Saturday, 2 August 2014


In an effort to understand the current troubles in and around Gaza, I elected to move from the busy plains of media discussion and graze instead in the rich pastures of Amazon, where historical books can often be downloaded without troubling my already parlous bank account. I came across The Making of a Nation: The Beginnings of Israel’s History by Charles Foster Kent. Now, this book must join the lengthy queue that is my reading list, and join at the back and not jostle or push in or cheat its new neighbours. What will detain us here is one of the customer reviews of the book, by a person called ‘Zero’:


“I was expecting a history of the modern state of Israel including the mistreatment of the Palestinians. This is a horrible rehash of religious myths. The Bible does a much better job of retelling these urban legends.”


In passing, we note the delight Freud and Nietzsche would have taken in the notion of a ‘horrible rehash of religious myths’, perhaps finding it an apt description of civilisation. Charming too is Zero’s gracious approval of the Bible as a more informative source than Mr Kent.

More importantly, what this snippet tells us is that readers – particularly around an emotive subject such as Israel – are opinion-holders, and are loath to have those opinions undermined by reading unwelcome material. I forget the name of the psychologist who minted the phrase ‘the me report’ to describe people’s behaviour when garnering facts from the media – a word which in itself contains ‘me’ – but it serves to explain the type of behaviour which uses expectation and prejudice to bolster what other psychologists have called the ‘self-serving bias’, or the tendency to boost one’s self-esteem as a shield for the sensitive ego.

Generally, we like to read material – rapidly becoming materiel in the case of Israel and Palestine – which reinforces our beliefs, and we shun that which undermines those articles of faith. Although we ought to ‘catholicise’ our reading choices and consider opposing viewpoints, we are pack animals unwilling to become runts, pariahs or pharmakoi.

‘Zero’, then, expected a book with ‘Israel’ in its title to conform to his or her political and emotional expectations and desires, those modish trappings which show a tribal allegiance every bit as relevant today as the Twelve Tribes of Israel were in ancient times. Again;


“I was expecting a history of the modern state of Israel including the mistreatment of the Palestinians.”


For Zero, there is no possibility of education as to whether or not there has been ‘mistreatment’ of ‘Palestinians’. For Zero, there simply has been such, and his/her choice of reading matter will be circumscribed by this shibboleth or totem (the language of Freud can never be far away here). We are reminded of then Cabinet Minister Patricia Hewitt in 2006, talking of commissioning research ‘to show’ the advantages of home birthing. Scientists would be surprised at this use of ‘research’.

Now that Twitter, weblogs and the internet in general have granted everyone a voice and the ability to express an opinion, what holds the attention is rarely those opinions themselves but their symptomatology, the allegiances to which they refer, as red spots refer to the presence of the measles virus.

Take Twitter as an example, where there is insufficient textual space to develop ideas further than a version of the ‘Boo/Hurray theory’, as defined in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy:


“Apt nickname for crude version of emotivism [Note: Emotivism is a theory of ethics]. The theory states that we use ethical words to express our feelings or attitudes and to evoke similar feelings or attitudes in other people. Hence, ‘x is wrong’ or ‘x is right’ amount only to ‘Boo!’ or ‘Hurray!’”


Of course, there is question-begging here; if I say murder is wrong then of course I am saying ‘Boo!’ to murder, in a rather childishly expressed way. Where the Boo/Hurray theory functions in modern social media is at the level of expectation and allegiance. In other words, if I am a creature of the Left, and the Left is against fracking, I may declare myself against fracking without taking the trouble to read up on it and form my own opinion. If I am of the Right, I might champion the free market without making much effort to understand its full range of consequences. Flat-packed, tribally affiliated opinion is a symptom of the internet age.

This, of course, leads to a deal of cognitive dissonance, or the holding of two conflicting opinions at the same time. ‘Boo! to homophobia!’ says the adherent of the Progressive Left and, at the same time, ‘Hurray for Islam!’, seeing no contradiction. But peer group affiliation has no problem with the law of contradiction and can, like Carroll’s White Queen in Wonderland, easily believe six impossible things before breakfast.

On the subject of Gaza, the conflict acts as a filter for opinion, and expectation and the self-serving bias are at the forefront of the opinion wars. Broadly, the Left holds Israel responsible for intimidation, disproportionate response, ethnic cleansing and a host of other crimes. Similarly, the Right – these are necessarily broad brush strokes – champions Israel’s right to defend itself as a legitimate democracy under de facto attack. There has been a deal of discussion on the virtual Right concerning the failure of the virtual Left to acknowledge, for example, the hundreds killed in Syria each week. The Left, say the Right, are only interested in Muslims killed by Jews, not in Muslims killed by other Muslims. Many opinionators [neologism alert!] hold that criticism of Israel is just Jew-hatred in a masquerade mask.

Whether there is a right or wrong to the Gaza conflict brings us to morality, and that is a subject for another day. There are certainly twin booming choruses of Boo! And Hurray! Meanwhile the combatants swap high explosives, innocents on both sides are killed, and opinion in a foxhole is something of a luxury. What did you expect?

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