Thursday, December 28, 2006

Guest post: James Hamilton - 'Why it's better to be an apologist'

In July 2005, shortly after the London bombings, I linked to an excellent post on another blog. Not long after that, James Hamilton (for it was he) discontinued his whole site – probably so that he could concentrate on his new one about psychology and football.

As you know, the combination of psychology and football is fabulously important, so his new site enriches us all. More about that in due course. But I was sorry that the original post was no longer available. So I e-mailed him and said so.

By return of mail, he sent me the original, along with permission to bask it the reflected glory (he didn't put it like that though - I'm being conceited on his behalf here). Here it is now.

AUTHOR: James Hamilton
TITLE: Suicide Bombing Redux - Why it's better to be an apologist

Late last week I wrote a brief analysis of some of the things that go into making a suicide bomber and that go into perpetuating the use of suicide bombing as a tactic. My principal point was that suicide bombing is about domestic politics, not foreign policy. Men plan to send out suicide attackers to maintain their own prevailing influence within their communities.

But this wasn't the point that caught people's attention - instead, everyone fastened onto my throwaway line at the end, about intellectual colonisation, the insistence that suicide bombing is all about us. That's inevitable. Here's why.

It strikes me that the debate about suicide bombing is only incidentally concerned with suicide bombing. It's only tangentially about terrorism.

What we're really having is a debate about whether the West is any good or not - whether it's evil or not. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and now Buckinghamshire are no more than case studies in that debate. Even if you have a personal stake in the Iraq situation, you will find it almost impossible to prevent any debate you have from being pulled into the wider one about the evil of the West.

This debate about the West - which is currently chewing on suicide bombers and will shortly spit them out, as it spat the Iraq War out - is also a kind of jostling for position, a way for us in the West to communicate to our friends and colleagues about the sort of people we are.

If we are at all interested in politics, the chances are that we are also interested in seeing ourselves as intelligent, nuanced, concerned, involved. Of course we are - who really, at the bottom of their hearts, wants everyone to see them as an ignorant thug? (There will be those who'll affect not to care..) And we'd like other people to see us as smart and caring too, if at all possible. But you can't just go up to someone and say "I'm nuanced, I'm intelligent": they'll immediately assume the opposite, and that's not all they'll assume. No, these things have to be got across by osmosis. How? By declaring support for sets of views which we think are adopted by people who have those desirable attributes of intelligence, nuance etc.

There's actually a number of these sets of views - pro-War, South Park Conservative, anti-Poverty, etc. - and there are points where they merge or serve the same constituency. But by far the most effective and universal set of views at the moment is the anti-Bush, anti-Capitalist, Kyoto, anti-Globalisation, anti-War one. Given the advantages adopting this set of views gives you, it is no surprise that they have taken off in quite the way they have.

Although I don't hold any of those views myself (I think I may be the only British psychotherapist who doesn't) I don't blame anyone who does.

In fact, in a real way I envy them. Holding these views does so much for a person, gives them so much extra, provides so much value, that it's only sensible to take them on if you can.

There are so many advantages that I don't even know where to start. I'll attempt a list:

  • People assume that you're a nice person
  • People assume that you are intelligent
  • People assume that you keep yourself informed
  • People think that you have cleverly not been fooled by liars
  • People think that you are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others
  • You can do all the adopting of these views from home. No equipment or additional purchase needed
  • You line up with Geldof, Tutu, Mandela, Castro, Galloway, Moore, Benn - charisma is on your side, and it rubs off on you
  • You have a context for passion, anger, commitment - which other people accept
  • You are no longer to blame for global warming - you're on the side of the angels
  • You are no longer responsible for poverty - you're on the side of the angels
  • You have access to the youth-giving properties of these views
  • You are assumed to be tolerant, anti-racist, in favour of human rights
  • You are assumed to be easy-going and to have a sense of humour
  • You are assumed to be capable of a fulfilling sex life
  • You are assumed to be free of neuroses, tics, hang-ups
  • You are assumed to be in the right on the issues of the day without your having to demonstrate this
  • You are seen as being essentially classless - neither a toff, nor a chav
  • You get to feel you're in the majority and in the vanguard at the same time

I could go on, and on, and on. There's no punchline, by the way - I'm not writing satire here. The fact of the matter is, you can get all those advantages in your life and many more, just by saying something like "He's killed thousands" when Bush appears on the television.

