Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Do You See Where This Leads?

Normally I'm 100% behind everything that David Neiwert writes; I hope someday to come close to him in style and substance. So I was doubly troubled to read this post. Specifically:
Yet one thing you'll notice that's decidedly absent in all the right-wing horror at the riots is any recognition of the power relationship that is the real context in which they are occurring. There seems to be no recognition that we're talking about a people -- namely, Third World Muslims -- who've suffered a century and more of economic and political deprivation, a setting that has made them ripe for exploitation by fundamentalist demagogues. Of course we don't riot or engage in violence when someone is disrespectful of our culture and our beliefs; we Westerners have been perched in the catbird seat for some time now and can afford to ignore it if we choose. That's not how people on the bottom rung, though, are likely to respond to high-handed mistreatment and disrespect. Making fun of the high and mighty and privileged and powerful is an honorable thing, even if not very profitable. Making fun of the downtrodden -- especially from a position of privilege -- is a despicable thing ... but it sure is easy.
And I've seen similar sentiments from other people whose opinions I usually think are spot-on. Tom Tomorrow wrote the following not too long ago:
1: These riots are not the spontaneous uprisings of an outraged cartoon-reading Muslim population. The cartoons first appeared in Jyllands-Posten back during in September, and there was no such upheaval ‚— until a group of Danish imams spent a few months lobbying Islamic leaders across the Middle East for support, with a dossier that included images that didnÂ’t even run in the Danish paper to begin with. Just look at the news photos of neatly printed protest signs, all clearly produced by the same hand, in English, for the benefit of Western cameras. The cartoons may be — probably are ‚— genuinely offensive to Muslims, but this is manufactured outrage, and if weren’t about these cartoons, it would be about something else. A movie, a novel, the back of a cereal box, whatever.
Both David and Tom are making arguments about the power structure, David explicitly and Tom implicitly. The idea that both of them appear to be promoting is that, due to historic and current deprivation of various sorts, many of the world's Muslims are vulnerable to manipulation by the powers-that-be. I've no beef with their basic contention (many Muslims have been/are oppressed in various ways), but I've a couple of problems with the extrapolations that they (and other normally sensible people) are performing from that starting point. To start with, I've always found power structure arguments problematic from a theoretical standpoint. There's no way to formally test a power structure argument; its difficult to even reason about them qualitatively. In this case Tom and David are asserting that deprivation makes certain Muslim populations especially vulnerable to manipulation. It seems to me that this assertion requires both of them to intuit from afar the motivations of these groups; I'm not convinced that this can be done reliably. This line of reasoning rests on the assumption that these groups are monolithic and homogeneous when, in reality, they probably have a multiplicity of reasons for behaving as they do. Additionally, as I've written about before, the ability to describe the roots of a particular behavior doesn't necessarily excuse that behavior. David in particular seems to use Muslim oppression as an excuse for bad behavior. I find the implications of this stance particularly troubling; join me, if you will, while I follow this train of though to its logical conclusion. My personal view of things is that morality is rooted in our ability to choose our course of action. Were I to set fire to a Danish embassy it would be an immoral act because I a) violated the rights of others and b) had the ability to choose an alternate course of action. If "b" were not true (I was coerced in some fashion, I was suffering from some mental condition, etc.) I could not be held morally responsible for the setting-on-fire of said embassy. I'll go so far as to say that this is a universal rule (perhaps the universal rule) which applies across all cultures. Let me restate it again, for clarity's sake: violating the civil rights of an individual when an alternative course of action is available is immoral1. Neither Tom nor David contest that the populations which they describe have reacted violently, so part "a" from above doesn't appear to be under dispute. If you're going to assert that they haven't behaved immorally then part "b" must be false; both David and Tom are taking this approach, which is where I start to really have problems. Making such an assertion about any population strikes me as more than a little bit paternalistic. In this case in particular the only conclusion that I can draw is that both Tom and David believe that the deprivations that these Muslims have faced has robbed them of their ability to choose their course of action for themselves. Both of them seem to treat the masses as automatons controlled by their clergy; they are "ripe for exploitation by fundamentalist demagogues" and are responding with "manufactured outrage" at the direction of their leaders. I mean shit, you start off with "as a group they're overly susceptible to suggestion" and its only a matter of time before you end up ranting about their "uncontrollable lust" and "inherent criminality". I'm going to call "B.S." on this one; I'm having a hard time believing that either Tom or David really think that they are automatons. But the only alternative explanation that I can see is that both Tom and David are using deprivation as an excuse to soft-peddle what is otherwise clearly an immoral act. Its important to be sensitive to cultural differences, but there are a lot of behaviors which are clearly wrong, regardless of culture. The only way were going to be able to synthesize a coherent, multi-cultural framework for moral reasoning is if we are willing to stand fast and support a few basic principles as being non-negotiable.
1 More elegantly: "And it harm none, do what you will". Go Pagans!


Blogger David Neiwert said...


I'm not trying to excuse the violence -- just trying to explain it. I think having an understanding of the context in which these riots are occurring is important, in no small part because it refutes the right-wing contention that Muslims are innately violent and barbaric. I'm saying, no; they're just humans who are somewhat naturally angry about a century's worth of oppression.

But in no way am I excusing the violence. It's reprehensible, and represents simply the converse side of the tactics of white supremacism, using violence and intimidation for political purposes.

Put it in the context of free speech: I don't believe in censoring speech, and believe that publications certainly had a right to run the cartoons. However, I also believe that the answer to bad speech is good speech, and so I think the publishers very much deserved public condemnation. (It obviously reflected poor judgment.) That is free speech in action.

But free speech cannot be an excuse or front for criminal and violent behavior. I think civil protests would have been appropriate. But riots and violence are not speech; they're just thuggery.

Recall hate crimes if you will: Christian conservatives often claim that their free-speech rights are abrogated by hate-crimes laws. But beating people up is not a form of free speech.

So I fully support the right of Muslims to protest the cartoons. What I cannot support, but can only condemn, is the violence that accompanied those protests. There's no excuse for it. I'm sorry if I gave you the impression I thought there was one.

1:47 PM  
Blogger GG said...

David -

Thanks muchly for the in-depth reply. If the power dynamic doesn't excuse the behavior (though perhaps its a mitigating factor?) then what purpose is served by having people recognize the power dynamic at all?

My own response to the above is that, from a pragmatic standpoint, you can't solve a problem until you've identified its cause; recognizing the power dynamic in this case is necessary to prevent this and similar conflicts from ocurring in the future. Would you concur, or do you believe that there are other reasons to draw peoples' attention to this issue?

6:55 PM  
Blogger David Neiwert said...

The long term is certainly part of my reasoning, but I think understanding why something is happening is essential to coming to terms with how we deal with it in the here and now as well. Obviously we can't capitulate to violent threats, but we can find ways to ameliorate the conditions that help create the violence, and then perhaps find ways to channel the anger into a civil response that is effective.

I take largely the same approach to dealing with Montana Freemen/Patriot types, who typically are worked up about things like losing their farms, but are equally anti-modernist.

1:02 PM  

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