Monthly Archives: July 2014

A really good couple of posts have been going up at the excellent Crooked Timber blog on the issue of tolerance and bigotry. They make some really interesting points about the rhetorical (and, amazingly, legal) jedi mind trick currently being employed by the conservative movement: that bigots are entitled to protection and that they and their bigotry against, say, gays or ethnic minorities, deserve a certain measure of protection and tolerance.

Here are the posts:

First, Conor Friedersdorf comes under fire from Henry Farrell:

Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. Whether the people who implemented Bob Jones University’s notorious ban on inter-racial dating considered themselves to be actively biased against black people, or simply enforcing what they understood to be Biblical rules against miscegenation is an interesting theoretical question. You can perhaps make a good argument that bigotry-rooted-in-direct-bias is more obnoxious than bigotry-rooted-in-adherence-to-perceived-religious-and-social-mandates. Maybe the people enforcing the rules sincerely believed that they loved black people. It’s perfectly possible that some of their best friends were black. But it seems pretty hard to make a good case that the latter form of discrimination is not a form of bigotry. And if Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.

Then, John Holbo, in a really long post, further unpacked the argument about tolerance. The key argument is really just making sure that people understood just what John Stuart Mill meant, back in the 1800s:

Not all minorities are powerless or persecuted. (The 1%, anyone?) It’s understandable why social conservatives should experience relative erosion of a former position of great social and cultural dominance as a humiliating reversal of fortunes – as moral persecution. It’s psychologically inevitable that they will feel like miserable underdogs, and it’s rhetorically advantageous for them to pose as such. So here we are. But sensible people should be able to see what’s really going on. Let’s just take up the gay marriage issue. Sometimes liberals say: ‘what’s the big deal if two guys who love each other get married? It’s not like they are hurting you.’ But if you are, say, Maggie Gallagher, that obviously not true in the least. If it’s not a big deal for two guys to get married, then Maggie Gallagher is a person who has devoted her adult life to trying to inflict senseless harm on innocent people. By not hurting other people, those two gay-married guys are, in effect, turning her from a superior sort of person (in her own eyes) to an inferior sort of person (in everyone else’s). The less they hurt other people, the more they hurt her. She doesn’t want to be regarded as a bigot. Who does? All the same, liberal tolerance and freedom of religion are not ‘get out of having been a bigot’ cards you can play at any time. She can go right on believing that same-sex marriage is bad bad bad. What’s bothering her is not that someone is trying to tell her what she can or cannot believe or say. What bothers her is that more and more people think what she thinks is horrible and that, therefore, no one should think it. As is their right. Concluding that ‘no one should think this, because it’s wrong and bad’ is not, as Damon frequently suggests, a violation of liberal tolerance. Drawing that conclusion is not, per se, a coercive act. No more so than saying ‘2 + 2 is not 5’. Indeed, if you were to ask J. S. Mill what he thinks is the relationship between true liberal tolerance and claims of the form ‘x is wrong because y, so nobody should think x’, he would say that the point of toleration is always to allow people to make such claims.

Farrell, in the first post, has a delightful example from a recent Irish debate about the right to call your opponents homophobic when they are being “reasoned” and “principled” in their religiously motivated bigotry. There, a drag artist caused a lot of trouble by calling her/his (pronoun preference not known to me) opponents “homophobic”. I think that part of the debate is particularly interesting. The video here is the part of the debate that everyone has seen by now:

While I agree that obviously ms. Bliss is in the right here — the opposition to gays being treated equally is obviously motivated by homophobia, fear, bigotry or outright hatred — I wonder if her rhetorical move is the right one. The satisfaction in naming people for what they are is tempting, but I tend to avoid it, in favour of focusing on what they are doing, but doing it in such a way that the audience can only reasonably make the connection that they are being bigoted. If I pull out the word “racist” or “homophobic” at all, it is as an adjective not to describe them — my opponents personally — but to describe their desired public policies and ethical choices. It’s much easier to point out bigotry in action than in thought and in the heart. And I find that in the long run, doing that is a much more productive rhetorical strategy. Nobody has said this better than mr. Smooth of the Ill Doctrine video blog:


An injured child during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.

