This is a cross-post by Professor Richard Landes of Augean Stables
Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society.
Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop. Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth (no matter how convinced they might be of their “Truth”), can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence. Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making, can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
But self-criticism is difficult, especially if it takes place in public. Public admission of fault can provoke a powerful sense of humiliation, and involves an obligation to cease the erroneous behavior and attitudes. Most people actively dislike admitting error, fault, or failure, and will go to great lengths to avoid public concessions. We all develop elaborate means to protect ourselves from such public shame and obligation, by rationalizing or finger-pointing at some other party whom we try to coerce to take responsibility for the problem, either by manipulating public opinion or using force. The extreme expressions of such efforts to avoid responsibility involve scape-goating and demonizing, in which the sacrifice of the assigned “guilty party” is necessary to cover our own refusal to admit any fault.
And yet, self-criticism can become a valuable acquired taste. All positive-sum outcomes depend on some degree of willingness, if only implicitly, to admit fault, to share the blame, and to make concessions to the other side. Without self-criticism and its accompanying learning curve, there is little progress. Hence progressives rightly emphasize self-criticism.
MASOCHISTIC OMNIPOTENCE SYNDROME (MOS) AND THE PATHOLOGIES OF SELF-CRITICISM
In some cases, however, self-critical progressives can take this strategy so far that they fall into the trap of taking most or all of the responsibility for something when it is not primarily of their doing. To some extent, this unusual generosity reflects the notion that it takes a “big man” to admit fault, and that if we progressives are stronger, we should make the first, second and even third moves of concession and apology, in order to encourage those with whom we find ourselves in dispute.” Combining inflated rhetoric with a therapeutic notion that the disadvantaged should not be held to the same exacting standards (moral equivalence) leads one to fall into self-critical pathologies.
In the most extreme cases, we encounter Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome (MOS): “it is all our fault; and if we can only be better, we can fix anything/everything.” This hyper-critical attitude can be seen with particular clarity in the response of some progressives and radicals to both the 9-11 attack in 2001 in the US, and the 7-7 attack in 2005 in London. For many, “What did we do to make them hate us?” trumped “What are they telling themselves that makes them hate us so?” In a sense, the very preference for the former question underlines our desire to be in control. Maybe we can fix what it is that we do to them, so they’ll not hate us so. Maybe even, they’ll like us.
At some level, this hyper-self criticism operates as a kind of prophetic rhetoric: by inflating the sins, by self-flagellating, one hopes to whip the offending Western party into changing their behavior, a kind of public shaming designed to provoke so much outrage and guilt as to change the situation. When the head of Amnesty International compared Gitmo to the Gulag, the comparison was of course grotesque in its moral equation of Gitmo with one of the most repressive and murderous regimes on the historical record, but Irene Zubaida Khan justified the comparison on rhetorical grounds:
- “What we wanted to do was to send a strong message that … this sort of network of detention centers that has been created as part of this war on terrorism is actually undermining human rights in a dramatic way which can only evoke some of the worst features of human rights scandals of the past,” she said. “I don’t think people have got off the hook yet.”
While one can debate the value of such rhetorical moves designed to create a sense of drama, one must at least become aware of the significant distortions in perception it can lead to. The tendency to hyper-self-criticize leads to a kind of moral self-absorption in which one loses any sense of the other side of any conflict as moral agent. Any attempt to put matters in perspective by comparing gets dismissed: “I refuse to judge myself (us) by their standards.” This kind of thinking undergirds both PCP1 and PCP2, indeed one can gauge the passage from the more moderate to the more extreme thinking precisely in terms of the degree to which self-criticism becomes, like Freud’s tyrannical super-ego, vindictive and destructive.
But the real tragedy here comes with the unconscious racism involved in such a moral argument. The proponents of such thinking fail to grant the “other side” any moral agency. “Their behavior is entirely reactive, a response to our bad deeds. If only we would stop, they would stop.” This approach, which gives us, among other things, the current policy of appeasement in the West, also operates on assumptions that the “other” — in this case, the global Jihadis and the Muslim cultures from which they draw their recruits — are not autonomous moral agents. In other words, they, like animals, can’t help themselves. Hence, we make no moral demands on them, indeed, we lower ourselves to their moral level with our equivalences.
THE DISTORTIONS OF NOT FACTORING FOR SELF-CRITICISM
However one feels about this hyper-self-critical discourse, one should at least acknowledge the role of a therapeutic inflation that makes for extremely bad history. When one looks at all the forms of imprisonment that cultures have designed for people they identify as enemies, Gitmo is not the Gulag, not even in the same league, not on the same planet. Similarly, the only traits that Israel and the Nazis share, every other sovereign culture in the recorded history of mankind also shares… indeed, when viewed in the context of history, Israel is unquestionably the least Nazi-like state in the long history of cultural conflicts resolved by violence. As a result, the last thing that a sober analyst — as opposed to an enthused activist — wants to do, is read the situation in the light of this rhetoric of therapeutic inflation.
Observers trying to resolve matters to everyone’s advantage, should, when examining evidence from the Middle East, always consider the source. They should never forget how much, normally, people dislike self-criticism and how much they will do everything to avoid it. All zero-sum outcomes depend to some degree on the ability of one side to impose its blame on the other (they deserve to lose). In tribal warrior cultures, there is no need for such arguments since the basic understanding of all the tribes is “my tribe is right or wrong,” and “plunder or be plundered.” But even the most educated, evolved, and enlightened people can fall into the game. No one likes criticism, a fortiori, public criticism.
