Sunday, 31 August 2014

Explaining the Left’s moral blindness with regard to Israel

The image always has the last word [1]

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt introduces the concepts of Moral Foundations psychology. Moral foundations psychology studies the moral frameworks our minds appear to have built into them. These frameworks are what lead us to see the events around us in a moral way. This means, for example, that instead of simply seeing a strong person abusing a weak and vulnerable person we experience feelings of offence, emotional intuitions which arouse anger towards the bully and pity towards the victim. This is what gives us a sense that a bully is ‘in the wrong’ and should be stopped, reprimanded, and possibly punished. It is this that gives us the sense that people should not behave in this way. These moral foundations have evolved during the course of human evolution and form the basis of all our moral thinking and moral codes. Different moral codes emphasise the different moral foundations in slightly different ways but they are all built using the same basic components.

Six moral foundations have been identified so far. They are expressed as pairs of opposites which define a specific dimension of morality. They are:

  • Care/Harm
  • Fairness/Cheating
  • Liberty/Oppression
  • Authority/Subversion
  • Loyalty/Betrayal
  • Sanctity/Degradation
I’ve examined these dimensions in more detail here. I want to focus on the two which are most relevant to the political left: Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression.

As discussed in my previous post, Care/Harm and Liberty/Oppression are given particular emphasis by those on the political left. You can see this reflected in their political aims: concern for the weak and vulnerable; the desire for greater political and economic equality; the protection of various minority groups from discrimination; a distrust of those in power and a desire to reduce power differences.

(I would be the first to agree that left-wing policies often have the effect of disempowering the weak but the moral aspiration is our concern here not the actual outcomes.)

The Care/Harm foundation is the basis of our outrage at the sight of cruelty and persecution. We feel motivated to protest against the suffering of others and we feel hostility towards those causing it. From this foundation springs our opposition to torture, the exploitation of children (sexual and otherwise), and our tendency to run to the defence of the defenceless.

Caring for the young is beneficial for survival and genes associated with this behaviour have a better chance of being transmitted to the next generation. The original trigger for the Care/Harm response was a child in distress or danger. The original trigger then became associated with other subjects. For example, many more people are sensitised to the suffering of animals and see it as morally wrong to be cruel to them than was the case 100 years ago.

The triggers for these responses are susceptible to cultural variation, both between cultures and within the same culture over time. The extent to which individuals within societies experience these responses varies too.

We can see that the Care/Harm foundation is active in the politics of the left in their concern for the poor. The poor suffer higher levels of just about all social ills: poorer health, lower life expectancy, higher levels of mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, etc. All these are manifestations of suffering and elicit the duty of care in the left (generally by spending other people’s money).

This also underlies the tendency of the left to take the side of the perceived victims and to see the poor as the victims of circumstance. Their poverty is never understood as the result of their poor decisions. They are also very uncomfortable with the idea that the poor reach their natural position within the social order according to their level of innate ability.

The Liberty/Oppression foundation is most clearly seen when people unite to take collective action against a bully or tyrant. A sense of righteous anger is often the driving force for corrective action against a powerful person or group that is seen to be too dominant over others.

Moral foundations theory accounts for this reaction in the following way:
Humans, like our primate forebears, are naturally adapted to living in hierarchies and have learned how to navigate successfully through relationships of dominance and submission. However, the archaeological evidence shows that our ancestors lived as bands of mobile hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. Hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian.

Hierarchical societies become widespread later once agriculture develops. Private property and the accumulation of wealth lead to inequalities of power. So, are we natural egalitarians trapped in hierarchical social structures?

No we aren’t. The anthropologist Christopher Boehm has studied tribal cultures and also chimpanzees. He was struck by the remarkable similarities in the way humans and chimpanzees display dominance and submission.[2] We are wired for hierarchy. He suggests that at some point in the last half a million years we underwent a political transition whereby dominant Alpha males were taken down through collective rebellion. These mechanisms allowed our ancestors to maintain egalitarian groups.

By doing this, we created the first moral communities in which violations of group principles (that no individual should bully others and hog resources) were punished by ostracism or death. These changes were facilitated by the development of language and weapons. The first giving the group the means to communicate disgruntlement and plot the overthrow of the bullying Alpha male; the second, giving the means for weaker opponents to attack him.

