Monday, 25 July 2011

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner #2

d. to understand, to wit, namely. 
a. To give heed to, attend to.
This is the second post I’ve written with the title ‘tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner’ (to understand is to forgive). The first post was about the (lack of) an Iraq war-linked explanation for the 7/7 attacks. In it I wrote the main point of the title:

There is a thin line between explaining something and excusing something. If I tell you that someone has done something because of a wrong committed against him, it sanitises the action of the criminal. This encompasses the kind of nonsense that while it is wrong to blow people up, it is nonetheless 'understandable.'

I want to elaborate on that a bit more. When someone “explains” or “understands” something, there is an underlying point that is being made: that the person is less culpable. To be clear, the people who make these points are not disinterested academic parties making observations. They are in effect providing an alibi to make a political point. As an example, Robert Fisk said the following after being attacked by Afghans:

"I don't want this to be seen as a Muslim mob attacking a Westerner for no reason. They had every reason to be angry - I've been an outspoken critic of the US actions myself. If I had been them, I would have attacked me."

Ben White (author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginners’ Guide’) is infamous for making the same argument about the hatred of Jews:

I do not consider myself an anti-Semite, yet I can also understand why some are... I do not agree with them, but I can understand.

The key to distinguishing between genuine academic explanations (of which the politically activist White and Fisk are not) and excuses is the language that is being used: does it entail pointing to the evil of the victims and the helplessness of the perpetrator? For Fisk, the perpetrators were ‘angry’ and had ‘every reason to be’ (clearly implying legitimacy). For another person who I conversed with recently, these same Afghans were helpless because they were ‘illiterate’ from a ‘dirt village’ where there is no ‘bastion of morality.’ (And no, the person did not realise how borderline racist he sounded).

What is the result of all this “explanation”? Well if a person has had a deprived upbringing and ‘had every reason to be angry’ – can you really, truly blame him for what he did? He was not responsible for his anger - the American planes were! Can’t you understand what he did? Can’t you find it in your hearts to find it understandable to attack someone?! What is being proposed amounts to a caveat: ‘She stole – because she was hungry.’  

The extremist impulses of assaulting an innocent person – whether its Afghans attacking innocent Western journalists, terrorists blowing themselves on public transport or the EDL targeting innocent British Muslims – are a fringe. They are not a natural reaction of civilised, moral human beings in the vast majority. They are an aberration.  
There is nothing ‘understandable’ (i.e., worthy of taking heed to) about someone who wishes to hate or attack someone because of an act they did not commit: hatred of Muslims because of 9/11 or hatred of all Westerners because of an inadvertent strike. Nothing. The fact that people like to “explain things” despite these ‘explanations’ making no difference to majority shows they are not serious academic explanations rather they merely seek to sanitise immoral actions.

It’s not surprising that people who resort to this nonsense have to revert to blaming Americans or British imperialism. It is no less surprising that some actually utilise the thought behind British imperialism: the uncontrollable, irrational, emotional, poor brown people who can’t read who don’t know its bad to hit an innocent person are the true victims, after all they are uncontrollable, irrational, emotional, poor brown people who can’t read.

For more, Lucy from Harry’s Place wrote a post about Ben White on his “understanding” which I highly recommend reading. She rightly starts her post off by saying “‘Understanding’ is a weasel word, isn’t it.”

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