Idiot Compassion

In Stop the Rhetorical Violence I questioned what I seemed to be an ‘angry thread’ running through the Media Lens media alerts and David Edwards has written a comprehensive and interesting reply as a comment to the article raising some excellent questions. This article picks up on those questions.1

I will start with the end of David Edward’s comment where he wonders whether my own writing is actually a better example of the kind of angry speech that I am criticizing, when question whether some have been, “using the Palestinians (and others) as surrogates for their own angry agendas”:

To suggest that we are “using” the Palestinians is quite harsh, and to suggest we are doing so in pursuit of some “angry agenda” – as if we were exploiting their suffering in some way – makes for quite tough reading. Our agenda is compassion for human and animal suffering – our aim is the relief of suffering. We have no other agenda. And so our aim is to draw attention to the way Western media and politics have dehumanised the Palestinian people, and to show how this dehumanisation is crucial in facilitating continued misery.

Likewise this comment:

“Rhetorical violence is perpetuating this problem. Can we please have some intelligent analysis motivated by and grounded in sincere wisdom and compassion”

Do you really believe our alert contains “rhetorical violence”? Your comment might also be construed as suggesting that our analysis is not intelligent, and not rooted in wisdom and compassion. Again, this is painful for us to read – we take this kind of criticism seriously. I think those two sentences show just how hard it is to rein in the tone and to avoid harming other people. It’s so easy to write something that feels totally innocuous but which feels like a harsh personal criticism to the reader.

Finally, I notice on your website you write:

“Face facts, George Monbiot. Our environmental catastrophe is partly your responsibility”

This might also be seen as an aggressive and confrontational approach. No doubt this title could also have been softened.

The title for the George Monbiot article was a play on his Guardian article, Face facts, Cardinal. Our awful rate of abortion is partly your responsibility, where I substituted ‘George Monbiot’ for ‘Cardinal’ (Cormac Murphy-O’Connor) and ‘environmental catastrophe’ for ‘abortion’. George Monbiot was arguing (cogently) that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s fixation on an ideological position was leading him to harm a greater cause that he cared passionately about and I was struck by a symmetrical argument manifesting out of a single throwaway statement that George Monbiot had included in the article. It was because I share George Monbiot’s concerns and admire his writing so much that I wrote the article.

However, David is surely right. What I was writing does make for tough reading and it is clear from his comments that it has caused some hurt, for which I apologise. The standard thing to say in this case is that I didn’t intend to hurt, and I do want to say it and to a large extent I believe it is true. However I was also forced by his reply to think about whether my own obscurity compared to both David Edward’s and George Monbiot’s manifest success as campaigning authors had motivated an aggressive tone in my writing. If I look back over my history it is fair to say that I can detect a pattern where I prefer to stay on the outside while manifesting ‘attitude’ towards ‘establishment’ figures. I think there might be some truth to this charge, and it is useful to be aware of it. I am certainly grateful for David taking the time to write to me and point it out.

All I can say is that I am trying to keep my motivation compassionate and I should be held to account and explain myself—this I am trying to do. It is not that it is impossible to be perfectly motivated by compassion—I am confident that Geshe Sonam Rinchen (quoted by David) is purely motivated by compassion in everything he does, certainly relative to my own crude efforts. I am not saying that we can’t do better, but I am clear about where I stand.

Having made this clear I do remain concerned about some of David’s analysis. The essence of his reply is that Media Lens detect a bias in the coverage of the news, remaining blind to a certain kind of atrocity, especially when it is perpetuated by a nation state, most particularly when said state is considered to be allied to the UK—and I certainly agree. As I have said that I am a ‘Media Lens man’ and I have and continue to admire and support their programme. I was reviewing the excellent discussion between Robert Wright and Gershom Gorenberg (co-blogger at the excellent, and two more humane and intelligent commentators it would be more difficult to find, so it was all the more astonishing to realize while listening to their discussion of the war between Israel and Hamas that they don’t seem to think that there is any significant ethical issue concerning Israel’s treatment of the Gazans (this becoming clear from about twenty seven and a half minutes into the conversation, when Robert Wright wonders at the European and UN criticisms of disproportionality in the Israeli response to the rocket attacks where ‘a number of civilians were killed—not intentionally—but were killed’).

The thinking here is invariably based on intentions, and it is often repeated. Seth Freedman makes the point in a recent piece that a Hamas spokesman said of the recent massacre “[Hamas] blesses the heroic operation in Jerusalem, which was a natural reaction to the Zionist massacre,” but that an Israeli government spokesman would never celebrate such an atrocity. The thinking is that the IDF tries to engage the Palestinian militants while minimising civilian casualties while Hamas positively celebrates and publicly praises the murder of innocents.

