temporarily confined. It was assumed that Lydda had been taken and pacified.

The next day at noon, two Jordanian armoured cars entered the city, surprising the IDF. A firefight broke out and pandemonium erupted. Armed Arab irregulars, perhaps believing the Jordanian cars heralded further reinforcement, began to fire at Israeli soldiers, who were also reporting that grenades had been thrown from in or around a building known as the Small Mosque (distinct from the Great Mosque, where unarmed detainees were being held).

In response to the uprising, Israeli troops returned fire wildly, threw grenades into houses, and fired an anti-tank missile at the Small Mosque killing a large number of those inside. It was all over in 30 minutes. The IDF lost just four soldiers. The exact number of Arab casualties is disputed, but the losses are generally thought to be in three figures. Over the next 24 hours or so, the detainees were released and those Arab inhabitants of Lydda not already fleeing the city were expelled into the West Bank.

Part of the problem posed by Shavit's handling of these events is that he's dealing with history but approaching it as a journalist; this is a personal, emotional work, not a scholarly one. And because he's therefore concerned with the demands and possibilities of narrative and style, complexities inevitably get collapsed into big symbols and themes.

Shavit has structured his book so that each chapter represents a particular historical event, movement, or development. Thus, the chapter on Lydda represents the 1948 war - the triumph of Zionism and the tragedy of Palestinian defeat and expulsion, encapsulating his book's subtitle rather too neatly. It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that it was the chapter selected in advance of the book's publication to appear in abridged form in the New Yorker. When the article appeared on 21 October 2013, it generated a great deal of attention and comment. So did the book when it was published a month later.

Shavit conceives of what happened at Lydda in grandiloquent, quasi-Biblical terms: 'Zionism' - the Jewish quest for self-determination in their historic homeland - is here personalised as a vengeful deity descending on Lydda, massacring its people, and smiting the city. But it is on the ashes of these crimes, Shavit insists, that Israel has built a democracy worth defending. His story of Zionism and Lydda, then, is one of sin and redemption; an experience in expiation.

Shavit loves his country but feels he must atone for 1948. He invites the reader - or rather, the Zionist reader - to join him in a display penitence for events which occurred nine years before his birth. The sins for which Shavit and his liberal Zionist audience want absolution are also of a Biblical nature - they are the sins inherited from previous generations and passed down from parent to child like a curse. Lydda, Shavit warns portentously, symbolises "our black box", inside of which "lies the dark secret of Zionism". As an Arab town at the very heart of Israel, he writes...
Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be.
The ugly truth, Shavit tells us, is that it was "Zionism" which "carrie[d] out a massacre in the city of Lydda". Then, as tens of thousands of Arabs stream out of the city and into the Jordanian West Bank, he states: "Zionism obliterates Lydda". Shavit's use of the term "obliterates" is obviously figurative. But is his use of the term "massacre" intended to be figurative or literal? The casual mixture of the literal and the figurative makes it hard to tell. There were, however, no shortage of people happy to take him at his word without inquiring further. I was one of them.

But when Ari Shavit's claim of a massacre at Lydda caught Israeli historian Martin Kramer's sceptical eye, he decided to look into it. In July of this year, Mosaic magazine published the results of his investigations: a 9000 word essay, entitled What Happened at Lydda, in which Kramer methodically analysed Shavit's version of events and found it wanting.

Unlike Shavit, Kramer's first responsibility as a practising historian is not to good storytelling but to establishing what most probably happened. Kramer contends that what happened at Lydda was not a massacre but a battle, albeit a chaotic one with highly disproportionate losses to the Palestinian side. Damagingly, he unearths further testimony given by Shavit's own interviewees that either contradicts or significantly complicates his version of events.

And, as Kramer invites us to notice, it turns out that Shavit's omissions and elisions all point in the same direction and support the same narrative demands. This happy coincidence is unlikely to result from sloppy scholarship. Shavit is just doing what storytellers have always done: fashioning a story in his own way, so as to emphasise the themes he wishes to explore. But in so doing, Kramer argues, he had helped to further defame an already slandered state.

Ari Shavit, regrettably, declined to respond. So in the interests of furthering the discussion, Mosaic invited the historian Benny Morris to weigh in.

Morris is well-placed to comment. As a member of those Israeli scholars who became known as the 'New Historians', he has emerged as one of Israel's leading authorities on the 1948 war, writing four books on the subject between 1988 and 2008, and editing a fifth.

