Friday, September 14, 2012

A Simple Principle

I think it may help, in the effort to avoid a lot of confusion, misrepresentation, and polarizing conflict, if we just keep one simple principle in mind:

Moral responsibility can be shared.

The other day an attack on the U.S Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, killed the US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three others, including security officer and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty, and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.

The perpetrators of the attack remain unknown, and tracking them down may prove difficult--but everyone agrees, of course, that they bear the primary and most immediate responsibility for the tragic deaths. But if you're inclined to look more broadly, beyond the attacks themselves to events that helped generate an outraged protest that either spiraled our of control or (as seems now to be the more likely story) was opportunistically fueled and used as part of a broader plot--if you're inclined to ask how all of us might have helped avert this tragedy, you face the risk of being dubbed an apologist for the perpetrators.

It happens a lot. Someone points to broader social forces that helped motivate violence, and it's as if they've said that the perpetrators of violence were nothing more than blameless robots programmed by these social forces. You note how others were needlessly provocative or inflammatory, and it's as if you've said that the perpetrators were puppets wholly controlled by those who provoked them. But this way of thinking assumes that responsibility has to fall in just one place. It doesn't.

To put things bluntly: Some of the biggest #@*!-ups happen because lots of people behave like idiots. To point out the idiocy of one of the contributors does not amount to absolving the idiocy of the others. Nor does it imply that those most immediately responsible for the gravest harms of a tragedy aren't worthy of special condemnation and punishment in a way that the others who contributed are not.

More importantly, to acknowledge your own role--or your own community's role--in creating a problem is just plain human decency. So is apologizing for it. You shouldn't resist doing the decent thing because you're afraid that somehow it lets others off the hook or implies that others more intimately involved in the problem aren't to blame. But we are afraid to do this, far too often, because we are caught up at least implicitly by this misguided idea that moral responsibility can't be shared. Sometimes pundits and politicians play off this misguided propensity to score political points.

But when we think about it explicitly, of course we all know better.

If I sleep with your wife and you attempt to murder me in a fit of rage, I am not responsible for the attempt on my life. But I am responsible for what I did. I am responsible for having the affair. I am responsible for the provocation. If I concede that I provoked you, I am not implying that there's nothing wrong with the sort of character that sends someone over the edge in the face of infidelity. While people should be angry when their spouses break their vows and others are complicit in that, no one should become murderously angry. If you're like that, then you've got a serious character flaw. If you acted on the urgings of that character flaw, you've done something seriously wrong.

And so the fact that I was able to provoke you to murderous intent speaks poorly of your character. But that I provoked you in this particular way speaks poorly of mine.

But now suppose I knew this about you in advance. And suppose I knew not only that you're easily provoked to murderous rage by infidelity, but that your wife (my would-be lover) would also be at risk should you be triggered. Suppose I went ahead and slept with your wife knowing that her life was also thereby put at risk. But suppose I didn't care. I took no steps to protect her. I didn't help her get to a domestic violence shelter or anything like that before indulging myself in ways I knew could trigger you to kill her. I just ignite the spark in pursuit of my pleasure and walk away.

If you then murder your wife, do I bear any responsibility? I'm not talking about legal responsibility here. I mean moral responsibility.

Of course I do. Admitting this doesn't reduce the gravity of what you did, the depths of your moral failings, the reality of the danger that letting you roam free in the world poses to us all, especially those you come to possessively "love" as if they were things that belong to you. It's possible for all these serious moral failings and wrongs to fall squarely on your shoulders, even if there are a bunch of serious moral failings and wrongs that fall squarely on mine. Even if both your moral failings and mine helped push circumstances forward to the tragic outcome.

But when it comes to the failings I have the best hope of correcting, I need to look inward. While that doesn't mean we should ignore the wrongs of others or not seek to apprehend those who pose the most imminent threat to human safety, it does mean that when we or our communities play a role in a complex chain of events that culminates in tragedy, we should ask ourselves what changes we can make closer to home, so that we aren't implicated in future tragedies. And when we do so, it doesn't follow that the gravity of what others have done is mitigated or erased.

Because moral responsibility can be shared.

Recently, a juvenile, amateurish filmmaker made a horrible movie. It wasn't just bad art--although from what I can tell it was really, really lousy on that score. But it was also deliberately offensive and slanderous--and its target was Muslims, a large and diverse group of people. In the film, not only is Mohammed depicted (something that by itself is known to be deeply offensive to Muslims), but he is depicted as being a murderer and adulterer who approved of pedophilic sex abuse.

