Bernard-Henri Lévy And The Problem of ‘Selective Outrage’

You, sir, are a knave and a hypocrite. You protest and fulminate when X assaults–or otherwise inflicts harms on–Y, but not when A assaults–or otherwise inflicts harm on–B. Yet the crime is the same in each case. Your outrage is selective. I do not, therefore, trust your motives, and will ignore your crocodile tears, your faux expressions of concern. They must not be sincere, for if they were, you would visibly and vocally demonstrate the same deep moral concern for the assault in both cases. I suspect you have some animus against X, some deep-rooted hostility that you are covering up with your morally inflected bluster.

I presume this litany of accusations, this suggestion of intellectual dishonesty, sounds familiar. In most cases, the accuser is sympathetic to X‘s stated reasons for harming Y; his accusations of selective outrage–made against those who do not find X‘s stated reasons convincing or persuasive–are intended to constitute a rhetorical disarming of their critique of X.

Here is the latest instance of such an accusation of selective outrage. Bernard-Henri Lévy writes in the Wall Street Journal:

About the crowds on Friday in Paris chanting “Palestine will overcome” and “Israel, assassin”: Where were they a few days earlier when news broke that over the previous weekend Syria’s civil war had produced 720 more dead, adding to the 150,000 others who have not had the honor of demonstrations in France?

Why did the protesters not pour into the streets when, a few days before that, the well-informed Syrian Network for Human Rights revealed that so far this year Damascus’s army, which was supposed to have destroyed its supply of chemical weapons, carried out at least 17 gas attacks around Kafrzyta, Talmanas, Atshan and elsewhere?

Prima facie, accusations of this kind have no force whatsoever. A smoker who tells me to quit smoking because it would cause me lung cancer is presumably a hypocrite, but that does not affect the content of his argument in the least. Does smoking cause lung cancer? Are the reasons provided by the smoker for not smoking good reasons? If they are, you should consider quitting. If they aren’t, don’t. The smoker’s continuation of his smoking habit, his continued patronage of the modern-day merchants of death, should be irrelevant to your evaluation of his argument. The argument above should proceed along similar lines: Are X‘s reasons for assaulting Y good ones? Are they morally justified? If they are, X is justified in continuing with the assault; if not, then X should cease and desist. The person accused of selective outrage might be accused of inconsistency, and perhaps of hypocrisy, but that has no bearing on our evaluation of X‘s conduct.

But we do not always evaluate arguments in such purely logical fashion. We often accept them because we find them persuasive or convincing on non-logical, rhetorical grounds. And in such cases, the context surrounding the argument can make a crucial difference to the argument’s persuasive force. An accusation of selective outrage can thus be quite damaging, and deserves a response that does justice to its non-logical, rhetorical, force as well.

Here is one response, especially relevant to the American context, and perhaps also in those cases where protests are taking places in the cities of other Western allies of Israel. To wit, I am expending my limited political energies in protesting Israel’s policies, because my government, which actively funds and supports Israel, does not appear to share my concern; it does not seem to think Israel’s behavior needs emendation; its inactivity results in aiding and abetting Israel’s actions. In the other cases you mention, I know that my government joins me in my critique, in my condemnation: it is engaged, on perhaps the diplomatic front, or perhaps via sanctions or other punitive actions, to condemn and punish the perpetrators of the outrages taking place elsewhere.

Bernard-Henri Lévy has a response to this defense, which I’m afraid I do not quite understand:

Will the protesters claim that they were rallying against French President François Hollande and a policy of unilateral support for Israel that they do not wish to see conducted “in their name”? Perhaps. But conducting outward politics for inner reasons—converting a large cause into a small instrument designed to salve one’s conscience at little cost—reflects little genuine concern for the fate of the victims.