This purely human reluctance to self-criticize highlights an element of Jewish culture that most outsiders do not really understand, and that leads to a marked misreading of the Middle East conflict. In the comparative history of self-criticism, Jewish culture is probably the most self-critical. Jews are commanded to rebuke each other and to listen to that rebuke. Jews invented prophetic rhetoric. The Ethics of the Fathers (compiled ca. 200 CE) invoke as one of the traits of a great Torah scholar, “lover of rebukes” (6:6).
The ability to both give and take criticism — admittedly one of the most difficult acts of dialogue in the human repertory — constitutes one of the keys to Jewish survival through millennia of oppression, to Jewish self-deprecating humor, and to the dramatic success of Jews once modern civil societies adopt fair rules: equality before the law. One might even argue that Jews, unlike any other culture, so thrive on their ability to self-criticize that some Jews actually can become addicted to self-criticism.
And so, not surprisingly, among nations, the Jewish nation — Israel — has produced among the most self-critical sovereign cultures on record, certainly when one takes into account the behavior and attitude of its neighbors. Under conditions that lead other sovereign entitites to shut down dissent and move to “martial” law, Israel has maintained an extraordinarily vibrant discourse of self-criticism. Post Zionist historiography is impossible to understand without this framework.
Nothing contrasts more with Israel’s culture of self-criticism than its belligerent neighbors, especially the Palestinians. Here we find one of the most aggressive zero-sum political cultures on record. They accept no responsibility for the war they wage, and justify all their behavior — including how they treat their own people — as a response to the Zionists. They demonize the Zionists with conspiracy theories and blood libels drawn from the most delirious of European anti-Semitic fears to inspire their victimized people to take arms against this malevolent enemy. Who could self-criticize when being assaulted by such merciless and powerful forces? Self-criticism under such conditions is unthinkable, and dissent is treachery. The exceptional number of Palestinians killed by Palestinians suggests a culture in which intimidating dissenters and eliminating traitors is the norm.
Our understanding of the Middle East conflict suffers from a peculiar twisting of the dynamics of self-criticism. As a result, many people do not understand the nature of the rhetoric they hear and, assuming it all comes from the same “place” — no one likes to self-criticize — mis-interpret the information they get. In the case of the information coming from Israel and the Palestinian or Arab media, for example, much “even-handedness” has insisted that the Arab media is every bit as reliable as the Israeli, and vice-versa, that Israeli media can be as dishonest and propagandistic. From one perspective it would seem obvious and straightforward to distinguish between the unusually self-critical Israeli press willing to air its disagreements publicly and the exceptional reluctance of the Palestinian press to express serious criticism of their own side, to allow any dirty laundry to go public. And yet, a wide range of highly intelligent and well-informed people tell us the exact opposite.
Even-handedness demands that we give both sides a hearing. If the Palestinians start shouting about tunnels under al Aqsa and rioting, and the Israelis deny that there are any tunnels, the media presents this in terms of what each side claims. No mention of the ridiculous nature of the accusations — that would be to judge! — nor of the violent contempt with which Muslim building projects in Solomon’s Stables violated every norm of civilized behavior and destroyed precious sites of knowledge.
As a result, for uninformed observers, the Middle East conflict may seem bewildering. If one presents the “refugee problem” in terms of “both sides,” and you get your typical self-critical Israeli to speak, you get Israelis taking 50% of the responsibility, while the Palestinian spokespeople will put 98% of the responsibility on the Israelis, largely using and citing the self-critical Israelis to make their points. The uninformed comes out thinking, “Okay, so Israel’s about 75% responsible/guilty.”
In order to understand this problem, one must understand a critical cultural issue: civil societies thrive on self-criticism, and authoritarian ones thrive on scape-goating and demonizing. To take the “narratives” from both sides as equally legitimate (or worse, to primarily trust the demonizing narrative from the authoritarian side because they are “losing” the battle with civil society), is to make critical category errors. In the battle between a totalitarian society and a democracy, “even-handed” approaches will always favor the totalitarian state. Rather than appreciate the value and difficulty of self-criticism, reward it, and encourage it on the other side, it punishes the self-critical and rewards the demonizers.
Instead, one needs to factor in the role of demonizing and refusal to self-criticize not only in producing the narratives we hear about the problem, but also in the creation and exacerbation of the problem itself. In the history of nations and ethnic disputes, normal response of a culture faced with the behavior of Arab elites and their genocidal discourse and war plans in 1948, would have been massive return massacres by the victorious enemy against whom they had declared so merciless a war. Thus, if one places the Palestinian refugee problem on the vast the panorama of such ethnic disputes — even ones contemporary to it (like India and Pakistan, 1948) and ones contemporary to us (Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan) — the blame for its insolubility seems to reside primarily, overwhelmingly, with the Arab elites.
By not holding them responsible, by approving their lethal narratives, by affirming their boundless sense of entitlement, by justifying their rage and violence, the West has nurtured a monster… Global Jihad. Only by understanding the dangers of their hyper-self-criticism will Westerners at once learn to respect themselves, and show respect for Arab and Muslim culture by demanding minimal levels of self-criticism from them. Only then will the destructive combination of demopaths and their dupes be broken.
To explore this subject of Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome further Professor Landes has a highly recommended post here.