We see so much of this kind of thinking nowadays—Tony Blair and many other apologists for the 2003 Iraq war say that it was no part of their intention to create the post-war breakdown so they aren’t responsible for the violent mayhem: the ‘terrorists’ are.2

I agree that intentions are the key to ethics—they certainly are in Buddhist writing and in the philosophy of Joseph Butler.3 Where I have to part company with almost everything I read on this matter today is in a prevalent naïve assumption that surface sentiment can be taken as a reliable indicator of motivations. It is like observing a pole half immersed in water and assuming that because the pole appears bent it must therefore be bent, a habit modernity seems to have acquired in the eighteenth century ‘Enlightenment’. (This is for a variety of reasons; as far as I am aware, the best analysis of this problem was done by Jane Austen and in In Search of Sense and Sensibility I explore how Austen’s cycle of novels demonstrates this confusion of sentiment and judgement to be fatal to both, these modern assumptions being the antithesis of self-knowledge.)

So, according to the architects of the Iraq war, they are not selfishly motivated in launching the war (i.e., they weren’t motivated to establish an ally and secure military bases in the region, while guaranteeing access to some of the very best oil reserves in the world as world oil production starts to peak, etc.) but were motivated by the greater good of the Iraqis in particular and the international community in general. Many people seem to sincerely believe that they are not just cynically saying this as a cover for their real motivations, therefore whatever about their motivations (and of course by extension the motivation of all of us who supported them or failed to do enough to oppose them) they are acquitted of any moral crimes even if their judgement may have been found wanting. This would be the considered judgement of cooler and wiser heads lifting themselves above the rather naïve and reactionary deadbeats with their typically Manichean view of politician’s motives and their love of conspiracy theories.

However to see the hypocrisy of most of the Iraq war architects it just needs to be asked whether the war’s architects would have behaved in the way if their own friends and family—anyone we can be reasonably sure that they cared about—had been living in Iraq. To ask the question is to answer it. The war’s architects may well have fooled themselves that they had the Iraqis’ interests at heart but there is no reason why we should be fooled too (unless, of course, we need the same cover).

In the same way, if we look at Israeli protestations that they try to minimise civilian loss of life, this in no way stands up. They may fool themselves that this is the case, and they may ‘sincerely believe’ so (whatever that means) but it will not withstand analysis. There is no way that they would prosecute the war in this way if their own kin were being subjected to the same risks as they are subjecting the Palestinian civilians. Further, it is impossible to believe that the mayhem isn’t politically motivated, that the carnage isn’t encouraged as a means of encouraging the Palestinian people to turn away from the militants.

Part of the reason that state actors like the UK, the US and Israel are not held accountable for their actions is that this is the modern convention (unless the state concerned should have the bad luck to lose a war). This may have its roots in that arch-sentimentalist Rousseau, who said in The Social Contract that ‘Sovereignty’ is ‘nothing less than the exercise of the general will,’ but also that the ‘general will is always right and tends to the public advantage’. Isn’t this a reflection of the way modern democratic industrial state actors behave, their actions assumed to be both infallible and a reflection of the will of the people, and never, ever called to account? (Of course, nobody has been able to give a coherent account of Rousseau’s ‘general will’.)

It is for these reasons that the Media Lens people ‘do deliberately use language that communicates something of the horrific truth in an effort to break through this complacency’. They gave an example of a ‘school [that] was on fire and children were burning alive’:

We wouldn’t rush to a group of people and say: ‘There’s a problem at the school’. We’d say: ‘The school’s on fire! Children are burning alive. We have to do something FAST!’

The problem with this is that while the Palestinian issue is important it is not necessarily urgent and it is interesting that the emotive example of burning children should be chosen. The conflict won’t be resolved overnight so it would be as well if those at some distance from it tried to understand its underlying causes and made sure that they weren’t contributing to it’s continuance. We are not in the school-room situation where a simple act (like clearing the burning school of children) will prevent the catastrophe.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict precisely the kind of language used by Media Lens has been used by advocates of Palestinian justice for 60 years and it clearly not working.

In response to Stop the Rhetorical Violence David said that “Our agenda is compassion for human and animal suffering – our aim is the relief of suffering. We have no other agenda.” In this David joins everyone in making high-minded statements about their intentions, whether it be following an agenda of universal compassion or allowing freedom and democracy to flourish and trying to protect the only example of it in the region (and if you sneer at either of these ideas then you may well be high-minded and righteous, but are failing to grasp the point).

In Stop the Rhetorical Violence I made the case that liberals had been “using the Palestinians (and others) as surrogates for their own angry agendas”, which David thought was in itself a better example of what I was criticizing, namely angry speech. Does this charge stands up?