This foundation is expressed in situations where justice is seen to be served by groups of weaker individuals uniting to overthrow a dominant group or individual. People still retain the tendency to dominate others when they can get away with it but we also have the desire for a more equal distribution of power and resources when we are the underdog.

As Jonathon Haidt says, “The hatred of oppression is found on both sides of the political spectrum. The difference seems to be that for liberals−who are more universalistic and who rely more heavily upon the Care/Harm foundation−the Liberty/Oppression foundation is employed in the service of underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere.” [3]

Perception and Reality

In an previous post I looked at the selective and interpretive nature of perception. From all the information arriving in our senses our brains create the interpretation that we treat as reality. This doesn’t mean that what we see is a fiction. What it does mean is that ‘reality’ is skewed and coloured by a whole range of factors including emotion, memory, selective attention, expectations, assumptions, and so on. The internal representation is an approximation to reality. Some approximations are better than others. Some are outright distortions.

This must be even truer when the reality we are trying to understand is hard to apprehend, highly complex, hotly contested, and covers a long period of time. Such is the case with respect to Israel and the history of the Jews. Much of what we ‘see’ as we try to understand the reality is held in our imagination. As such it is affected just as much, if not more, by all those factors listed above which are skewing and colouring the representation that we hold.

The Liberty/Oppression framework is applied by the Left to Israel and the Palestinians with Israel cast as the bullying Alpha male. This model is sustained by focusing on Israel’s strength relative to the angry mobs of Gaza and the West Bank; on Israel’s ability to hit back hard when provoked. It is also maintained by focusing on the unequal number of casualties on each side and ignoring the fact that whereas Israel seeks to protect its citizens (and that is why it is fighting in the first place), Hamas puts its people in harm’s way because this helps to reinforce the view that Israel is an oppressive bully.

The mental models that people hold are also sustained by filtering out information. This is particularly the case with morally charged models: they are not tested against the full range of facts in an objective way but rather facts and the interpretation of events are selected in order to sustain the model. The result is then paraded as the truth.

We should all recognize in ourselves the tendency to avoid information that conflicts with our viewpoint (internal models). We should also recognize that we find it harder to remember information which conflicts with our viewpoint. The internal model organizes our response to a particular subject and when the subject is highly charged and controversial this organising is particularly vigorous, having a strong tendency to discard information that conflicts with the model.

We usually enjoy information (however unpleasant in itself) which confirms our model of reality. We dislike information that is dissonant. Dissonant information is more likely to be questioned, distorted, avoided, or forgotten.

Moral foundations form part of the mental architecture that organises our perception of reality and the internal representation of it that we build and maintain. In the case of Israel and the Left, the dominant moral foundations of the Left are very active in forming their perception and internal representation of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians and the Middle East as a whole. They act like a template which forces information to conform to a predetermined pattern or narrative. Information which conflicts with the template is blocked; that which conforms is endlessly rehearsed.

Within the framework of this template, Israel is cast as the stronger opponent while the pitiful Palestinians take the role of plucky victims standing up to the Alpha male. They take on the mantle of virtue in the face of oppression, only wanting to live in peace and freedom, while Israel is the ironclad monster that dominates and terrorises, taking more than its fair share of resources and trapping the Palestinians in misery and poverty.

Seen in these terms, the Left then justifies terrorism as the “weapon of the dispossessed”, an understandable recourse for those in an intolerable situation. Glowing with feelings of identification with the oppressed they then rehearse their endless slogans in solidarity with the enemies of Israel.

What we must remember is that this application of the Liberty/Oppression framework is relatively new; the mental structure underlying the framework is as old as mankind.

David and Goliath

Whist writing this article I came across a review by Daniel Greenfield of a new book by Joshua Muravchik called Making David into Goliath: How the world turned against Israel. This sets out how Israel has come to be cast as the bullying Alpha male in this conflict, how it is deemed by the Left to be the oppressor and not the victim of persecution.

The story of David and Goliath is a great metaphor for the Liberty/Oppression foundation and the perceptual template derived from it. It even includes a long range weapon being used to bring down a stronger opponent. I can just imagine Hamas rockets being romanticised in the same manner. The youths throwing stones at Israeli tanks certainly fit the pattern.

