On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

The Inseparability Of The Form And Content Of Arguments

Is it more important for philosophers to argue well than it is to write well? Posed this way, the question sets up a false dichotomy for you cannot argue well without writing well. Logic is not identical with rhetoric, but the logical form of an argument cannot be neatly drawn apart from its rhetorical component. (Classical rhetoric has been insisting forever that we cannot separate form and content.) We define validity and soundness of an argument in formal semantic and syntactical terms; and unsurprisingly, those notions find their greatest traction when evaluating arguments expressed in formal languages. But philosophical disputation takes place using natural  languages; and arguments are made in order to persuade or convince or induce other changes in the epistemic make-up of our interlocutors.

We argue with someone, somewhere, in some time and context; we argue to achieve some end, whether moral, political, economic, legal. Any evaluation of the arguments we make must take these factors into consideration; without them at hand, our evaluations are sterile and pointless. (Why, after all, do we concern ourselves with notions of epistemic justice if not for the fact that some arguments are more likely to be ‘heard’ than others?) Fallacies abound in natural language arguments; correcting them is not just a matter of paying attention to the abstract logical form of the argument ‘underlying’ the sentences we have deployed; it is a matter too, or making sure we have chosen the right words, and deployed them appropriately in the correct context. To use an example from an older post, we reject a smoker’s argument that we should stop smoking on ad-hominem grounds, but the smoker really should have known better than to try to convince someone to quit while puffing away merrily and seemingly enjoying deep lungfuls of smoke. Good argument; terrible form. The same smoker would find a more receptive audience if he spoke with some feeling about how miserable his health has become over the years thanks to his smoking habit.

(On a related note, consider that when programmers evaluate ‘good code,’ they do so on the basis of not just the effective functionality of the code in accomplishing its task, which is a purely technical notion, but also on aesthetic notions: Is the code readable? Can it be modified easily? Is it ‘beautiful’? No programmer of any worth elides these notions in evaluative assessment of written code.)

There is a larger issue at play here. Philosophers do much more than just argue; sometimes they just point in a particular direction, or make us notice something that we had not seen before, or sometimes they clothe the world in a different form. These activities have little to do with arguing ‘correctly.’ They do, however, have a great deal to do with effective communication. Writing is one such form, so is speaking.

Note: The examples of great philosophers who are considered ‘terrible’ or ‘obscure’ writers–by some folks–does not diminish the point made here. Hegel and Heidegger–with due apologies to Hegel-and-Heidegger-philes–achieved their fame not just because of the quality or depth of the arguments they offered in their works but also because they wrote from particular locations, in particular times. (Some think they made terrible arguments, of course!) The sociology of philosophy has a great deal to say about these matters; more philosophers should pay attention to it.

The Only Apparent Easiness Of Meta-Protest

Finding fault with the form and content of political critique or protest comes easily to some: You chose a mode of protest that was inappropriate–it was too loud, it was violent, it was not inclusive enough; your protest is hypocritical–you do not protest injustices relevantly similar to the ones you protest currently; and lastly, and relatedly, why protest this, and not that?

Here are some recent exhibits of these objections and responses to them:

1. Corey Robin engages with Michael Kazin‘s ‘Why Single Out Israel’ objection to the BDS movement. (Do check out the follow-up too.)

2. I respond to Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s ‘selective outrage’ accusation (like Kazin, Lévy’ insinuates anti-semitism.)

3. Vijay Prashad responds to Manu Joseph‘s dismissal of Indian leftist and middle-class critique of Israeli policies in Gaza.

There is considerable overlap in these responses (Robin and I cover some of the same bases in our noting the necessary and appropriate selectivity of political action; and Prashad and I both note that ties with Israel–political and economic–animate and crucially direct and focus the protests in the US and India.)

Another–entertainingly well-written–instance of such a debate may be found in George Scialabba‘s acerbic response to Paul Berman‘s recent essay on Alexander Cockburn. In it, Scialabba takes on a common complaint made against the American left–its alleged sympathy for totalitarian regimes–and eviscerates it:

For decades Berman and others have promulgated a misleading and self-serving distinction between the “anti-imperialist” left and the “anti-totalitarian” left. The former allegedly attribute all the world’s evils to capitalism…and are reluctant to criticize any regime that calls itself…“socialist” or “communist.”…The anti-totalitarians…assert[s] instead the primacy of democracy and human rights….since American leaders repeatedly profess their determination to assist freedom and democracy everywhere, American foreign policy, even if it involves the illegal use of military force, will often deserve support.

