“Thick as two short planks.” I was in the checkout queue in Sainsbury’s and the nice chap in front was apologising for his tardiness in placing the divider. I patted him on the back and told him not to worry about it. “All he had to do was push up the divider to us.” Ah. It was at this stage that I realised the gentleman who was manning the till was very Asian in appearance.
Now dear reader, I don’t know quite what was in my fellow shopper’s mind; and neither will the moderator (of any blog on which this article appears) know what is going through the commentator’s mind (or the complainer’s mind) when they receive complaints about the comments below, but it is their job to make an inference, as nearly all talk moderation aims to filter out hate-speech. As much as we like the idea of an objective reality ‘out there’ that we are all fighting to define (the so-called ‘view from nowhere’), intentions are still paramount as we can see in that most objective of fora, the law court. In English law, only once the intention of permanently depriving the victim of the stolen articles has been demonstrated can a conviction for theft be successful; to get a murder conviction the intent to kill has to be established; to sue for libel the plaintiff has to demonstrate malicious intent.
A glance through the Comment is free threads touching on the clash of civilizations theme, or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, will quickly reveal a hate-fest with both sides struggling to demonise the other, to depict them objectively as negatively as possible, to incite hatred towards the opposition. Being a sentimental race, no logic will stand against the force of such sentiment.
Objectifying the opposing group is essential to this process and nothing beats a simplifying, partial and reductive collation of the ‘objective facts’. The last thing that is needed is an explanation that sees the conflict or the people caught up in it as dynamic processes coming about and perpetuated through a complex of causes and conditions. This would be dangerous, for that way the reader might realise that they too, placed in the same situation with the same history and pressures, might see things in the same way as the demonised—too empathetic, too humanising, too messy and too complicated.
This is a general feature of political discourse but it seems to have a special place in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, spreading out into the mutual distrust we see today between Muslim and Judaeo-Christian culture. Therefore I propose the beleaguered Cif management consider adopting an annexe to the existing Talk Policy along the lines of the Haaretz Talk Policy:
Political orientation will have absolutely no bearing on whether a comment is posted or rejected.
Comments containing the following will be automatically disqualified:
- Personal attacks, vulgarities and profanities directed at other respondents.
- Statements terming Israelis or Palestinians and their leaders Nazis, or accusing them of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
- Statements which may be construed as urging attacks on Israeli or Palestinian leaders, officials, security forces or civilians.
- Comments of an anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab or other racist nature.
It is not difficult to anticipate objections to the second point on the basis that either ethnic cleansing did happen in the past or leaders have stated their ambitions to carry it out in the future. But ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a particularly emotive term of relatively recent coinage, and the phenomenon to which it refers—the forced eviction of one ethnic group by another—is certainly not new. How did political discourse survive before this? Perhaps it is after all possible to discuss historical situations where victors of a war colonize captured territory without such emotive invocations. (For those that may suspect that I am part of some Zionist conspiracy, I suggest you read Uri Avnery’s Truth against Truth pamphlet—I know of no better overview of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and it achieves its purpose without any such incendiary language.)
Others will object that Islam is an ideology and Israel is a political entity, and both should be open to critiques. But I see precious little (below the line) commentary on Islamic culture that is anything other than astonishingly ignorant and malicious, the minority of commentators sympathetic to Islamic culture endeavouring to challenge the hateful prejudices. Only a Muslim scholar with appropriate training would venture to comment on the Qur’an, knowing that a comprehensive knowledge of the whole must be brought to bear on each Sura, yet some feel free to cut and paste the most crude and reductive commentaries that horrify ordinary Muslims and scholars alike. And to what end? Islam isn’t an ideology but a family of cultures, a collection of philosophies, and a way of life shared by over a billion people. To demonise and misrepresent it as inherently violent or inherently inegalitarian is an act of violence in itself; no peaceful intention for such behaviour can be credibly offered. (It goes without saying, as with all religions and ideologies, that powerful and frustrated interest groups will seek to abuse Islam for their own corrupt, political ends.)
While Israel is a political entity she is likewise much more than this as Seth Freedman reminded us about a year ago in Spare the rod …; attempts to demonise Israel are felt as much more than a mere critique of a political entity administering a modest Mediterranean territory, and those that think they are fighting for Palestinian welfare and justice by indulging in their own brand of vitriol are doing nothing of the sort, but are more likely using this cause as a cover for their own angry projections and who knows, maybe even exploiting it as a convenient channel for repressed anti-Semitism. This is certainly not to say—the very point of Seth Freedman’s article—that Israel shouldn’t be criticized, but that spiteful remarks (careless or otherwise) are likely to have an even more incendiary effect than if they are made about another state, and not just for Israelis or Jews. It is not what is said, but how it is said that is at issue (those pesky intentions again).
I am not saying that all criticism of Muslim or Israeli leaders, or their philosophies, or proposals, is Islamophobic or anti-Semitic. Such a reductive caricature is absurd and like other readers and contributors to Comment is free I value the forum for its serious and robust debate, which I wouldn’t want curtailed. I am arguing that Comment is free consider adopting more detailed guidelines like those used by Haaretz for assessing commentary that involves Israeli/Jewish or Palestinian/Islamic culture in order to help better identify the boundaries where robust debate starts to become counterproductive and meaningless.
Most importantly I am appealing to my fellow bloggers to avoid taking the bait and to keep peace in your heart while commentating on such vital but incendiary topics.