Israel has, for the third time in just five years, commenced a major bombing operation on the Gaza strip. Over a hundred and fifty Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians. As it was the last three times, my response is sorrow and anger — a strangely physical sensation of anger as a burning in my chest.

It’s easy, even for someone such as myself, who has been following the conflict for years with resignation, to look first at the political significance of the conflict and the strategic policy goals of the war and how it affects the broader conflict.

That’s not what we should be thinking about right now. We should remember instead what war means: it means destruction and death. It means homes destroyed, lives snuffed out; children crushed to death by falling buildings; amputations, hearing loss, perforated lungs; families torn, literally or figuratively, to pieces.

These people killed are people like yourself, the children killed are like your children. Their suffering is as meaningful as any suffering you could experience. If our goal is to end suffering, our goal is to end the war.

This was brought home to me during the last conflict by a friend, a medical professional, returning home from a tour of the Gaza Strip, telling me of a famished country, of amputees, of despair and hopelessness, a life in which death sometimes seems a better option than life. No jobs, no future, not enough resources, not enough power and not enough energy.

A land where people can’t get sleep because of the drones flying overhead, where children are scared of being bombed while on the way to school, where it’s normal to have to think about conserving power on your cell phone during the day so you have enough power at night when the power goes out to at least tweet about the bombings.

And when the Israeli talking points are rolled out, and the IDF spokespersons talk about how the homes that are being bombed are Hamas command centres and how no military force in history has been more careful and respectful of humanitarian law, we should remember not only that these are the most blatant of misdirections, but that they are covering up an unusually sordid truth: that this conflict is a machine that produces suffering, and that the primary force perpetuating the conflict is Israel. Not the inability of Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist, but Israel’s lack of ability to honor Palestinians’ right to exist.

That’s the balanced point of view. That’s what’s the objective truth of the matter. I get many complaints when I say this in discussions at home, but a deep meta-truth, a truth about telling the truth, is that a balanced description of an unbalanced conflict is an unbalanced description. When you look at injustice, you can’t report it “proportionally” without losing touch with the truth of what you are describing.

So here is that disproportional report: Israel has needlessly killed almost 200 people in the past few days, and they will likely kill far more. These killings will produce more death and suffering, and will accomplish nothing of value. In all likelihood, more people will die because of what is happening now than would have died had Israel done nothing.

The cause of this suffering, the driver of it is, as it has been for decades now, the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And although the term “unlawful occupation” is overused and has become a dead phrase, it remains true: what Israel is doing is not only cruel, useless and unjust, it is deeply and profoundly illegal.

Occupation is in itself illegal. (And produces a lawful right to resist that occupation, though that is maybe the least of our worries.) And all of the cruelty and all of the terror perpetrated by Hamas does not justify the occupation itself, which remains unlawful and unhelpful.

Legal occupation should always only be a temporary military necessity, and obligates, through the fourth protocol of the Geneva Convention, that the occupier shall undertake to ensure the normal life of the occupied territory, and to not undertake punitive blockades or collective punishments. Israel has never lived up to these obligations, and it continues to pay the price for this injustice both in a deteriorating democratic and moral culture in its own populace, but also in the lifeblood of Palestinian civilians.

It is also deeply unlawful to target private homes, even of enemy combatants. And while Hamas is in flagrant violation of every law of war every day of this conflict, it is still not the engine that perpetuates the violence. That engine is the suffering and injustice produced by the Israeli occupation.

Israel’s war seems more and more to be a war waged on own future, it seems to ensure that it will be living in a region full of people who have reason to hate it. The Israeli leaders should be kept awake at night by that, as should we. And by the lives lost, the suffering experienced and the sleepless nights of the people caught up in the terrible senselessness of this present violence.