A hate-filled religious ideologue, the Koran-burning Terry Jones, then went ahead and championed this amateurish, offensive, slanderous move, helping to bring what was otherwise a dead-in-the-water film (it showed once, apparently to a mostly empty theater) to the attention of the large and diverse religious community being slandered. The filmmaker and its champion did this knowing full well that some of those in the targeted religious group have a history of ideology-fueled violence.

To say that these people--the filmmaker and the crazy Islamophobic preacher--bear some moral responsibility for what happened next does not mitigate the gravity of extremist violence. Because moral responsibility isn't this limited resource with only so much to go around.

And if one looks more broadly at our American culture; if one asks whether the incendiary hatred of Muslims on display in this film is a distillation or amplification of broader social attitudes that we should be working on changing, one does not thereby mitigate the gravity of what the film-makers and those who championed them did. Because moral responsibility can be shared. 

Here is a fact: Sometimes I know how others are likely to respond to my actions because I know something about their character. Sometimes crazy extremist behavior is a predictable outcome of certain broad social patterns and ideas. This is not to say that people who behave as predicted bear no responsibility for their actions. People can and do take responsibility for themselves and their choices, rising above their least if they're encouraged, challenged, and supported in the right way.

But, more often than not, people don't defy predictions. They don't take responsibility, but instead simply act out their conditioning. And sometimes that conditioning leads them to respond to certain triggers with violent umbrage.

Knowing that they're there, what do we do? We shouldn't be held hostage by them, of course. We shouldn't do something wrong, say or do things we don't believe, just to appease them. I don't think, for example, that we ought to abandon our national commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression and begin suppressing inflammatory filmmakers and crazy preachers, just because there are extremists out there who will begin targeting decent, caring human beings just for sharing a national identity with a hateful bigot or two.

But it's one thing to say we shouldn't be held hostage to the poor character or ideological conditioning of others. It's something else to say we shouldn't pay attention to how our own character flaws, our own unreflective ideologies, help to fuel violent feedback loops with the harmful conditioning of others. 

Far too often, pointless tragedies happen because too many people, in diverse ways, mistake the humiliation and dehumanization of others for something worth doing. Too many allow themselves to be guided by these deeply divisive ideologies that spring from ancient tribal instincts and are vindicated by appeal to a tribal god (and then, predictably enough, insist that this tribal god is the God of all people, the creator Who sustains in being every Hindu, every Muslim, every Christian, every Jew, the God whose sustaining love supposedly encompasses the whole creation).

How can such tribalism swamp our better natures? It rears its head most powerfully when it is embraced by people on both sides of an ideological divide, when there are those who identify themselves against one another, who target one another, who universalize and absolutize their dehumanizing depictions of one another.

If you have a few tribal voices within a community of tolerant, compassionate human beings, and if, in the community anathematized by those tribal voices, you have nothing but tolerant, compassionate human beings who reach out in fellowship...well, the tribal voices won't be a good thing even then, but they lose much of their power. They face a kind of persistent challenge that can motivate many of them to take responsibility for their own ideological conditioning, reflect on it, discuss it, and eventually transform it.

Sometimes, however, there are broad unspoken social sentiments that, while not themselves overtly hostile and vitriolic, provide the stew out of which a few extreme voices emerge to spew overt hate. Two such communities, perched on opposite sides of an ideological divide, can progressively feed off the extreme messages coming from the vocal minority on the other side. The voices react to each other, enrage each other, and in targeting each other end up reinforcing their respective dehumanizing views of the other side. And as innocents on both sides become the targets of the extreme acts of the few, more members of each community start to listen to those hate-filled tribal voices, the voices that universalize and absolutize the dehumanizing depictions of one another. More and more of us stop taking responsibility for our own complicity, instead blaming the other side and vindicating our own attacks--physical attacks or rhetorical, with movies or with guns--by unreflective invocation of an ideology of hate.

Casting all the blame at the doorstep of a few individuals or at the doorstep of the other community, refusing to recognize that responsibility can be shared, that it should be shared, that we all must take responsibility for ourselves and each other...these are habits that only play into the tragic feedback loop through which tribalism comes to swamp our better natures.

Moral responsibility can be shared. And it must be shared, especially in the face of tragedies. Or we're all in trouble.


  1. This is very interesting. But I think that to the extent that you withdraw moral responsibility from the crazy extremists, you dehumanize them.. make them into, perhaps, yellow jacket wasps. I think this situation is far less shared than you make it out to be. You are right that we should not appease them, because our national commitment to freedom of speech happens to be not national at all, but the very same freedom they were themselves seeking in the Arab spring, and which the US and Ambassador Stevens spent a great deal of effort helping them secure in Libya specifically.