The New Historians emerged following the declassification of large parts of the Israeli archives in 1978. This development prompted a surge of revisionist scholarship devoted, not just to updating the record, but to critically re-examining some of Israel's most sensitive foundational myths. Some of what they wrote has since been rejected or updated; much of it has become a part of accepted consensus; other areas - like this one, apparently - remain fiercely disputed.

Furthermore, it is on Morris's work that Shavit reveals he has relied for Lydda's casualty figures and his description of what occurred there as "a massacre". In his 2008 book, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Morris summarised what happened at Lydda like this:
A firefight ensued, and the locals joined in, sniping from windows and rooftops. The jittery Palmahniks [Israeli soldiers] responded by firing at anything that moved, throwing grenades into houses and massacring detainees in a mosque compound; altogether, "about 250" townspeople died and many were injured, according to IDF records. [pp. 289-90]
Morris, however, declared himself unimpressed by Shavit's account which, he wrote, "distorts in the grand manner". And he rejected Shavit's central contention that Zionism needed to be indicted. Lydda was not and is not Zionism's black box.

But then, nor was Morris all that persuaded by Martin Kramer's contribution, which he accused of trying to whitewash the Israeli crimes of massacre and expulsion. And he agreed with Shavit's claim (derived, as it was, from Morris's own writing) that "Lydda was the biggest massacre of the 1948 war".

Thereafter, the debate sets Ari Shavit's book aside and refocusses on trying to establish what actually occurred over 30 minutes in Lydda on July 12, 1948. From what I can tell the gaps between Kramer and Morris about the events themselves are fairly narrow. But the debate about numbers and testimony is complicated by mutual suspicion of a perceived agenda relating to how these events ought to be described.

Benny Morris is the sworn foe of euphemism. As a Zionist, he insists that Israel must be defended for what it is, not what we would like it to be, and that this requires historians to catalogue its crimes and mistakes with unsparing frankness.

Martin Kramer agrees that Israel should be defended for what it is. But what worries him is an overcorrection into dysphemism. Euphemism distorts reality by sanitising it and reducing argument to apologetics. Dysphemism - the substitution of a neutral term with a pejorative or inflammatory one - does the reverse; it distorts reality by poisoning it and reducing argument to invective.

And so, once the available facts had been disputed and discussed, the debate's conclusion turned on a question of language. About half-way through their final exchange at Mosaic, entitled The Meaning of Massacre, almost as an aside, Benny Morris suddenly appears to concede the point:
Perhaps part of the problem stems from the meaning of the word “massacre.” Of course, all would agree that if you line up 100 civilians or unarmed POWs against a wall and shoot them, you have a massacre. But what occurred in Lydda was more complicated.
A firefight with two Jordanian armored cars and sniping by armed townspeople provoked mass killing by a small IDF contingent that felt vulnerable and panicky: 300 to 400 men in the center of a town that they thought had surrendered (it hadn’t) and that contained tens of thousands of locals and refugees. And the Arabs were the ones who had started the war.
Here Morris defines "massacre" as I would understand it in this context: the deliberate mass killing of unarmed civilians or detainees. Since Morris acknowledges that this is not what happened in Lydda, that would appear to settle the matter. But he then stubbornly defends his use of the term anyway, only in a metaphorical sense - to covey recklessness and vastly disproportionate losses:
But whatever the extenuating circumstances, had IDF troops acted in such a manner today, given current legal and moral norms, they would most likely have been put on trial—by Israel. One can argue that one shouldn’t “judge” soldiers’ behavior in the past by today’s standards. Agreed. But this doesn’t change the fact that they committed a massacre.
This is a slippery defence, and its potential to mislead is large. When Morris writes in 1948 that Lydda witnessed "the massacring of detainees in a mosque compound", it evokes lurid images of helpless men, women, and children being arbitrarily dragged from their houses and having their throats slit by rampaging soldiers. Morris's use of the term "slaughter" during his debate with Kramer only reinforces this impression.

This obscure semantic dispute is important precisely because the rhetoric deployed against Israel has become so thick with abuse, that causal dysphemism is now central to the way the entire conflict is debated, reported, and discussed. In the most recent Gaza war, Israel was widely and routinely accused of committing "massacres", the term often meant to reflect the disproportionate casualty figures, but understood by many to mean the deliberate mass murder of civilians. Thus is the picture created in the mind of the uninformed or hitherto neutral observer of a state which pitilessly liquidates innocents.