Everything else is done for you. You don't have to march - but it's there for you if you want. You don't have to spend a lot of money - stick the Guardian or the Independent in your bag, and you're away. You don't have to change your job (if you're in the military, you actually get bonus points). You don't have to move house. In fact, you can pretty much carry on as before.

The advantages I've listed are not silly little things that don't matter. They represent an enormous psychological benefit. They represent an enormous positive impact upon your experience of life. Again, there's no punchline. I mean what I'm saying. You don't even have to be right! Were the whole thing turned upside down tomorrow in some kind of
mega-1956 experience, it will still be assumed that you acted in good faith - oh, and there's another advantage: people will always assume you act in good faith.

You'll even get the songs! Who remembers The Who at Live8 blasting into "Won't get fooled again"? That's one of yours; so is Pink Floyd's "Money". You've got the novelists, you've got the artists, you have a cultural side without your actually having to be cultured. Every protest song ever written - all of Woody Guthrie - is there for you if and when you want it. You can enjoy the association even if you don't enjoy the music.

What else in life gives you so much for so little? Does anything?

Certainly not religion. Religion asks hard things of you, even that most Western of religions, Buddhism, is demanding. But here, you don't even have to change your lifestyle, so long as you adopt the right attitude to it from time to time (you aren't even required to "keep it up" all of the time. Adopting one significant view gives you the same advantages as adopting all of them. So, if you hate Bush, you don't actually have to recycle your rubbish, although the local authority will probably do it on your behalf anyway).

On September 10th 2001, I was a trade unionist, an active member of the Labour Party, a member of Amnesty International (I'm still on their emergency list and still send out letters and faxes on behalf of prisoners), a Guardian reader and I worked for a local authority in a deprived ward in Central London. On September 12th, I was left wondering why I was suddenly all on my own.

Frankly, I was lucky. Because I have a posh accent, most people thought I was some kind of "capitalist warmongering bastard" anyway. And I'd spent some years as a practicing Christian, which is an experience of not being in a respected place if you want one. I suspect I had rather fewer of the real, powerful psychological benefits to give up. And many of those benefits didn't exist before 9/11 anyway - things that were latent then have come fully into play, such as Bush hatred.

All this has had a decisive impact on the contemporary debate. I've already said that any debate about Iraq is inevitably dragged into the wider one about the nature of the West. But questioning the West is one of the principal tenets of this superbly rewarding set of views, so even that wider debate is essentially over before you arrive. The fact of the matter is that the rights and wrongs are almost irrelevant when it comes to influence. You can "win" your Iraq argument in the pub, but there is no psychological payoff for your opponents if they join you - and the psychological penalty of changing sides is enormous and pressing (as a Usenet search for "Norm Geras" or "Oliver Kamm" will reveal). We have all at some stage "won" an argument without winning people over - and it's because you will have been right only in the psychologically unrewarding places. You'll still have lost the battle for your opponent's will and imagination. It's strange that you can "win" a moral argument, only to find that your defeated opponent knows instinctively that he still has the high moral ground.

None of this is set in stone. There can be shifts of opinion even within the prevailing view. When Bush goes, one of the widest entrances to this host of psychological benefits will disappear. These shifts are unconscious - everyone always claims to have been consistent - and, just let me say for the record, that I have always maintained my views. I'm not one to swim with the tide, and of course, neither are you. The shifts are hard to predict - but I'll make one prediction: suicide bombing will cease to be subject to excuses and justifications. And all those who have made excuses and justifications will deny having done so, and their denial will be psychologically true for them, and the denial will be accepted. Because, like me, and like you, they'll have been right all along.

ends.

1 comment:

ivan said...

this just comes across as an exercise in cynicism to me