November 08, 2008

Retaining the moral high ground

I just watched the film The Kingdom. If you haven't seen it, I recommend it. But it got me thinking, not least about the very visceral reactions it caused in me. It's possible this blog will totally undermine me if someone digs it up in the future, or open me up as a target for future attacks, much as if I blogged on my feelings about internet criminals and terrorists and fraudsters (like this story of opportunist cunts, for example). So if you can't bear to see me jeopardise my career, or don't want to lose respect for me due to some unintended offence (unless you're a suicide bomber, in which case fuck you!) then stop reading now. The fact is that the issues are important, and the discussion open and current. In The Kingdom, the chief Saudi investigating officer for a particularly deadly terrorist attack talks about how he is past the point of reason - he simply wishes to kill those responsible. I think this had special resonance for me on the back of rewatching Full Metal Jacket, particularly the scene where Joker executes the sniper to save her from further suffering, despite the fact that she took out three of his friends. I always find myself criticising him for it. The bitch should bleed to death, I think every time, slowly and painfully bleed out. It is a deep betrayal of my Christianity, as it is a step further than an eye for an eye, but if you start shit, you get everything that's coming to you. Or at least, that's the gut response, and that's certainly how I've handled fights (physical ones) in the past.

Putting aside the extreme fucking cowardice of terrorism, I find myself at a hypocrisy, one which is highlighted at the end of The Kingdom (spoilers coming). The final lines are two variations on "Don't worry, we'll kill them all" delivered from either side of the conflict, poignantly undermining much of what appeared to be the ethos of the film whilst pointing out that violence begets more violence. And yet I found myself agreeing entirely with the Saudi officer. The fuckers should die. But why do I feel like that? Watching the terrorists make bombs (as in physically construct them), I wondered how anyone could be a party to something that is an indiscriminate instrument of death, something which cannot be aimed like a gun. A gun can be awful in the wrong hands, but arguably has its place in keeping peace in the world, not least because now that they have been invented and proliferated, I cannot see any path that could lead us back to a time without them. But a bomb full of marbles and nails intended for any passing 'infidel'? It's literally obscene. Their violence is predicated on a version of God who encourages the wholesale slaughter of children and the innocent (though arguably they forsake their innocence by not being Muslim?). That is no worthwhile God. I wholly denounce that God. I know I'm saying nothing new here, that this has been reiterated countless times by countless people since 9/11 etc., but that God has no business in the world. I do not believe that is Allah's wish, nor do most Muslims, or there would doubtless be far more of what we currently label extremists. You can even believe in the eventual global caliphate without recourse to the barbarism and genocide that characterise Islamic, or for that matter any form of religious or political extremism.

But it's the reaction that I want to examine. Because mine is, like the characters of the film, to say "Fuck 'em, kill 'em all!" And why? Because they want to kill me for a God they've twisted beyond all perception. But, as a Christian - granted a deist who doesn't really believe in the Bible is not the best standard bearer for common Christianity, but the basic tenets still hold - surely my desire for retribution makes me no better than them, and worse, a hypocrite! They want to kill me because I believe in a different God (or different version of God). I want to kill them because they're cowardly fucks who will kill innocent people to achieve unjustified aims, and out of anger and pre-emptive self-defence. But since all their reasons for such actions stem from the difference in our Gods, does it not logically follow that I basically want to kill them because they have a different God to me? Not only does that make our basic reasoning identical, it is as more a contradiction of my faith than it is of theirs - God, in my eyes, allows no room for killing, and I do not have the veil of ignorance, or idiotic or misguided misinterpretation to excuse or explain my reactions.

Eventually, any rational system is based on certain basic unprovable assumptions, premises and beliefs. I do not know how they came to their idea of God (though I might hazard a guess). I criticise them, and any extremists, not so much for holding their beliefs but forcing those beliefs on others, but the problem there is that a) that is the natural extension of their particular beliefs, and b) I have as little rational basis for my belief that it is wrong to infringe on personal freedom in such a way as they have for their belief that it is not wrong. There is no recourse to the fact that most people (I almost wrote civilised people there, how fucking colonial of me) don't believe in terrorism, as inter- or universally valid subjectivity does not bring one any closer to objectivity. Populism is not a justification, a million people can be just as wrong as a hundred. Illegality is not a concern either, as their personal moralities, religiously induced as they are, are such that they transcend legal obligation. Mine probably would too - if tomorrow a law was brought in saying there were too many people on the planet and we each needed to go out and kill one person, I'm pretty sure my personal morality would override the law. And since that morality is based on those fundamental subjectivitr principles, we're no closer to an answer. I suppose if there were an obvious answer, or even an unobvious one, it would have been made apparent, publicised and used in dialogue and treatise. If you have any ideas, I'm all ears.

