Sunday, 7 September 2014

Picking Sides

About a month ago, I started on a post about the Gaza/Israel mess, but as often happens I didn't get it finished. The central idea behind it has had time to mature, though, and I think it may have broader use. I doubt it's an original idea - in fact, I'm certain it isn't - but it's always nice to come to a realisation on your own.

The idea is this: In destructive conflicts (there can be such a thing as constructive conflict, e.g. the peer review part of the scientific method) between big, vague, general groups, it's most useful to isolate those who perpetuate destructive behaviour. Isolating these people and dealing with them is much more useful than the usual way of framing conflicts, i.e. Side 1 vs. Side A, which usually have little real connection with the root of the conflict. When we pick sides, it's important to start by picking which sides we will accept as even worth picking from. If you let others pick the choice of possible sides for you, then you've already lost all meaningful choice.

The reason for this is that the majority of people on each conventional side are usually not actually inclined towards destructiveness. Perhaps it's my Star Trek-fuelled idealism here, but I think it's a fair bet that most people, most of the time, just want to get on with life and don't really want to tear down those they disagree with. More cynically, you might come to the same end conclusion by saying that sheeple aren't good at taking the initiative, or something like that; it's not really my thing. But the bottom line does hold either way, with plenty to back it up, not least being the fact that this cooperative behaviour is the foundation of all human civilisation, regardless of geography, ideology or time. If we couldn't mostly get along, we'd mostly have to be hermits. Vast cities prove human goodnitude.

So when you do see major violent conflicts breaking out, it's worth remembering that it's almost always a minority conducting the violence. It's traditional to talk about whole nations going to war, but that's not really true. We say "Germany" fought in World War II, but only around a quarter of the German population (an unusually high fraction) were in the military, and not all of those will have fought. Many will have been in support roles, as cooks, engineers, admin clerks, and so on, and not every official combatant actually does fight. We say "the US" fought in the 2003 Iraq War, but only about 0,06% of them actually went there, and again not all will have fought. And the same applies to every nation in every war that I've ever heard of.

Dividing a conflict horizontally into State A and State 1 makes little sense. We should instead divide vertically into the non-problematic majority and the problematic minority. The problematic minority, of course, wouldn't like this, because the cover of being part of a larger community, of supposedly doing what they do for that community, is how they get away with being shitty to others. Nation, state, tribe, clan, people, etc., all offer very convenient concealment for shitty behaviour on a large scale. If I kick you in the shins, I'm a dick. If I kick you in the shins because you hurt my friend, a lot of people might doubt whether I'm the dick - but I still kicked you, I am still being a dick. And if I kick you repeatedly in the shins because you are part of a group that hurt several of my friends... now it starts getting messy and it's hard to separate out cruder, ancient instincts about in-groups and out-groups. But I am, unquestionably, still kicking you in the shins, whatever my motives. And I would suggest that kicking people in the shins is never the sort of behaviour we should routinely accept.

By encouraging people to stop supporting the destructive elements on "their side" (and accepting that these sides are artificial constructs, not natural inevitabilities, and thus changeable), those engaging in destructive behaviour can be better studied and understood, and then corrected without the need for bullets. Hopefully, minimum fuss, maximum happiness for all. I'm not saying any of this is likely to be easy - if it was, I would have no cause to write all this - but it's much easier than a bullet to the gut.

In further support of this, I think it's pretty well established that the opposite is definitely true: It's much easier for the dangerous minority to have their way if they can convince the majority to let them off the leash. We see this with pre-war propaganda, where nationalism is pumped up and the Enemy painted as demons. One example I remember seeing clearly splattered through the media was the US build-up to Iraq in 2003, a period when the US media was especially heavy on the nationalism and anti-Iraq sentiments. It seems to be happening on both sides in Ukraine too, by which I mean two sides are being constructed, by media prodding, out of previously peaceful neighbouring communities. Heaps has been written on war propaganda in many different wars, but the common pattern is that these conflicts don't boil up from below, from what ordinary people want; they're imposed from above, from what an aggressive minority wants. Take that away and you have lots of people who just want to get on with life.

Of course, not all destructive conflicts are of the violent sort. You can destroy without having to hit things. Apartheid worked that way. Sure, the state had violence as a backup, to force compliance with the shitty racist laws if anyone tried anything too bold, but the shitty racist laws were the bulk of the apartheid system, and divisive propaganda helped again to keep people thinking in terms of two big sides. Racism in general doesn't even need formal laws, let alone violent application: Just treating someone like shit and systematically encouraging others to the same is already destructive enough.