Henri-Lévy mysteriously concedes the point with a grudging ‘Perhaps’ but then goes on to suggest that ‘outward politics for inner reasons’ does not reflect ‘genuine concern.’  This is incoherent. I do not know what ‘inner reasons’ are when the only reasons being stated are ‘outer’ ones, manifest in speech and action. The suggestion that this political action is being taken merely to provide some healing balm to a guilt-stricken conscience–for having elected our leaders, I presume, or perhaps for not protesting elsewhere too in the shape or fashion Lévy desires–is an ad-hominem claim, one grounded in some mysterious mind-reading ability.

He then goes on to say:

Even more pointedly, should not the same reasoning have filled the same streets 10 or 100 times to protest the same president’s decision, likewise taken in their name, not to intervene in Syria?

As for intervening in Syria, Henri-Lévy conveniently ignores an entire Middle Eastern context, the history of Western military intervention in that domain, and its unpredictable side-effects. But that is another topic altogether. (But see this post on Syria, written in response to the call for bombing in response to chemical weapon use.)

Bernard-Henri Lévy then concludes, a little predictably, by leveling charges of anti-semitism against those who protest Israel’s policies in Gaza. The presence of anti-semitism in anti-Israel protests is reprehensible and outrageous, and has rightly been called out by many; it has no place there. But Lévy’s brush tars a little too broadly and carelessly. I suspect that were he around in the 1960s, Lévy might have accused American civil rights activists of being hypocritical, white-hating fanatics. After all, they weren’t agitating on behalf of India’s untouchables, the Dalits; they weren’t conducting sit-ins, and marching in giant rallies in support of their cause. That must be it. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hypocrite too. He only put his body on the line for American blacks and not for colored people everywhere else.

8 thoughts on “Bernard-Henri Lévy And The Problem of ‘Selective Outrage’

  1. Hi Samir.

    Sorry to disagree. If X does harm to Y and A_i does harm do B_i, for i = 1 to 1.000, but no one opposes vehemently any of the A_i’s, this states that what all the A_i’s are doing are kind of acceptable, or at best a small misdemeanor. So, if X is singled out as a wrong doer, its claims to discrimination is quite simply well founded.

    If, furthermore, that situation continues in time, the claim of discrimination is even stronger.



    1. Marcelo,

      Thanks for keeping this discussion technical! And if X does harm to Y for time interval t_i to t_n where i = 1, n= 1000, (pick your time units) and is thus a repeat, incorrigible offender? And furthermore X lays claim to certain standards of moral rectitude not possessed by A or B or Y? May we then apply higher standards to X’s behavior? Further, may it also be that in this case, we appeal vehemently to the supposed moral faculties that X claims to possess in contradistinction to A or B or Y? And perhaps the vehemence of our protests reveals a certain exasperation at X’s seeming hypocrisy? Especially if X has in the past, often laid claim to our sympathies for it has, truly, historically, been the victim of much harm itself, and therefore, really, ought to know much, much better?

      I still stand by my original argument, but I thought I would muddy the waters just a bit.


      1. Hi Samir.

        If we keep technical we can discuss for a longer time before the offenses start flying.

        Again, if X and a thousand A_i’s are all recurrent incorrigible offenders, why select X as THE offender? Something is very odd at that.

        Note that I already said that X is an offender. I do not believe the offense is cancelled by the fact that a thousand A_i’s are doing the same. But it remains VERY ODD (unacceptably so) that only X is repeatedly singled out the the inhuman offender. VERY ODD.



      2. Marcelo,

        It is worth pointing out that my argument in the post–the one about exerting pressure on one’s own government–can only be used by those who self-avowedly claim to not be motivated by any deep-rooted animus. I am well aware that many who critique X are animated by a pernicious sentiment, and they will reveal it many other actions of theirs. They cannot use my argument, for their other actions belie it.

        Our playing with hypotheticals has been entertaining, and it has perhaps reached its limit. From here on, we will descend into quibbling about whether they are accurate or not, (historically etc), and that will make the discussion too non-technical. (I already feel like disputing some of the claims implicit in your hypotheticals!) Certainly, if I were to accept them, your points would have more traction with me.


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