I never really got round to writing a proper Christmas sermon this year, but given that it’s been kind of topical recently, I thought I might have a go at explaining one of the phenomena of online political debate which is as persistent as it is puzzling – that is to say, why does everything end up turning into a flamewar about Israel?
Consider, reader, a person who is a bit of a nut. His very favourite thing in the world is to have arguments on the internet about the politics and government systems countries he will never visit. There are two issues in the world which he regards as massive injustices which cry out to heaven for redress – the Russian occupation of Chechnya, and the military junta in Burma/Myanmar. He also, broadly, supports the cause of the Palestinians, but this really isn’t much of an issue for him; he’s much better informed and much more concerned about Chechnya and Burma.
So why, when the NSA takes a snoop over this fellow’s online output, does he seem to spend all of his time arguing about Israel and Palestine?
Basically it is for the same reason that this guy plays a lot of poker even though his favourite card game is bezique – because you can always get a game. If you don’t speak Russian or Burmese, then you can condemn the actions of the government of both countries, but it is going to be a short conversation, because very few people are going to argue the other side. If you have an opinion about the government of Yemen, you can excoriate them in the strongest possible terms and still be at the betting shop by the time it opens, but if you get into an argument about Israel/Palestine, you can say goodbye to the morning.
Furthermore, not only can you always “get a game” in the Israel/Palestine conflict, it’s a team sport. There any many injustices and abuses in this horrible old world, but not many of them will provide you with a social life. The political argument over the Middle East, however, will give you an entire set of friends, activities, topics of conversation – nearly all the services which an American college fraternity provides for its members. So you can see why this issue is particularly salient with college students. In my hazy memory of how things went in the 90s, the Israeli side had the better food while the BDS side had the better bands, and both sides were pretty welcoming to freeloaders. Things might have changed but I doubt they have.
So this is my answer to the vexed question of why it is that the State of Israel finds itself singled out for disproportionate criticism compared to all the other unjust governments in the world. The online supporters of the State of Israel don’t understand why their conflict attracts so much attention because they can’t understand, because the reason is, basically, them. There are loads and loads of governments which carry out human rights abuses in the world, but there are really rather few governments who make apologetics for crimes against humanity clearly, in English and conveniently online. Neither are there many organisations in the world who fire rockets at nurseries, but who have a large, well-educated and English-speaking community across the world who are prepared to repeat their propaganda material. The Israel-Palestine conflict is the English Premier League of human rights debates – it might not be the best one, it might be legitimately criticised as predictable and dominated by big money, but it’s the one which has captured the imagination of the world, and if you want to see the best players in action, week in and week out, nowhere else comes close.
So having developed a theory about why these flamewars are so bloody ubiquitous, can we develop a theory about why they are generally so bloody nasty? I think I can, but first I need to do a digression, covering the ground of a post I thought about writing this year but didn’t. It’s about this news story, reporting that Goldman Sachs has started an initiative to reduce the workload on junior bankers in order to give them a better work life balance and “keep the best recruits”.
The post was going to be entitled “The Pain Is The Purpose”, and it was going to note that there’s decent reason to believe that this idea – of sparing baby bankers the pointless makework and exhaustion – could be very counterproductive. Not because of any of these well thought out but ultimately spurious rationalisations for why the work is actually necessary, but because if you take a more anthropological or sociological perspective, it’s pretty clear why investment banks make the most junior bankers work silly hours and destroy their social lives.
It’s a hazing ritual, pure and simple. Of the sort that you see in tribal societies across the world, in military organisations more or less everywhere (and despite all attempts by officers to stamp them out) and of course canonically, in those silly American student drinking societies. The purpose of all of these rituals is create loyalty to the institution, to break down external ties to anything outside the institution and to render the new recruit more likely to stick to the particular values of the institution, even when they conflict with more normal instinctive or learned rules. I would advise any readers in the academic profession who might be even thinking of feeling smug at this point, by the way, to consider the condition of graduate students and adjunct teachers, and to ponder why it is that people eight years post-diploma, with no hope of a tenure-track job, remain in many cases reluctant to “leave the academy” or even to form labour unions.
The reason why hazing rituals work is that they exploit cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon first identified by Nietszche in the great aphorism “My memory says I did that – my pride says I could not have done that – eventually, memory yields”. Putting people in nasty situations that don’t really make any sense is a great way to start the rationalisation mechanism working, and that is one of the most powerful muscles in the brain, capable of thoroughly rewiring vivid factual memories, let alone such comparatively flimsy structures as people’s sense of the right and wrong way to behave.
And to return from Digressionland, the participants in the Israel/Palestine debate basically end up, possibly accidentally, hazing each other and each committing their respective opponents further to the task. I doubt that anyone has a conscious plan to raise the temperature of the debate to such a disproportionate level, but the great thing about self-organising systems is that there doesn’t have to be a single controlling intelligence with a master plan. This is how the system replicates and perpetuates itself, and the purpose of a system, as Anthony Stafford Beer said, is what it does.
And so that’s my general theory of the biggest game in town. The problem has very little to do with deep-seated racism and surprisingly little to do with professional public relations. It’s just a self-sustaining system, produced by a congeries of poor decisions about interpersonal behaviour, which have the predictable resulting of replicating themselves by causing similar poor decisions about interpersonal behaviour. As in the popular theory about the origins of the First World War, we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.
So, merry Christmas all. The endless and pointless argument I’ve described here is the biggest game in town, but it is by no means the only one – as we all live a greater and greater part of our social life online (what? Really? Oh), we’re going to come across more and more of these strange self-sustaining abstract life-forms. The best you can do is spot them, spot the small groups of people who are always trying to get a game of some sort going, and try not to get involved in one yourself.
Happy Christmas, Yuul, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali, Festivus or whatever solcistial feast of whatever degree of obvious made-up-ness you choose to celebrate and see you in the New Year. And remember that when you ask yourself “why is it that my opponents are such horrible, bitter, twisted, unpleasant people?”, that the answer might be “look what they have to deal with!”