And how did apartheid end? Not through the A vs. B, side-against-side conflict that had been fostered for decades, but by the reversal of that, the peaceful acceptance that actually we're all pretty much the same underneath, and the whole division thing was the stupid idea of a stupid, selfish minority. It's fair to say that things haven't been perfectly resolved since then, but the fall into all-out civil war that many predicted or even hoped for, never happened. Those with destructive tendencies were reframed as a side of their own, distinct from the new, big side shared by everyone else.

The post I didn't get around to finishing was going to say something similar about Israel and Gaza, about how a rejection of those who want to keep resorting to violence as a solution (in spite of 60-odd years of clear evidence against this) by both Gazans and Israelis would do more for peace there than any weapon, treaty or religious belief could. It'd be a really tough nut to persuade, but I see no other feasible solution. The majority, I'm quite sure, would get behind that if pressure not to could be stopped for just a while. Instead, they're constantly told that they belong to one faction or the other, and that the opposing faction opposes them and there is no other choice. That's the message that has to be stopped.

In a more mundane (but excitingly modern and cyberspacey!) example, the shittiness I posted about last month, the harassment of online feminism, also seems to fit the same pattern. It's increasingly clear that a few shitty people are actively trying to be destructive, and part of this is the use of propaganda to frame feminism as anti-men. Speaking as a male feminist, that's just silly. The ass-hats want us to think in terms of men vs. women, because big, vague sides like that give them just as much cover for their shitty behaviour as nation-states give to shitty killers in war. Their behaviour is reprehensible, nobody would stand for it if they just came out and did it, so they first get people on their side by smearing the legitimate, reasonable positions of those they dislike, and by building up a big, false them-vs.-us narrative.

Feminism (or anti-sexism), of course, is not anti-man, any more than being anti-apartheid was anti-white, or being against the First World War was anti-Franz Ferdinand or against whatever country you lived in that wanted you to bleed for them in the trenches. These bullshit stories are the cover, the excuse, the illusion needed for shitty behaviour to go undetected.

I know rational, intelligent, educated people who honestly believe in a dangerous feminist conspiracy. They've never quite managed to express what the agenda of this conspiracy is, nor what evidence there is for its existence. I've not encountered any myself, but I know there are also those who fear the ever-murky gay agenda, also the end result of a misbegotten division of humanity in gay and straight sides. Anti-war protesters throughout history have been accused of secretly being enemy agents, not just by blood-thirsty warmongers, but by otherwise normal people who've bought into the them-vs.-us crap. The apartheid government was very happy for people to believe that die Swart Gevaar would get them in their beds. Joe McCarthy felt similarly about the Red Menace. Abigail Williams wanted all of Salem to believe in the immediate threat of witches.

All of these make it harder to identify and deal with real problems, and that's the point. As I said at the top, the sides we should be dividing things into are 'destructive' and 'other'. But, in normal societies that are mostly cooperative and good, natural selection would quickly pick off the destructive individuals who couldn't hide their bad behaviour. The challenge for the rest of us is to spot the ones who've become very good at convincing us that they're on our side.


A pre-emptive clarification:

I can foresee my main point above being misunderstood in one crucial way: Rejecting dubiously-allocated sides as a way to end a destructive conflict does not preclude the recognition of these sides in post-conflict reparative efforts. Or more simply, affirmative action isn't racist (for example). If harm was done systematically (which is not necessarily always the case, but is fairly likely in larger, more sustained kinds of conflict), then it's reasonable to think that it can be systematically undone. Harm is bad, which is why we don't like war and bigotry. But the opposite of that, unharm, begoodment, is generally good. Acknowledging past divisions does not turn unharm back into harm, and refusing to acknowledge them can hamper unharm.


A small afterthought on dismissive insults:

The destructive minority likes to encourage as many people as possible to disregard anyone suggesting constructive alternatives, and part of that is encouraging disparaging, dismissive labels and insults. They call us peaceniks, doves, cowards, and mean these things pejoratively. They say we're lovers of whatever group they're against, and mean it in a weirdly sexual, angry, pejorative way. Sometimes they flirt with ironic and sarcastic pejoratives, such as the recent 'social justice warrior'. Their ideal trick, however, seems to be to turn whatever we call ourselves into an insult: If 'pacifist' or 'feminist' are widely perceived to be dirty words, then fewer people will want to be one, and the destructive minority wins a little more. The way to undermine such negative labelling, I think, is to proudly wear these insults, embrace them and claim them as your own, while demonstrating the best possible example of what they should stand for.