Misunderstandings in politics can be subtle. But they can have profound consequences. One such misunderstanding has made itself obvious over recent weeks.
During the Labour party’s anti-Semitism row there have been fundamental misunderstandings about anti-Semitism. Not just what it is, and how it is expressed, but what can be done about it. Most worrying, though, is the misunderstanding that it is a solvable problem.
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Last month one of Jeremy Corbyn’s principal media cheerleaders made another attempt to draw a line under his party’s anti-Semitism scandal. He said he would like “a definitive speech on anti-Semitism” from the Labour leader.
But is there such a thing as a “definitive” speech on anti-Semitism? Even if you gathered Harvard’s Professor Ruth Wisse, Rabbi (Lord) Jonathan Sacks and the late Robert Wistrich in a room, I think they’d struggle to produce one. Naturally, the current Labour leadership don’t have any such brains at their disposal. But that’s beside the point: the task is impossible. One of the things that is so terrible as well as so fascinating about this ancient hatred is that it is hard to pin down, trace and dissect. But that’s not what I want to focus on here. I’m more interested in this ‘definitive’ demand.
The language of completion and conclusion lies everywhere in this affair as in so many others today. It is claimed that the Labour party might not only ‘address’ anti-Semitism but also ‘tackle’ it and even ‘defeat’ it. Present this idea to anybody – especially anyone Jewish – who knows something about the history of hatred towards Jews and most will laugh darkly. ‘Challenging’ anti-Semitism is one thing. ‘Not tolerating’ it would be another good place to start. But to talk about it as though it could be eradicated is a deep misreading, not only of anti-Semitism, but also the crooked reality of human nature.
Nevertheless this is the language which a large element of both the political Left and Right now speaks on a whole range of subjects. I think perhaps it is an off-shoot of what Tim Montgomerie has termed ‘hegemonia’:
“The hegemonic insistence on total victory and the thirst to not just win office or ascendancy but to flatten and marginalise opponents”
This iteration, though, attempts the ultimate, total defeat of something which would be better understood as a perpetual, species-wide struggle.
The belief that struggles can be won for all time infects thinking everywhere. So it is that we hear regular promises to ‘eradicate’ poverty. These are now joined by promises to ‘solve’ the problem of ‘loneliness’. For years, such promises of completion have been common among anti-racism campaigners who talk of the necessity of ‘stamping-out’, ‘crushing’ or ‘defeating’ racism and much more. Likewise some feminist campaigners talk about the need to ‘defeat’, ‘crush’ or ‘war’ on misogyny, and some gay-rights campaigners speak of a world in which nobody will ever express any errant thoughts on homosexuality.
All of these may be noble endeavours, but that’s not the point. Could any of them be achieved? Will there ever be a day when nobody will feel any dislike of someone because of an ineradicable characteristic, or ever feel tempted to use such characteristics against them? Unpleasantness is something that can be struggled with, but it cannot be defeated or won. And even if it were ever won by one individual over themselves (which is the only struggle most of us has any chance of winning), where is the evidence that the same problem can be forever suppressed among everybody else?
This is where the anti-Semitism row betrays a particular slovenliness of thought. To ‘destroy’ misogyny (or, for that matter, its opposite – misandry) you would have to arrive at a time when nobody of either sex felt any ill-feeling towards someone of the opposite sex, or felt any need to seize on a secondary characteristic as a way to push their primary dislike. All divorces – and other relationship break-ups – would have to go swimmingly. Men would pay alimony only with pleasure and enthusiasm.
Conversely, any woman who caught their husband cheating would have to say: “Well that was just my husband: I wouldn’t want to express any conclusions about men in general.” Perhaps this is desirable. But achievable? Hardly. The trouble is some people – including some of the most powerful people on the planet – seem to believe otherwise.
In his testimony before the House and Senate this week Mark Zuckerberg once again made clear where the major tech companies stand on the subject. Facebook, Twitter and other tech giants are currently all on a special mission to stop ‘hate speech’. The fact that this is itself a thing which cannot be pinned down, that it will always be in the eye of the beholder – that one man’s hate-speech may be another man’s truth – seems not to bother Silicon Valley overmuch.
In his testimony Zuckerberg said:
“It’s not enough to just build tools, we need to make sure that they’re used for good. And that means that we need to now take a more active view in policing the ecosystem and in watching and kind of looking out and making sure that all of the members in our community are using these tools in a way that’s going to be good and healthy.”
But what is “good”? And what is “healthy”? Mr Zuckerberg is making some pretty sweeping statements here. And in any case, who gets to decide? Who does Mark Zuckerberg think is qualified to make the decisions on such matters for more than a billion people worldwide? An algorithm?
Is it possible that with enough community guideline strikes, congressional hearings and definitive speeches, all the meanness, bigotry and hatred in the world could ever be dealt with? That the attempt to eradicate ‘hate’, including ‘hate speech’ could succeed?
Surely the world is more complicated than that – and people more complicated than this latest strain of complete-ist thinking pretends. It is not just intellectually dishonest, but an intellectual failing to believe in the possibility of victory in what is better understood as an endless battle. Recognising this fact would have many advantages, not least the advantage of giving us a realistic approximation of real problems.
In our everyday lives, the law does its work to police the most serious boundaries. Inside of that, most of us make our own judgements. We choose to avoid people with genuinely ugly and rancid opinions. We learn to live with those things we wish we didn’t have to. We learn to forgive some things that are forgivable. And we recognise that any reasonable person must make, which is to accept that the world is not permanently fixable and is most unlikely to adapt to us – however noble our own aspirations. Of course many people may be unwilling to give up their crusade because – as in the manner of Cavafy’s barbarians – the effort to destroy or end ‘hate’ probably gives life an overarching purpose it may otherwise lack.
In any case, what is becoming clear is that the most connected generation in human history is becoming persuaded that, given enough effort, negative human behaviours of which it disapproves (often with good reason) can be vaporised entirely. The subtle misapprehension betrays an unreasonable and almost certainly unachievable expectation. A better place to start would be to recognise that while ugly things can be countered, not all can be eradicated. And to bear in mind that the search for utopia has an unfortunate tendency to produce its opposite.