The turning point in the West’s (but particularly the Left’s) attitude towards Israel was the Six Day War of 1967. Until this time Israel had been something of a darling for the international Left: it was democratic, liberal, egalitarian and communal, all neatly encapsulated in the kibbutzim movement.

It previous conflicts with the Arab states surrounding it Israel had looked like David fending off Goliath but the very swiftness and decisiveness of its victory in 1967 provided the seed for a new approach by the Arabs.

Incapable of destroying Israel by brute force the era of Palestinianism began - meaning the presentation of the Palestinians as the hapless victims of Israel’s military and economic superiority, a dispossessed people suffering perpetual exile.

Ironically, it was the dazzling display of military prowess by Israel against all the odds that would be used against Israel, used to present it as Goliath, the evil oppressor that should be overthrown. This pattern would be reiterated in a thousand conferences and used to demonise and delegitimise the only country in the region with civilised standards; in fact, the true David in the situation, not oppressors but the victims of centuries of persecution defending the homeland that is so obviously needed in the face of all the hatred now directed against it. Hatred of Israel proves Israel’s necessity.

As Muravchik says, “The world’s historical “Clock” for Israel has been set to right after 1967. The initial perceptions of its aftermath; Israel’s military superiority, the “oppressed” Palestinians who suddenly came into being after coming out of the rule of Egypt and Jordan, and the urgent need for a negotiated solution, have been frozen in time as the default worldview with little regard for what came before or after.”

This frozen view of Israel has been consolidated in the ensuing decades. Muslim spokesmen have multiplied in the West thus affording them the opportunity to frame Israel as the oppressor to Western audiences. Departments of Middle East Studies have been established with Arab funding which shamelessly echo the Arab/Muslim demonization of Israel and promote the view that all conflicts have as their ultimate source the Israel/Palestinian issue; that once this is addressed (in favour of the Palestinians) all will be well in the world; the opportunities to portray Israel as a bullying usurper and occupier have been exploited to the full.

Acting as an organising framework for all this information in the minds of Western audiences is the Liberty/Oppression foundation. It is this which appears to give the Palestinians a moral cause against Israel. The Liberty/Oppression framework also plays into the tendency of people (probably the majority) who think with their emotions. When those emotions are also given a moral fervour we witness the hideous sight of leftists marching in lockstep with Islamo-fascists in self-righteous hatred.

Given that the media is dominated by liberals and leftists, it looks at the world through the template of Liberty/Oppression and defines Israel as the bully. Its focus is narrow and looks at events in an ephemeral manner, giving emphasis to the sensational. A glib narrative suits its purposes. Thus, by and large, it takes the view that justice is to be served by siding with the Palestinians; Israel does not need or deserve a fair hearing. Media bias then reinforces the perceptual template in millions of minds and thus drives the need to redress the balance against Israel ever further – a need the media is eager to satisfy; to subject the Palestinians to any critical scrutiny is seen as oppressive in itself.

A good insight into pressures affecting media bias with regard to Israel is provided here. Once the cycle of distortion is established it becomes self-reinforcing, like fresh concrete being slapped onto a wall.


The complex relationships and historical realities of Israel and her neighbours have become simplified and distorted in such a way as to cast Israel as the oppressor. The Liberty/Oppression moral foundation is triggered by this perception and leads to the increasing demonization and de-legitimization of Israel. The application of this pattern to the situation allows the Palestinians and the wider Arab/Muslim world to manipulate world opinion in accordance with an inversion of the David and Goliath story. Israel is seen to be powerful and wrong, the Palestinians as weak and virtuous.

This view can only be sustained by ignoring the wider context of Israel’s vast, heavily populated neighbours, many of whom have massive (unshared) wealth derived from natural resources, and the Jew-hatred that has been endemic in Islamic culture ever since Muhammad. The Palestinians are simply the frontline in Israel’s conflict with the Islamic ummah.

Because the Left has swallowed the bait of Israel as oppressor, the inference that Palestinians are victims is intuitively accepted. Having succumbed to this fallacy they then imagine that the Palestinians must be motivated by a desire for equality and freedom – they see a desire for liberation where there is none. This is the logical conclusion offered by the moral architecture underpinning their perceptions. The overwhelming evidence that this is not so is filtered out by the organising effects of the Liberty/Oppression framework on perception, memory and thinking.

