The binary temptation

October 13, 2023 11:05
Photo: Reuters

Moral equivalence – the treatment of two (or more) parties as if they bore equal degrees of moral blameworthiness and wrongness in their actions, attitudes, and intentions. The claim that two (or more) events share the same moral character and should be appraised in the same way.

There are times when moral equivalence is little more than moral equivocation, when the calls for nuance and ‘moderation’ and ‘balance’ become subtle excuses for inaction, apathy, and a failure to act in face of moral abhorrence and atrocities. In face of Germany’s Holocaust or Pol Pot’s genocidal killings, for instance, there can be no ‘if’s and ‘buts’ in defense of crimes against humanity.

Then there are times when moral equivalence between involved parties remains fundamentally inappropriate, yet where the truth is distinctly murkier than it seems. Not because ‘both sides are in the wrong’, but because there are select actors – individual, collective, or corporate – on all sides who should bear responsibility; these actors may not be representative of or treated as proxies acting on behalf of the rest of the population, and yet they are certainly to be held to account for their intentional actions. The Russian war in Ukraine is the product of not just Russian imperialism and militarism, but also decades-long of fundamental hubris on the part of the West – and the sheer arrogance of thinking that a botched containment attempt could suffice in keeping Russia out of a backyard it had always eyed with keenness.

Recent events call for us to guard against resorting to naïve, simplistic narratives. Recent events also call into question the tendency on the part of milquetoast centrists and lukewarm liberals to insist that “Both sides are wrong.” Who are in these ‘sides’? What about those who do not want to take ‘sides’? What about those silenced and excluded from decision-making processes? To parcel blame evenly and equally would be to neglect the overt moral intentionality and culpability on the part of a small minority of actors; it also forces us to unduly throw under the bus those who are already victimised in virtue of their lack of political and substantive agency.

Let us not – let me not – wade into the intricacies of the events unfolding in Israel and Palestine today. I will address that issue separately, but also flag that I firmly believe everyone should get acquainted with the facts prior to weighing in with crass, excess generalisations and sweeping characterisations. Everyone feels and believes that their reality – their subjectively imagined and constructed world – is all there is to the world. And it is obviously between the trivial dinner-table conversations and crocodile tears we shed whilst scrolling through our phones in glitzy walls, that we come to well-informed, highly appropriate, and factually sensitive conclusions. Surely, there are clear sides, clear battle lines, clear tropes and ‘facts’ to invoke and cite as we cast our evidentially premature and under-examined, yet emotionally established judgments on the matter.

What I am fascinated about, and would like to explore further today, is the Binary Temptation. Why are we, collectively as a species, drawn so emphatically and unquestioningly to frames that pit Good vs. Evil – to the extent that we would jump to label any and all who fall into the ‘other camp’ evil, provided that the stakes (in a conflict) are sufficiently high, and the stakes (to be commenting on said conflict) are sufficiently low?

A compelling explanation is that mankind has evolved to think in terms of ‘Us vs. Them’, as a part of our survival instincts. In a tribalistic, feudalistic world where collectives of primitive individuals are constantly locked at loggerheads, to forgive, to hesitate, to think twice about one’s enemy could be a lethal mistake. The ‘Them’ must be rejected and repudiated, for any showing of mercy and capitulation could be a signal of weakness, an opening that can be seized upon to bring about potentially deadly consequences. Similarly, when it comes to the ‘Us’, our trust and faith in them must, by design, transcend reason – there is no time to think ‘slow’, to ‘reason’ when it comes to the battlefield and life-and-death scenarios. The only time there is to think, is when one is dead. Such ‘Us vs. Them’ Manicheanism is thus inherited, and rarefied – expanded to shape how we understand, qua third parties, world events. The ‘Us’ is the party in the observed conflict with whom we find more resonance, whilst the ‘Them’ is the party that, correspondingly, must be demonised and dehumanised.

Yet this explanation does not help suffice in accounting why we feel so much more intimately involved in conflicts thousands of miles removed from us – for one, British citizens feeling like their lives were jeoparidised by Trump’s bumbling ascent to the White House, or Greek citizens expressing solidarity with Sri Lankan citizens in face of debt crises and the threat of potential foreign interference (though many in Sri Lanka certainly welcomed the arrival of forces who could, in fact, hold the corrupt ruling family that had dominated local politics for years, to some semblance of account).

Another part of the story is the advent of social and digital media, which have not only bolstered significantly the range of or the speed at which we are accessing information, but also our confidence in our abilities to purportedly be “in the know”. At a few swipes, we seem to think that we have the world’s worth of knowledge and information at our command and fingertips. That is, despite the tragic facts of the matter: we do not. Thus it is thus a unique blend of self-congratulatory hubris and cursory understanding, that has fomented a culture where we take sides before we know what exactly is going on; where we leap to surmising from echo chambers a heavily skewed vision of the truth.

Finally, there is something uniquely peculiar about the modern condition. For a vast majority of audiences pontificating from the armchair, modern life is uniquely stake-less or low-stake. We need not worry, in the developed world at least, about warfare. War, strife, civil conflicts, pestilence (save from the odd pandemic) are all so, so distant from us. And hence – in search of the adrenaline rush and the sense that something actually matters in our lives – we turn to spectating, and from spectating to speculating, from speculating to opining on matters about which we know little, yet on which we claim to be able to speak with authority and gusto.

Precisely because the modern condition is trivial, that’s why we cannot but be ensnared by the temptation to choose sides, to imagine ourselves as being the “good guys” – fighting a war that had been lost, long before it started. Such is the Binary Temptation.

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Assistant Professor, HKU