Monday, August 04, 2014

Unequal equivalence

A couple of stories and the associated ripples in the chatter-sphere caused me to pause and think about the concept and utility of equivalence last week. Firstly we have the entrenched and on-going conflict in Gaza and Israel. The conflict isn't new of course, but I've seen some interesting twists and turns as media heat has increased, many people on both right and left of the political landscape seem to be lobbing ever more extreme emotional labels around in order to articulate their views on this war. Secondly, there was an altogether less important but related micro-storm on twitter as Richard Dawkins made a comment about equivalence in crime which many people got upset about, I suspect for similarly entrenched reasons rather than purely rational ones.

Israel are trying to destroy Hamas who are in turn are trying to destroy Israel, both sides are killing people in order to achieve their goals, this shouldn't be a surprise, that's what we do in war. Israel has overwhelming fire-power and consequentially Hamas will not win the battle, however, Israel will not win the war (by inspiring a whole new generation of enemies) a depressingly desolate landscape. The more pressing question for both sides is whether world opinion will constrain Israel somehow before they are able to achieve their tactical goals against Hamas.

Dawkins, on the other hand, only caused a flood of ire; with a tweet that said "date rape is bad but stranger rape at knife-point is worse". He claims that he was trying to illustrate a logical point, i.e. that comparing two things doesn't imply endorsement of either and also that for practical purposes (i.e. legally) it is often necessary to compare things that we would rather not compare because the subject is too emotionally loaded rather than being logically and ethically impossible to do so (of course our legal system already does these comparisons all the time). Dawkins could have chosen a better forum to make his point, but on the other hand I'm not sure why people feel that any topic (within the law) should be out of bounds on a system where you must "follow" someone to see what they've written, people do seem to go out of their way to be offended.

The parallel I'm trying to draw here is that when discussing Israel and Palestine it should be quite reasonable and rational to discuss the behaviour of both sides and to debate their relative morality without necessarily endorsing either, we need to take this approach or disappear in a pointless froth of absolutism and emotion. Perhaps because of the perfect storm of taboo subjects like religion, the holocaust and anti-Semitism very few commentators seem able to get past hopelessly simplistic sectarian and historical polarisation, something new is needed but unfortunately I don't see any light on the horizon.

When a BBC interviewer asks an Israeli spokesperson, "why are you killing children?" it seems to me that the same fallacy of equivalence is being used to make a rather cheap dramatic point. Bombs are ambivalent when it comes to the bombed, a child seeking missile has yet to be invented, a more useful line of debate would be to ask why certain places can't be reserved for "innocents" to shelter and those places should not be targeted or used by either side. Of course, a question like this is NOT an endorsement of what Israel is doing generally, that's the point. When some right wing blow hard like Sean Hannity prevents a Palestinian spokesperson from speaking during an interview by shouting the same pointless questions (when everyone knows the answer) we see the same problem, pointing out Israeli injustices against Palestinians is not an endorsement of Hamas terror.

Here are the kinds of questions and thought experiments I would like to be debated more widely,

We can (and should) debate the morality of using overwhelming force in self-defence or to achieve political goals, but how can we single out Israel for doing it when we are perfectly happy to do it ourselves. It's exactly what we did in Iraq (with UN sanction), Afghanistan, the Falklands and everywhere else we've fought, in fact wherever our Government thinks we cannot achieve overwhelming advantage (militarily) we simply do not fight, no matter how disagreeable the regime or need to prevent injustice (for example Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, Iran etc.)

Is it morally right to wish for the destruction of a state and a people, is it possible to negotiate with an enemy who is sworn to commit genocide against you as opposed to simply making you surrender.

What is the role of fundamental Judaism in this conflict, would Israel be better served by NOT being a "Jewish state" but merely a secular democracy, is it moral to invoke a subjective entity (like a deity) in order to make a "claim" on physical resources, like land?

What would happen to Jews if Hamas had all the weapons? Is Israel morally superior to Hamas in that it treats human shields as a deterrence (albeit an imperfect one) whereas Hamas actually aim to kill as many Israeli people as possible; imagine the ridiculousness of Israelis holding up their children as shields.

Since Hamas spent their time building tunnels rather than bomb shelters (as the Israelis did) then isn't it unavoidable that the casualties will be disproportionate, is this the fault of Israel?

Should Israel be blamed for developing a an effective rocket defence system, does this diminish the moral case for self-defence?

Where are the 000s deep protests by the left in Western countries about ISIS in Iraq who are crucifying people at the side of the road, do they care about Muslim on Muslim violence?

What is the role of powerful Christian Zionists in the USA in funding and supporting (beyond reason) Israel in a deluded belief that stoking the fires of violence in the "holy land" will accelerate the second coming of Christ?

and so on...


A Heron's View said...

Steve, I suggest that you view

Chairman Bill said...

Good post.

Steve Borthwick said...

Thanks for the link HV, I don't think I'd get on with this politician very well; unfortunately it's easy to find such views on both sides.