Relativism and Conflict

Ezra Klein references Nickolas Kristof’s column yesterday as bringing “striking clarity” on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the clarity is all in Mr. Klein’s interpretation (“Tough Love for Israel?,” The New York Times, 24 July 2008; “The Dual Realities of Israel / Palestine,” TAPPED, The American Prospect, 24 July 2008, respectively):

But he [Kristof] offers a counter-fact: “B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, reports that a total of 123 Israeli minors have been killed by Palestinians since the second intifada began in 2000, compared with 951 Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces.”

When Jews talk about the ethics of the Israeli response, they tend to emphasize the recklessness and cruelty of Palestinian terrorists. The words most often heard are “target civilians.” The Israelis are right, in other words, because they carry out limited military operations against discrete targets, which sets them ethically apart from members of Hamas who murder innocents because it’s an effective tactic. That is indisputable.

Palestinians, by contrast, speak of the war in terms of absolute costs: They have suffered more, buried more, seen more of their freedoms and land and dignity taken from them. To them, it seems insane to condemn Palestinian tactics when the Israelis have killed so many more innocent children. That too is indisputable.

Both sides are right. There’s a passage in Aaron David Miller’s excellent book The Much Too Promised Land that makes this point elegantly. “The prospects of reconciling the interests of an occupied nation with those of a threatened one seemed slim to none,” he says. In many ways, that’s the essential truth of the conflict: The two sides don’t judge themselves similarly. The Israelis see themselves as threatened innocents, not oppressors. The Palestinians see themselves as an occupied and humiliated nation, not aggressors. The Israelis see themselves as inexplicably under attack, and acting only in defense. The Palestinians see themselves as losing a war against a much stronger, and demonstrably more brutal, occupier.

This is all true of Israel / Palestine and an important point to keep in mind when trying to understand the claims and counterclaims of the parties.

What Israel needs is, as Mr. Kristof calls it, tough love. What that means at a more operative level is the U.S. needs to provide Israeli moderates with additional reasons they can point to in opposing Israeli extremists (messianic Jews, settlers, etc.). The Palestinians aren’t the only ones whose country is being destroyed by the extremists in their midst.

In addition to pointing out some salient facts about the nature of the particular dispute in question, this is a perfect real-world example of relativism. Most people think of relativism and think it means amorality, or moral capitulation, or a dispensing-with of any notion of the facts of the matter. But what I think this explanation shows is that relativism is compatible with an objective account of things — or that relativism as an ethical theory is well compartmentalized from any particular metaphysical substratum. And relativism is a theory that provides a very good account of many disputes in the world. People aren’t necessarily in dispute over what is true and what false, or the proper moral criteria. For instance, no one in this situation is necessarily disputing the numbers killed or whether killing is right or wrong. The facts of the matter or the morality of any individual act considered in complete isolation is not in dispute. What is in dispute is the proper context in which to weigh the facts and adjudicate the contending claims of moral priority. It’s a question of interpretation. Different sets of acts of violence become at least plausibly justifiable depending on which gestalt narrative one adopts. Change total narrative and the moral weight of the various acts shifts around.

This is the way it is in almost all disputes. The rhetoric that people deploy usually very quickly leaves behind particular matters of fact or the morality or immorality of specific acts and it becomes a contest of dueling grand narratives. A conversation about a particular environmental harm becomes one about the tragedy of the commons and evil corporations versus the road to serfdom. A conversation about a reproductive decision becomes one of recidivist patriarchy versus the suicide of Western culture. The fact of the matter is that no one can quite see individuals as individuals and consider their actions as such. Everyone sees all people as deeply embedded in social structures and patterns and duty-bound to speculative forces of society and history.