Of course, there is the fact that the reaction is just that, a visceral, animalistic, knee-jerk response to what we perceive of as atrocities and threatening, non-socially acceptable behaviour. We can rise above it to the point where we don't want to kill everyone. Obviously, if in any measure it can be said to be a desire, it's not one I'm actively pursuing. I'm not joining the military, or hunting down terrorists. But if I were given the opportunity to kill a suicide bomber, I'm not sure I wouldn't. Vengeance is an ugly, but powerful thing. I always thought Joker (in Full Metal Jacket) should have shot or cut off each of the bitch's toes and fingers one by one, make her fucking scream in agony like she made 8 Ball, Cowboy and Doc Jay suffer. Not sure I could do it myself, but then, I've never seen my friends shot in front of me. I might feel differently, especially in the heat of the moment. But similar arguments apply for FMJ, except you replace infidels and Islamic extremists with capitalists and communists. Again, those systems, whilst almost entirely rational, are based on the same sorts of unprovable premises and assumptions as religion, like whether we have a duty to help our fellow man, and in what way etc. Perhaps because of their more obvious rational basis, we can come a little closer to objectivity, but it's still fundamentally an exercise in futility, a battle of opinions that can never be solved by logic alone. Is it acceptable to be utlititarian here? I have often said that one of the greatest problems with any great change in a political system, even if it is a perfect system, is that transition. To bring about Plato's republic, for example, one would pretty much require a revolution, probably a bloody one. But, assuming for the moment that it is a perfect system (it's not), could it not be worth it? If one can bring about a perfect system, whereby there is the chance for potentially limitless happiness or contentment from the point at which the system is fully functional, is it not worth a few deaths? A little evil for a greater good? A finite loss for an infinite gain? If that sounds at all familiar, the words Third Reich might jog your memory. Hitler thought he had a perfect system, and was willing to sacrifice to get there. But logically, aren't we obliged to?

Perhaps it depends on the strength of one's convictions - most of us retain some sense of humility, realism or doubt regarding our beliefs, that doubt acting as an inherent check on us forcing those beliefs onto others. But if we were entirely convinced and certain, if we had indisputable knowledge, is it not a moral duty to act on that knowledge if it will benefit others? What separates 'us', then, from 'them' is not so much the type, but the strength of belief. If we all believed the things we do with full conviction, we would all be extremists. Is it arrogance that permits us the high ground, the arrogance we lack that they display? For there is simply no possibility whereby one could gain objective knowledge (except the cogito), even of God. Even a religious experience gives one certainty only for so long as one is having it - as soon as it fades, you're forced to rely on memory, which, as Russell's 5 Minute Universe Hypothesis shows, is wholly unreliable. Could they possibly live their entire lives in a state of religious experience? It seems unlikely, but it is not disprovable. Why God would choose them specifically and not others, and why he would encourage activity most of the world finds reprehensible is nigh on impossible for us to understand, but that could well be just an aspect of God's ineffability, of we as finite, imperfect beings trying to understand an infinite perfection.

So we're not exactly back where we started. We have narrowed it down to one logical possibility which would explain how they might be objectively right or justified in their actions, even if a) that possibility is entirely unprovable, and b) it gives us no definitive answer on whether we can retain the high ground, or even whether there is a high ground to maintain.

And if you read all of that and still don't want to kill me (I'm thinking of you, dad :P), you truly are a friend.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Liz

    The history of Christianity is not exactly a study in the moral high-ground either. I dare say that many of the worst examples of human behavior throughout our history were perpetrated by Christians upon non-Christians (heck, or even fellow Christians). In fact, differences of religious opinion still spur most of the vile behavior that I see among us Americans. I can’t really speak to other countries but I’d be surprised if it was all that different. Granted, we seem to be more secular than (at least) Europeans. Color me disgusted though. When I compare the good and bad points of faith, I always come to the conclusion that it remains unworthy of my time.

    08 Nov 2008, 14:14

  2. Yes, but that’s as much extremism (in the modern view) as the Islamic kind. People who kill in the name of a Christian God are just as misguided, at least that’s what I believe. It’s still extremism, and still susceptible to the same criticisms I outlined above. Also, it’s a study in the problems of ‘organised religion’. The only other phrase I can think of like that is ‘organised crime’, and I view them both with varying amounts of disdain. This is the problem with the idea of any spiritual authority other than God, that the possibility exists for corruption or misinterpretation, and therefore the misleading the hundreds, thousands or millions of people who put faith in that authority. That applies as much to the Ayatollahs as to the Pope.

    Also, I entirely disagree that America is more secular than Europe. That religion played a massive part in your electoral history is proof of that. Tony Blair was afraid to talk about his faith while in power, or the fact that it was one of his motivations. Bush openly talked about a crusade. In a country where creationism accounts for a massive voting bloc, attempts to keep religion and state separate will always be tested.

    08 Nov 2008, 15:20

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