As David himself points out in his response, ‘we do deliberately use language that communicates something of the horrific truth’, and I agree that compassionate speech does not necessarily make people feel comfortable (in the short term). To believe otherwise is to subscribe to what Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘idiot compassion’ and neither I nor Media Lens subscribe to this idea of compassion; it is a straw man. I do admire the Media Lens programme for pricking people’s comfortable perceptions, wholly support it and I use it myself in my own writing, trying to convey to people the horrific crimes that I believe we Britons are responsible for right now. However if the situation is going to be corrected it is important that everyone is held to the same standard, and the most intelligent commentators should be subjected to the most searching critical analyses. In Stop the Rhetorical Violence (and others I reference) I try to explain why I think liberals have been caught up in the dynamic that has driven the Israelis-Palestinian conflict, and the clear suggestion is that Media Lens should think about whether this critique applies to them. By my definition an angry mind seeks to harm its object but I have clearly professed at the head of Stop the Rhetorical Violence my approval and admiration of their enterprise, wrote to them to tell them about the critique and have given them a platform to reply, so as I explained at the head of this article it may indeed be an example of angry speech, I would say there is some grounds to believe that my motivations were mixed, that there may have been a genuinely compassionate intention on my part that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

The point about the use of phrases like ‘repeated and brutal transgressions of international and humanitarian law over forty years’ is that it will reinforce critics of Israel in their belief that Israel is a brutal, despotic Apartheid state, while a screen will descend in the minds of Israeli supporters, dismissing everything that follows as an anti-Zionist rant; it will tend to polarize and reinforce prejudices and indeed obscure the situation (and remember I am talking about poorly motivated rhetorical excesses in general and certainly not generally excellent media alerts). While it is easy to see the concern for Palestinians behind such statements it is difficult to see any compassion for Israelis, and authentic compassion should not be so partial. In any Israeli-Palestinian discussion on a liberal European blog you will find Israeli supporters complaining about their country being described in lurid and emotive terms. Israelis seem generally to feel a deep-seated existential insecurity rooted in recent history, and the language that gets used to criticize them simply reinforces this sense of insecurity. For many, to attack Israel is to attack Jewishness itself (see for example Seth Freedman’s article, Spare the Rod). This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism in any way; it is merely a pragmatic observation about the likely effect of clumsy attacks on Israel; they will tend to raise barriers between those that support Israel (perhaps too uncritically) and those that criticise Israel for her treatment of Palestinians (perhaps too insensitively).

I should say that while I do criticize Israeli actions, my stomach churns at the prospect of a Briton feeling that they are in any superior situation to raise such criticism given our long history of greed-induced destruction of other people’s nations, our 21st century continuance of this career, and the lack of any meaningful boundaries between British and American foreign policy. Given the weight of all these crimes, the continuing Israeli tragedy—something that we and the other industrialised satellites of the USA profit from (and I am suspicious that the people that do all the protest most noisily are precisely those that are in no position to do anything)—and these crimes in no way compare with the ones we have been responsible for (which is not to say they should be criticised, but that this wider context needs to be factored into the analysis). In a sense Israelis are quite right to wonder why liberal Europeans take such a harsh judgemental view of their country given the record of our own countries, the status quo harnessing the world’s wealth for our benefit (as members of the first-world industrial club), so essential in keeping European liberals in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed,5 and allowing them to continue to parade their consciences and sneer at everyone else who fails to meet their benchmarks for civilization. (I am of course a prime example of such a European liberal; I don’t speak for anyone else; it is up to each person to decide whether (i) the charge applies to them and (ii) whether it has any validity.) At least conservatives seem to be generally clear of this hypocrisy. Britons should perhaps bring some sense of humility to their critiques of the actions of other people’s countries.

Please note that anyone reading this article could be left in no doubt about how unwise, unjust and counterproductive I think the whole approach to Hamas and Gaza has been since the Hamas election victory in 2006 (a policy certainly not unique to or even led by Israel). Also not that in making this criticism, which is no less compromising than recent the Media Lens alert no reasonable person could believe I was demonising Israel or Israelis.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, besides giving rise to immense suffering to Palestinians and much suffering to Israelis, also has a symbolic significance that resonates throughout the Arab world, the Islamic world, Europe, North America, and indeed much of the rest of the world. For this reason it needs to be dealt with sensitively and carefully, and all sides (including the backers of the protagonists) must be prepared to encounter criticism (and be open to it).


  1. Media Lens are welcome to post an article here in reply.
  2. See, for example, What I’ve Learned, ‘3. Be very clear about terrorism’, from ‘We can debate and re-debate the rights or wrongs of removing Saddam.’
  3. See for example, Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter 5, stanzas 1-55 for the Buddhist Middle Way perspective. See Joseph Butler: Of the Nature of Virtue: ‘Acting, conduct, behaviour, abstracted from all regard to what is, in fact and event, the consequence of it, is itself the natural object of the moral discernment; as speculative truth and falsehood is of speculative reason.’
  4. See The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, G. D. H. Cole; E. P. Dutton, 1950, p. 23 (Bk. II, Ch. I), p. 26 (Bk. II, Ch. III), p. xxxv (Introduction).
  5. The industrial world is of course driven by cheap oil and the history of the modern ‘Middle East’, from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire through the formation and subsequent support for Israel are all interdependent and intimately connected, and driven by Britain, the US and geopolitics.

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