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March 21, 2024   5 mins

When and why did American life become so coarse, amoral and ungovernable? In his classic 1993 essay, “Defining Deviancy Down”, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan offered a semantic explanation. He concluded that, as the amount of deviant behaviour increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognise”, we have been redefining deviancy so as to exempt conduct we used to stigmatise, while also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behaviour is now abnormal by any earlier standard. The reasons behind this, he said, were altruism, opportunism and denial — but the result was the same: an acceptance of mental pathology, broken families and crime as a fact of life.

In that same summer, Charles Krauthammer responded to Senator Moynihan with a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He acknowledged Senator Moynihan’s point but said it was only one side of the story. Deviancy was defined down for one category of society: the lower classes and black communities. For the middle classes, who are overwhelmingly white and Christian, the opposite was true. Deviancy was in fact defined up, stigmatising and criminalising behaviour that was previously regarded as normal. In other words, there was a double standard at work.

But Krauthammer went further: he reckoned that this double standard makes us feel good. A society must feel that it is policing its norms by combatting deviancy. And once we have given up fighting it in one section of society, we move to concentrate on another.

This sociological pathology is now pervasive, contributing to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that forms part of modern identity politics. And, as foreign policy becomes increasingly entangled with the culture war, this pathology has now extended to a new terrain. The result is that the application of progressive moral double-standards is now seen at the level of geopolitics, most specifically over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. We have produced a discourse in which deviancy is defined up for Jews and Israel, and down for Arabs and Muslims.

Immediately, for instance, it was forgotten that the greatest display of deviancy in this conflict came from Hamas. More than anything, October 7 illustrated in a single day how swift the descent from civilisation to barbarism can be. On that day, the heinous acts themselves were manifested in the massacre of innocent, unarmed and totally unprepared civilians. These were young people at a music festival, many of them peaceniks. Family members were shot, stabbed and mutilated in front of one another. Women were raped, homes were burned, and the perpetrators revelled in their acts. Their GoPro cameras were set to record, for they knew large audiences at home awaited that footage.

Celebrations ensued, not only by Palestinians but also by many Arabs, Muslims, and fellow travellers on Western university campuses. Top university administrators displayed a shocking level of moral confusion in response. The three Women of the Ivies could not even take courage before Congress simply to say: “This is not who we are. We condemn this.”

The ensuing demonisation of Israel for waging what is historically a standard siege, and the relentless calls for a ceasefire, have followed. And these calls have been so effective that now Israel’s great allies in the UK and the US are twisting Israel’s arm to concede. But even without the appeasement of a complete ceasefire, we know full well that it is only a matter of time before Hamas and her helpers reorganise and repeat the atrocities of October 7. We know it because this has been Hamas’s pattern. Attack, provoke a retaliation, complain of disproportionality. Then acquire the world’s sympathy, and negotiate ceasefire, aid, and the time to plan the next attack.

“It is only a matter of time before Hamas and her helpers reorganise and repeat the atrocities of October 7.”

This is only possible due to several common false assumptions about the conduct of this conflict, all of which define deviancy up for Israel and down for Hamas. Chief among these is that Islamic terror is only a monstrous creation of the Israeli Frankenstein. We are frequently told that if Israel continues to pursue her mission to destroy Hamas, then Israel will create the next generation of Islamists and terrorists, not just in the Middle East but across the globe. As a result, Israel should agree to a ceasefire and hold to it even if, as would certainly be the case, the other side does not. But this assumption is plainly false. The overwhelming evidence of the last 75 years is that Islamist extremism is unaffected by what Israel does or fails to do. The extremists are created in the classrooms, sitting rooms, and neighbourhoods of Muslim and Arabs countries, in madrasas and mosques — many of which are half a world away from Israel.

Nevertheless, we are still enjoined to blame Israel for Islamism, with the crimes of the former often personified by its prime minister. A standard refrain has developed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions and failures were the cause of Hamas’s savage attacks. But whatever the truth behind the portrait of Netanyahu as the belligerent, uncompromising, democracy-undermining monster, the trope shifts attention away from the core issue, which is the belligerent uncompromising Palestinian intransigence backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since 1947, the Arabs have remained fixed in their determination to eliminate the state of Israel, in part by preventing peace from ever coming about. Were the failed peace attempts in 1973, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2008 all the fault of Netanyahu? Was no Arab agency involved? Take the Oslo Accords and their follow-on at Camp David in 2000. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin offered “a separate Palestinian entity short of a state”, and an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, PLO leader Yasser Arafat left the negotiating table.

In a similar vein, we are often told that the classic human dynamic of war and peace does not apply to this conflict. The standard dynamic is that the winner takes all so that a lasting peace can occur. But this logic has never been applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Up until 1967, a conflict was waged called the Arab-Israeli war. And Israel won that war, defeating the Arab countries in 1967, and then again six years later. Only at that point was its name changed to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the territories Israel had acquired in defending itself against aggression were declared to be “occupied” and therefore illegitimate. In war, if there is no winner, and no truce holds, then peace can never prevail.

Amid this moral confusion, though, there are rays of hope. Within a few hours of the October 7 massacre, the Moroccan regime condemned the violence against civilians. The UAE called the event “barbaric and heinous” and demanded that Hamas immediately release the hostages. This is not nothing and it shows that one source of the rot — Gulf funds for indoctrination of Palestinian children — may one day dry up. The United States should help this along by applying the same standards of conduct to Muslims and Jews, the same standards of statecraft to Arab nations, Iran, and Israel. Regimes like the UAE’s need to be helped and rewarded. Conversely, when Arab states promote the death cult of political Islam, they must be condemned and shunned.

Everything eventually ends, but not all things must end in failure. In the West we have a choice to uphold our moral vantage point, or let it crumble away. But in doing so we should recognise that every lowering of standards to appease extremist Arabs and Muslims is racism dressed up as compassion and disdain masquerading as kindness. It is moral confusion and it is dangerous — suicidally so.


Adapted from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2024 Russell Kirk Lecture delivered at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., and co-sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom, on March 12, 2024.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.