But to misapply the term to the War of Independence, as Kramer argues Shavit and Morris have done, is to concede something of even greater value to those who would delegitimise the very existence of the Israeli state: the notion that it was created in sin. Such people are not interested in Zionism's redemption or liberal Zionists' tormented confessions.

For Israel's enemies, the only acceptable act of contrition would be the disestablishment of the whole rotten state. And to that end, if Israel's sin is indeed original, it may legitimately be denied credit for any achievement and condemned twice over for every crime. This accusation is made explicit by a Zionist in Ari Shavit's book: Zionism committed a massacre in Lydda, and it was a massacre without which Israel would not and could not have been created.

Massacres were sometimes committed during the 1948 war, of course. But in trying to ascertain how many, it is no more useful to re-describe a battle as a massacre than it is to whitewash a massacre as a battle. To do either creates not just a category confusion but also a moral one. And yet this confusion persists, in part, because it satisfies a peculiar need.

I find it interesting to note that, by Kramer's account, those most effusive in their praise for Shavit's book, and for the Lydda extract in particular, have not circulated his rebuttal. There are many possible reasons for this, but one of them, I suspect, is that Kramer's analysis did not offer them the same easy but perverse satisfaction as Shavit's account: the satisfaction of feeling good about feeling bad.

The entire discussion can be found collected into a single 36 page .pdf document here. It includes a contribution from historian Efraim Karsh, unmentioned above, which appeared in Mosaic after Kramer's essay but before Morris's first reply. I encourage those who have enjoyed this post to read the whole exchange. Aside from the issues at hand, seeing history debated this way is its own reward. 

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Defending the Indefensible

Honour Killings and the Limits of Free Speech

Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman Uthman Badar
On Tuesday 24 June, the Sydney Opera House announced the cancellation of a talk entitled "Honour Killings Are Morally Justified", scheduled to be delivered at the annual Festival of Dangerous Ideas by Uthman Badar, a Sydney-based spokesman for the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. The full statement read as follows:
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is intended to be a provocation to thought and discussion, rather than simply a provocation. It is always a matter of balance and judgement, and in this case a line has been crossed. Accordingly, we have decided not to proceed with the scheduled session with Uthman Badar. It is clear from the public reaction that the title has given the wrong impression of what Mr Badar intended to discuss. Neither Mr Badar, the St James Ethics Centre, nor Sydney Opera House in any way advocates honour killings or condones any form of violence against women.
Simon Longstaff, the executive director of the St. James Ethics Centre, which is organising and curating the Festival, then posted the following statement on twitter:

It is unclear from Longstaff's use of the passive voice whether he reluctantly assented to the talk's cancellation or whether it was a decision imposed upon him by the venue. Either way, he was clearly unhappy. But, like the venue, he conceded the title had been "a mistake" unreflective of Badar's arguments.

The difficulty with this is that by Badar's own account (which I have yet to see disputed by anyone connected with the event), the title of the session was not his idea, but was suggested by the St James Ethics Centre. He then wrote the talk to order. So if the title really does not match the content, it is because Badar did not deliver on his brief, which was the unambiguous defence of a barbaric practice. In a facebook post, published after the furore erupted but before the event was cancelled, Badar protested that this was indeed the case:
As for the content of my presentation, I wont [sic] be revealing much before the event itself. Surprise, surprise. I will, however, say that the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous and something I would normally not deem worth of [sic] dignifying with a response. Rather, this is about discussing the issue at a deeper level, confronting accepted perceptions, assumptions and presumptions and seeing things from a different perspective. Is that too much to ask of the liberal mind?
Had the talk's title been framed as a question rather than an assertion, this would be an acceptable defence. But it wasn't, so it's simply an admission by Badar that he had failed to defend the pre-agreed proposition. That this failure is now being used to berate his critics is both an amusing irony and indicative of his lack of integrity.

But even his protestation of failure is not entirely honest, since it is obvious from the pompous tone of the accompanying abstract that Badar did feel he had defended the proposition, at least to his own satisfaction. Having agreed to argue that honour killings are justified, he approached the topic as a student might approach an exam question which doesn't quite fit the answer he's pre-prepared. The brief abstract originally published (now deleted) on the Festival's website informed us:
For most of recorded history parents have reluctantly sacrificed their children—sending them to kill or be killed for the honour of their nation, their flag, their king, their religion. But what about killing for the honour of one’s family? Overwhelmingly, those who condemn ‘honour killings’ are based in the liberal democracies of the West. The accuser and moral judge is the secular (white) westerner and the accused is the oriental other; the powerful condemn the powerless. By taking a particular cultural view of honour, some killings are condemned whilst others are celebrated. In turn, the act becomes a symbol of everything that is allegedly wrong with the other culture.
Or, more succinctly: "Mind your own business."