This perceptual framework is writ large in the work of the mass media.


Given that the Liberty/Oppression foundation exerts a strong organising force on the thinking of the Left and makes it extremely difficult to alter their viewpoint on a subject like Israel and the Palestinians, are there any lessons to be drawn from the foregoing analysis?

I think we can try and deconstruct the application of the Liberty/Oppression foundation in the following ways:

1. Investing Palestinians with the mantle of the oppressed can create the impression that they have egalitarian aspirations. This is demonstrably false:
      a. As stated emphatically in the Hamas Charter, they seek the complete destruction of Israel and all Jews.
      b. They seek the implementation of Shariah law which is far from egalitarian
      c. The current regime run by Hamas is male-dominated, brutal, coercive and anti-democratic
2. Expand the time frame. Muslims have been persecuting Jews for centuries. Muhammad hated Jews and taught that Muslims should do likewise.
3. Religion comes first in the Islamic world. Religion drives events and jihad drives the religion. It is amazing how many Christians in the West attribute the actions of Hamas to poverty and lack of freedom. It seems too far-fetched to these religious people that Muslims are motivated by their religious beliefs. But they keep referring to religion in all their pronouncements.
4. The battle is not between Israel and the Palestinians but between the West and the Muslim ummah. Israel/Gaza is just one front in the global jihad. Israel is a tiny beacon of enlightenment surrounded by a sea of darkness.
5. Israel is still David and the Philistine is still Goliath

Finally, with regard to Israel, there is also the consideration that Israel is better than Gaza and the wider Muslim world for which Gaza is the spearhead. On any measure of human progress or achievement, scientific, artistic, political, humanitarian, it is far in advance of its Arab/Muslim neighbours. Should the superior yield to the inferior on the say-so of the international Left? As Pameler Geller puts it, "In any war between the civilized man and the savage,support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat jihad."

If we are seriously concerned about reducing oppression then a far more logical strategy is to support Israel instead of becoming the dupes of the global jihad; for that is all Hamas is, a brutal, theocratic puppet for far more extensive Islamic forces intent not only on the destruction of Israel but of the entire non-Muslim world.

[1] A very perceptive maxim given to me by a dear friend
[2] The Righteous Mind - Jonathan Haidt p. 170
[3] ibid. p.175

1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Thoughtful. As I read I kept thinking, "yes, but more, please. Go further..."

    IOW, to understand this fraught situation and all its complexities, we have somehow to drill down to bedrock, almost before language. Perhaps I'm referring to the difficult work Melanie Klein took on in her work with troubled, pre-verbal infants who had no way to communicate their distress.

    In the tribal system of Islam, particularly core Muslims who've descended for countless generations from the ruthless desert tribes which spawned Mohammed...where sexual violation of infants and children is okay, though you have to observe strict limits regarding any harm to the infant. There is a perverse "caring" in those rules, in that part of Sharia law. It is an area foreign to us, since our view of infants and children changed under the moral weight of Judaeo-Christian beliefs regarding the sanctity of the individual.

    Islam is ruled by concepts of honor, whose obverse is deeply-held feelings of shame, particularly of avoiding shame.

    The West is concerned with guilt and ITS obverse, integrity.

    The two systems don't meet anywhere conceptually, but they do encounter similar feeling states. According to Sylvan Tomkins and his student, Donald Nathanson, the brain is wired to our facial muscles from the beginning. Babies, being intensely social display nine (and only nine) "affects. Three of those affects are positive, the rest neutral or negative.

    Nathanson is a true-blue liberal so he loses my allegiance past the theory level. His structure of reconciliation is definitely still in beta mode since it doesn't take into account fully enough those so damaged as to be beyond our reach - the psychopathic folk which the West is turning out ever more frequently. Though our failings in that regard would be considered a success by the codes of Islam.

    I have failed to convey both the genius of Sylvan Tompkins (via Nathanson) and how shame-driven both cultures are, even as they are going in different directions.

    I've book-marked you site, even if I don't understand the name you use. Read it twice, but couldn't grok . I'll work on it.