    So it is a universal value that goes both directions, in their freedom to enjoy their own political lives and religion, and in ours likewise. It is the depth of hypocrisy, powerlust, and religious/ideological fixity to use their freedoms to promote a new intolerance and jihad and to put themselves at the feet of Al Qaeda for the sake of gaining power over their fellows and over us by terrorism.

    And this is the essence of terrorism. Crazy extremists can come up with something offensive on youtube every minute of every day. That is not the hard part, or the morally culpable part. The question is how they deal with it. The responsibility is, in this case, entirely theirs.

    And incidentally, Muhammed was indeed a murderer in both mass and individual forms, and had extremely convenient morals/divine inspirations in other respects. He set an example of terrorism, codified as jihad. For his time, he had some progressive virtues to be sure. I am sure the film exaggerated in irresponsible and perhaps unfunny fashion. But do you hold Monty Python to the same standard? Should the Life of Brian have been squelched by religious outrage? Or only if the outraged religionists had killed people in mob violence? Wouldn't the latter make appeasement worse?

    I would suggest that civility, politeness, and solicitation of the sensitivities of religions is something that most contemporary religions do not abuse because they accept the basic secular state bargain we have come up with in the West (and in many Eastern settings as well). Islam, however, does not accept this bargain, (along with numerous other extremists, in Christianity and Judaism especially), neither in its extremist fringe, nor in many of its core precincts like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If we are to have a peaceful world, they need to change, not us. That is, unless the final solution is that we all become muslim.

  2. Eric

    While you frequently write thoughtful and beautiful pieces, this one to my mind sets a new high water mark. Well done, and thank you.


  3. When does Islam get to share some of the blame for the violence done in its name and under its rubrics? The Quran proclaims "doom" for those who mock Islam, and shariah law prescribes the death penalty, which was duly carried out at the US embassy in Libya. Shouldn't the religion that explicitly calls for murder take some of the responsibility? Let's keep in mind that the video in question does not contain even the merest whisper of a suggestion that anything should ever be done to any Muslim anywhere. If it is hate speech then so is The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

    Just for the record, the Quran and Hadiths record that Mohammed had sex with a 9 year old girl (when he was middle-aged), killed and caused the deaths of many people, and had a huge harem. I think what Muslims find so offensive is not what Mohammed did (obviously they have no problem with it), but that we do not revere him or his religion. The protesters want to impose their blasphemy laws on the whole world, and have already had considerable success at the UN and elsewhere (look it up). Let's not forget that the punishment for blasphemy in Muslim countries *today* is death, supposedly followed by torture for all eternity. Are we supposed to respect that? Hell no.

    We've been through this before, and the West has come to the conclusion (at the cost of many lives) that freedom and forbearance is the best way. We should be sharing that wisdom, not apologizing for it.

  4. I should add that I agree with Eric that moral responsibility can be shared, and is shared. It is a perfectly fine argument. But the degree of relative culpability can be unequal in an extremely high degree, and we need to be vigilent about the underlying issues and power struggles being played out under the cover of outrage, sensitivity, free speech, freedom, culpability, etc.

    Specifically, my take on this post is that its implicit message is that it is morally culpable to mock religion and insult believers. To what degree, it is not clear. However, I'd make the case that it might be morally positive to mock religion and insult believers. Insofar as religion is irrational and has damaging effects on society in general and Middle eastern societies in particular. Mockery is not only richly deserved, but serves a positive function of making our world a better place, despite the impoliteness and the evident violence among the fringe of those being provoked. If appeasement is bad, then non-appeasement is better and provocation is not only defensible but can have positive functions.

    How far can one go in such a perverse argument? What duty do we have to civility and respect for the human sensitivities we all have in our various degrees? I'd ask how those sensitivities are used. If they are used offensively both within their own societies to enforce uniformity and indeed quasi-totalitarian ideology, and outside their societies to terrorize other societies and corrupt basic principles of international bodies into acquiescence, then the normal position of politeness fails, in my view, to really work, and I'd suggest that speaking some truth and even some mockery to such sensitivities is in some degree called for.

    I am not sure that argument really works in the case of a clearly opening and diverse society like Egypt or Libya, but the principle is worth considering. Hitler after all had his "sensitivities" which he inculcated into his citizens, leading to their rabid assumption of rights over other countries and peoples.