The anti-imperialist/anti-totalitarian distinction is misleading because…one side (Cockburn’s) is protesting crimes that their readers can readily, as citizens, do something about, and in fact are ultimately responsible for, while the other side (Berman’s) is not. Abuses by Castro and Chavez, and crimes by Saddam and Iran’s ayatollahs, are undoubtedly real. But the U.S. government did/does not support those regimes and was/is not responsible for their crimes….Certainly the U.S. should do everything possible (and legal) to undermine, or at least chastise, those authoritarian regimes. But of course, it already does that—and in fact does a great many illegal things as well…for strategic reasons. Embargos, support for coup attempts, and outright invasions are all acts of aggression…which the anti-totalitarians have a distressing tendency to wink at….

For the last four decades at least, human rights abuses in U.S. client states—Turkey, Indonesia, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua under Somoza, Argentina, Brazil, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam (until 1991)—vastly exceeded those in Soviet client states. The anti-totalitarians said comparatively little about the former, even though the U.S. could usually have halted the abuses simply by threatening to cut off military and diplomatic support….the anti-totalitarians kept a sharp focus on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, over whose governments they had no leverage and whom the U.S. government needed no encouragement to oppose.

The anti-totalitarian position amounts…to this: vigorous criticism of the crimes of one’s government’s enemies, whose policies one cannot affect; feeble or no criticism of the crimes of one’s own government, whose policies one can affect.

As Scialabba and Robin rightly suggest, with varying degrees of explicitness, one straightforward suggestion contained in these forms of meta-protest is to either cease the protest altogether, or to force it into a channel where it may be suitably defused. As ideology-preserving measures go, meta-protests have a long and dishonorable record of success; the rhetorical and critical forms of responding and refuting them could do with a little more airing.

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.

Bill Keller and Some Elementary Confusions About Technology and Privacy

Bill Keller argues for a national identification card, urging Americans to ‘get over’ their fears about its abuse:

You might start with the Social Security card. You would issue a plastic version, and in it you would embed a chip containing biometric information: a fingerprint, an eye scan or a digital photo. The employer would swipe the card and match it to the real you. Unlike your present Social Security card, the new version would be useless to a thief because it would contain your unique identifier. The information would not need to go into a database….This will not satisfy those who fear that any such mandate is potentially “a tool for social control,” as Chris Calabrese of the A.C.L.U. put it. But the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world is to burn your documents, throw away your cellphone, cancel your Internet service and live off the grid.

Er. First, ‘the information would not need to go into a database’ does not mean the information will not go into a database. On this matter, I’d defer to the man quoted by Keller himself, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who points out that,

The one thing we know with certainty about databases is that they grow….[The official urge to amass and use information] takes on a life of its own.

When storage is cheap and ubiquitous, and so is data collection and analysis, searchable, analyzable data banks are an obvious consequence. These databases, whose primary outputs are analytical reports, then lend themselves to precisely the clumsy, pernicious, ‘social control’ worried about by their opponents.

Second, Keller slides all too quickly into ‘the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world.’ But who ever said anything about completely eliminating those risks? Thus, the fallacy of the false dichotomy raises its head again, as it does all too often in debates about technology’s ambiguous blessings. The general format of these disputes is as follows. In response to the claim that ‘Technology X has possible problematic outcome Y,’ our interlocutor supplies ‘Good luck trying to live without technology today.’  Bingo. You’re an impractical Luddite.

There is another rhetorical template visible in Keller’s piece: the incomplete noting of the ambivalent attitude that most people appear to have toward their privacy:

But on the subject of privacy, we are an ambivalent nation. Americans — especially younger Americans, who swim in a sea of shared information — are casual to the point of recklessness about what we put online.

So in response to the claim that ‘privacy should be protected in domain X‘ our interlocutor says ‘But look at Facebook!’ The problem, of course, is that Facebook is a space designed in its interface and its user affordances to encourage and facilitate privacy-destructive behavior. Exhibit Numero Uno: the Wall, which lets users make their formerly private emails public.

It’s going to take better arguments than the ones offered by Keller to diminish the CQ–the Creepiness Quotient–of national identification cards.