While this is not an assertion that honour killings are morally justified, Badar's apparent demand for moral neutrality precludes anything approaching condemnation, least of all from secular (white) Westerners.

Longstaff - who describes himself as "a philosopher focusing on the ethical dimension of life" - reckons this is all fascinating, and has said he finds Badar's arguments to be "sophisticated" and "nuanced". It's really neither of these things. Nor is it remotely surprising or unusual coming from its author. This is simply the expected jargon-sprinkled moral equivalence and cultural relativism which are the bread and butter of Hizb ut-Tahrir's tedious propaganda. No matter how grotesque the traditions and practices of the Muslim world may appear to be, it is always the West - demonic monopoliser of the planet's wealth and power - which is found to have the beam in its eye.

As for what illiberals like Badar may reasonably expect from what he scornfully calls "the liberal mind", the outcry which followed the announcement of the session was entirely foreseeable, not least because no-one - liberal or otherwise - likes to have their intelligence insulted.

Some may, as Longstaff claimed, not have bothered to read past the title, but given its lack of ambiguity that's perfectly understandable. Others may have decided to accept its plain declarative English over the burbling obscurantist sophistry of the attached abstract. Some may have resented the dishonesty of what appeared to be a bait-and-switch, and that it was an indictment of their own alleged hypocrisy to which they were to be treated. Or perhaps it was Badar's cynical racialisation of the argument they disliked. Or the re-description of those men who murder their kin as more properly belonging amongst the ennobled ranks of "the powerless".

For me, Badar's most objectionable claim is that condemnation of honour-based violence is particular to the West. Not only is this assertion demonstrably false, dismissing at a stroke the courageous women and men organising to fight for human rights in the Global South, but it carries the implication that those forced to submit to honour codes accept their subordination and abuse with uniform passivity and equanimity. These people, we are given to understand, have no need for peculiarly 'Western' notions of gender equality and individual autonomy, or the freedom to love and marry as they choose.

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, the Sydney Opera House's decision to cancel the talk was disappointing, and the latest in a regrettable string of incidents in which speakers have been stood down or disinvited in response to outraged protests. The title ought to have been altered so that it accurately reflected Badar's arguments and an apology ought to have been issued, but the session should have proceeded as planned rather than folding before a censorious campaign. After all, if the West's liberal press and academics are permitted to make identical arguments from moral equivalence, then why not a besuited fanatic at a Festival dedicated to the expression of supposedly dangerous ideas?

Instead, the event's cancellation has afforded Uthman Badar, an Islamist spokesman for a racist, misogynistic, theo-fascist organisation, the opportunity to denounce the West for its disgraceful 'Islamophobia' (which was, in any event, the idea all along) and to complain with righteous bitterness about his victimisation:
Things were assumed and outrage ensued. That is the way Islamophobia works. The assumption is ‘we know what the Muslims will say’. This a very instructive case as far as that goes. I think the hysteria says a lot about Islamophobia and about the extent and the depth of it in this country. It says a lot about the reality of freedom and the space that minorities have to move in in this country, Muslims in particular.
You don't say. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that an activist like Badar anticipated this endgame from the moment he agreed to speak. If anyone is guilty of naivety it is the St James Ethics Centre who have inadvertently helped to promote the Islamists' victimhood agenda and accomplished nothing else besides making themselves look ridiculous. But with dismaying predictability, The Guardian found it necessary to clear space for one Yassir Morsi to defend Badar as a guileless naif and unwitting pawn of the 'Islamophobia' industry:
Badar ought to have intuitively known better that this is what Muslims endure. He should have known about the industry of stereotyping. It was bad enough that the festival’s organisers were so insensitive. For a publicity stunt, they exploited the feelings about victims of, and those left to deal with, "honour" killings. What was also distasteful was their exploiting of a persistent Islamophobia to increase ticket sales and gain attention. It says everything about how attractive the Muslim is as a commodity that sells.
Islamists who complain of 'Orientalist' paternalism are quite prepared to assume the role of bewildered children when evading personal responsibility for their own choices and actions, and newspapers like The Guardian can be relied upon to provide mainstream support. In a comment posted below Morsi's article, the Council of Ex-Muslims Forum could barely contain its disgust:
[Hizb ut-Tahrir] have utilised the rhetoric of identity politics and multicultural tolerance to position themselves as victims, and this enables a liberal newspaper to publish apologia for them despite being far-right extremists . . . The Left should be on guard against far-right fascists and misogynists who superficially use the rhetoric of progressive causes to peddle their agenda. Let this be a wake up call for everyone about the decadent arrogance of cultural relativists on the Left who seem obliviously naive about who they empower and enable, and the far-right Islamists who make hay in their sunshine. Enough is enough.
Morsi neglects, of course, to remind his readership that the organisation of which Badar is a spokesman seeks the imposition of a totalitarian medieval Caliphate in which dissent is crushed, homosexuality and apostasy are punished by death, women and non-Muslims are subjugated, adulterers are stoned, murderers are publicly crucified, and thieves have their limbs amputated. The inclusion of such information might have required him to recalibrate the degree to which Badar’s hitherto wholesome reputation had been traduced.

