There is a story I picked up about two fish swimming somewhere bumping into an older, and presumably wiser, fish (it had a short, neatly trimmed grey beard) going in the opposite direction. “How’s the water” greybeard asked? The two younger fish looked at each other and shrugged: “what’s water?”
If water is the only thing you know about, then indeed you may well ask “what’s water”? Most of us are swimming about in water we are at best only dimly aware of. Water is the stuff you get as part of growing up. It is part of your in-group, whether ethnic, religious, ideological or a host of other identities which we wear often without knowing. This comes with views, generally negative views, about various out-groups that become embedded in one’s thought processes without conscious realisation.
At its worst it is Nazi doctrine drilled into German youth and we are aware of other such programs in parts of the Islamic community. But it doesn’t need to be that in order for us to dehumanise others. In Israel, racism in young people (and doubtless older as well) is disturbingly high, and this is true of other countries which experience significant inter-ethnic or other forms of group conflict. Competition over scarce resources, the prevailing culture and, of course, deliberate manipulation and even intimidation and propaganda can make it worse. Much worse. The dynamic feeds on itself and sets up a vicious circle of mutual demonisation. That is the mental water many of us swim in.
Many of my readers won’t like where they feel this is going. People, individual people are one thing, and politics is another. If another group (country or sub-state entity or whatever) in pursuit of some religious or ideological or racial or other group-based imperative threatens you and yours, that is enough information. Knowing that they are composed of individuals born with the same repertoire of feelings as oneself and your own people, won’t alter the brute reality of the danger they pose. The laws of politics are not the same as those of inter-personal psychology or social interaction. To mix up the two levels – the political and inter-personal – is to make a categorical mistake; applying criteria appropriate for one level inappropriately to another level can only end in disaster. The laws of politics, whatever they are, are not to be confused with personal moralities of mercy and empathy.
Furthermore, we don’t need to understand and empathise with monsters who deliberately blow innocents to smithereens in the service of some mad ideology. Or behead people on camera or stone women to death or throw acid in their faces or preach genocide or abduct young women to rape and to sell into sexual servitude. They are beyond the pale and must be treated without mercy.
I agree with much of this but must sound a loud warning alarm. We are already wired to think this way, to limit our empathy to our own, to see “the other” as a potential threats. When we consciously or unconsciously go down this road in conflict situations, we are in danger of becoming “monsters” ourselves. Monsters who can’t see nuances and opportunities. Monsters who are blind to the complexities and heterogeneities in the other or in the situation, which may offer hope beyond mutual demonisation and brutality. By such limitation of vision we can’t actually answer the question, “how’s the water” because we are blind to the sea of pre-conceptions in which we swim.
This not an argument for equivalence (Iran and Israel, for example, are certainly not morally equivalent). But it does recognise there is bad in the best of us and some good in the worst. Each situation must be carefully assessed on its individual merits not forgetting the water. That type of thinking may help take us away from the abyss created by mutual demonisation. Will that be a panacea for all our ills? Unfortunately not, but it may enable us to limit the damage and to create a better world out of what remains. And it may help us fashion more effective and creative responses to genuine threats, like Iran. And it will definitely make us better people.
I recommend this site: http://tabletmag.com/jewishartsandculture/books/190015/giladmyenemy