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.

From Santa Barbara to Badaun: Misogyny and Masculinity

It’s been a bad week for women. They found out, in sunny California, that when they do not dispense sexual indulgences to those who seek (or demand) them, they can provoke murderous rages; they also found out, in India’s central provinces, that their bodies remain to be taken by others, used, and then finally, strung up like broken rag dolls. Elliott Rodger and the as-yet-convicted rapists and killers of two teenage girls–separated by time and space–had this in common: they disliked women intensely. They hated them enough to kill them.

Elliott Rodger begs for cruel mockery about what goes terribly wrong when you don’t get laid. But the killers of Badaun weren’t sexually deprived; they had had their fill of the girls before they tossed them aside. Indeed, if Rodger had gotten his way and been dispensed the favors he seemed to be so desperately seeking, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have killed anyway. Perhaps he would have channeled his rage against women some other way; perhaps he would have chosen to have gotten angry because one of his sexual partners wanted to break things off and just move on. The kind of anger so clearly visible in his disturbing video is not so easily assuaged as might be imagined; its roots lie far deeper. And the killers of Badaun made this rage manifest; it was not enough for them that they raped the girls they had abducted, they also hung them from a tree to strike fear into the hearts of anyone–especially other young women–who saw their limp, lifeless bodies. Women should know their place in this world: keep shut, spread your legs. (It is an additional complicating factor in the Indian case that the young women were Dalits, and their killers were probably members of an ‘upper-caste.’)

Many years ago, in a documentary on Mike Tyson, when speaking of his rape conviction, Joyce Carol Oates had noted that the modern man–in his sexual interactions with women–is animated by a rage qualitiatively and quantitatively distinct from that which tormented his predecessors earlier. Then, when a woman declined to sleep with you, you could convince yourself it was because she wanted to be a ‘good girl.’ Now, that same rejection has a personal sting: she is choosing someone else, not you, not now. Rodger had internalized this resentment for sure, but he had also inculcated in himself a corrosive Whore-Madonna complex of sorts: women wouldn’t stop being ‘sluts’ just because they had slept with Rodger. Perhaps they’d sink even lower in his eyes. Perhaps because, despite his protestations, Rodger didn’t think very much himself, he might have regarded them as especially contemptible for having slept with him.

Among masculinity’s worst contributions to our culture–and it has many terrible achievements–has been its degradation of sexual relations, its notion of sexual ‘accomplishment’ where men succeed via promiscuity and women fail. Over time, women have ceased to be persons and have merely become prickly, uncooperative owners of bodies, who refuse to play the game. As defined by men.

The teenage girls of Badaun, it’s ‘strange fruit‘, learned that the hard way: once their bodies had been used by those who wanted them, they weren’t needed any more. And no one else could have them. Not even they, themselves.

It’s no country, or world, for women (old or otherwise).

Hot, Bothered, and Devout: The Religious Policing of Sex

Yesterday, I posted a review essay on a pair of books by SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra that critique the field of “Indian studies.” In my essay I attempted to place into some context the recent controversy over the recall from circulation of Wendy Doniger‘s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History.

Amongst the many charges leveled at Doniger’s writing is that she has “hurt” the sensibilities of devout Hindus. This accusation is often made against many modern scholars of Hinduism; Balagangadhara and Malhotra are part of this chorus. Thus, in my essay I noted the former’s critique of Jeffrey Kripal and Paul Courtright‘s  psychoanalytical takes on the mysticism of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the legend of Ganesha and his conclusion that Kripal and Courtright were “indulging in mischief” and doing “violence” to “the experiential world of the Hindus.” Malhotra, of course, has been vigorously accusing Doniger of a variety of sins: her treatment of sexuality and sexual themes is one of them.

So, rather unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of these critiques is the offense caused to religious sensibilities by that which is supposed remain between the sheets.

I think we are entitled to be suspicious that whenever Hindus—in India, or elsewhere— or other devout folks–all over the world–get offended by academic or cultural responses to their religion, it invariably has something to do with sex, the one business that gets everyone hot and bothered under their cassocks and lungis. Reading Balagangadhara’s language of “violence” against Hindus, one would imagine the darkest depths of anti-Hindu sentiment had been plumbed. Rather disappointingly instead, it turns out Hindus are like religious prudes everywhere: sex and their gods or their saints do not go together; they are chaste, virtuous, asexual creatures. What a letdown for the civilization that gave us Khajuraho.