Had Longstaff wanted Badar to defend a 'dangerous idea' in which he does believe, then any of these would have sufficed. The Hizb ut-Tahrir constitution is not short on 'provocative' material. On the other hand, had Longstaff really wanted the defence of honour killings their title advertised, he should have found a speaker prepared to provide it.

Simon Longstaff and the St James Ethics Centre's wish to provide a platform for dangerous or taboo ideas is a laudable and important one. Rationalism - the idea that all arguments must be fought and won on the basis of reason - is one of the most important and valuable legacies of the Enlightenment, and no-one has the right to declare a point of view unsayable or unhearable, no matter how controversial or repellent. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

Bestiality, paedophilia, incest, infanticide, euthanasia, ethnic cleansing, slavery, torture, eugenics, Holocaust denial, female genital mutilation or any other taboo or abhorrent practices must remain acceptable topics for debate for as long as there are people willing to defend them, either as a critical exercise or from a position of unapologetic advocacy. And the unpleasant reality is that there are plenty of people alive today who hold that honour killing is not simply justifiable but a moral requirement and duty.

A particularly horrifying example occurred in May of this year when a young, pregnant woman named Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her family in Pakistan for marrying against her family's wishes. "I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it," her father was reported to have said when he was arrested.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that 869 women were slain in honour killings in 2013 alone, although this is thought to be a very conservative figure. But what made this particular case so shocking is that Parveen was murdered on the steps of the High Court in Lahore in broad daylight, allegedly in front of police officers who stood by impassively as her skull was smashed with bricks. A mere two days later, her husband, hitherto presented as a traumatised widower, casually revealed that he had strangled his first wife in order to marry his second.

For many in the West who have internalised the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the full implications of this terrible story are incomprehensible. But this is partly due to a reluctance to listen to what cultural chauvinists and religious fanatics actually say. Invaluable online resources like that of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) are making this easier to do. Quite apart from the need to defend the universal principle of free expression, it is now counterproductive to simply declare that the defence of honour violence must be suppressed or confined to mosques and madrasas far away from liberal eyes and ears. On the contrary, it would be instructive, I think, if Western audiences were to hear the murder of Farzana Parveen defended by those who truly value this tradition's survival. For if the honour code's pitiless and lethal misogyny is occasionally laid out by its impenitent defenders, it can no longer be dismissed as an Orientalist's fantastical misrepresentation.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas are not of course obliged to provide a platform to views like these. But when organisations do, they should not be criticised unless they affirm endorsement. Bring the advocates of honour violence forward. Let them explain why women must be made to bear the honour of their family, while men are excused responsibility. And why this burden of honour necessarily requires women to forfeit their autonomy. And why they must pay with their lives if they resist.

It may then become clearer to those disinclined to criticise any culture but their own how the lives of women can be considered so cheap that families are able to murder their own mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters without the disturbance of conscience. And it may become harder for Islamists like Badar and ethical thinkers like Longstaff to relativise away the benefits of liberal, secular democracy, and the suffering of those not fortunate enough to enjoy its rights, freedoms, and protections.

UPDATE: As I was completing the first draft of this post, CNN reported that a young newly-wed couple had been decapitated in Pakistan by the bride's family, who then turned themselves in.