By saying this, I do not mean to diminish the ascetic strains in Hinduism—like those pointed to, ironically enough, by Wendy Doniger—but rather to combat the impulses present in the responses to the scholarship of Kripal and Courtright that seek to cover up the erotic and sexual strains in Indian culture at large. Such stereotypical and clichéd outraged responses are, after all, not even in accord with Indian cultural mores. Risqué versions of tales taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata often make the rounds in India; there are too, among the young ‘uns, dirty ditties galore about its characters to be sung out loudly and coarsely. Those who sing them, and tell lewd jokes by the dozen about characters from the great Hindu epics, don’t seem to be hurt by their activities.

Balagangadhara and Malhotra owe us an explanation of why so many Indians do not seem perennially offended by such practices. Could it be the vaunted Hindu tolerance and syncretism—spoken so glowingly of by Malhotra—is found here in the implicit understanding that powerful cultural and mythological imaginaries are unlikely to be diminished by a few academic theses? Intolerant reactions do not sit well with the picture these two worthies paint for us of an endlessly patient and resilient tradition.

Unsurprisingly, Balagangadhara and Malhotra, and their fellow “outraged”, claim to speak for too many, and seek to control discourse. Some things never change. For all the exalted theistic conceptions that the supposedly devout seek to foist on us, they descend all too quickly from the sublime to the sordid, from lofty metaphysical conceptions to just good old scoldings about dirty talk. There is nothing new in this outrage; just a tired old policing of sex.

SN Balagangadhara and Rajiv Malhotra on Reversing the Gaze

On 12 February, Penguin India announced it was withdrawing and destroying—in India—all published copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009). Penguin’s decision came after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Shiksha Bachao Andolan, which, in 2011, had filed a legal complaint objecting to sections of Doniger’s book. Amidst the vocal expressions of concern over the damage done to free speech and academic freedom in India were also thinly-veiled suggestions that justice had been done, that the right outcome—the suppression and quelling of an academic work that supposedly offended Hindu sensibilities—had been reached. A prominent voice in this choir was of one Rajiv Malhotra, who noted on his Twitter account that Doniger was merely the ”idol of inferiority complex Indians [sic] in awe that white person studies Hinduism,” that Penguin’s withdrawal of her work was justified in a world in which “media bias” in an “intellectual kurukshetra [sic]” had led to a “a retail channel controlled by one side.”   

This dispute over Wendy Doniger’s work is merely the latest instance of a long-running contestation of how best to study India and all things Indian.

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Against Their Will: Everywhere, All The Time, Drunk, In Packs

I thought I had said everything I wanted to about the horrible gang-rape case in Delhi, but I feel compelled to put down a few additional observations. They center on what made this case notable, and what perhaps needs a little more attention. In no particular order, here they are.

First, the Delhi rape would not have been news had it not included a violent, savage assault with an iron rod on the young woman that resulted in her death. Had she been ‘just’ raped and not suffered more than the ‘usual’ injuries that raped women suffer, the case would have been forgotten rather rapidly. The humdrum announcement of yet another rape, somewhere, sometime, would have been unlikely to have attracted much notice. Something exceptional is always needed to jolt us out of our normal somnolent response to them. Perhaps the number of rapists, perhaps twisted acts of degradation (our social media culture now provides ample opportunity for old-fashioned ‘notch on the belt’ bragging to acquire an added new dimension), perhaps dramatic acts of violence (as in this case), or perhaps the location or placement of the victim (an American raped abroad always makes more news than one raped right here, at home.)

Second, the rape became a cause célèbre because it happened in India’s capital, and because its victim was an aspirant to the better life. She had moved from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’, from a small town to the big city; she sought to go even further. She was enrolled in a professional course of education, one that promised her and the family she had left behind a better life. Sadly, had she been a resident of a village in India’s hinterland, perhaps a Dalit set on by ‘high-caste’ goons, her gang-rape would not have made the news. Or if it had, via  a small paragraph not on the front page. it would not have provoked the current reaction. (In Govind Nihalani‘s Aakrosh, the landless peasant Lahanya Bikhu, in the movie’s horrifying climax, kills his sister to ‘protect’ her from the landlord and his foremen who have already raped his wife and condemned him to jail.)

Third, there was an old familiar companion in this story of rape: alcohol, our most beloved legal drug, whose removal from the index prohibitorum ensured that no other drug would ever be legalized. From college campus to invaded town, from frat party to street alley, rape and alcohol often go hand in hand. Sometimes, it seems, there is nothing quite as dangerous as a group of young drunk men. If they aren’t picking fights with each other–possibly the safest outcome for all bystanders–their roving eyes turn elsewhere. Quite often, it’s a woman they fancy. And of course, they attack in packs; nothing quite makes men feel as brave as alcohol and the presence of other conspirators.

Last, as I noted in my previous post, the ubiquity of rape of worldwide (in space and time) should give pause to those keen to turn this into a uniquely Indian pathology. When Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will, she did not subtitle it Indian Men, Indian Women and Rape in India.