Wednesday 12 March 2014

Israel Apartheid Week: Rethink

Every so often you read something that makes you shake your head in disbelief and wonder if it is really worth your time to even engage with the material. Today was one of those days. A friend pointed in me in the direction of an article written in Warwick's student newspaper, The Boar, on Israel Apartheid Week. The piece, worth reading only to give this response some context, can be found here. Frankly, I should have stopped reading when gender segregation in universities was described as, “...sometimes questionable.” No, ma’am, it is not just sometimes questionable, it is always wrong. Anyway.

Let’s ignore the debate about Israeli policy, we’ll be here until the cows come home for Kosher slaughter. Rather, let’s focus on some horrific comments in the article that simply must be challenged:

  • Israeli Apartheid week is about raising awareness of apartheid in Israel.
Perhaps this is worth a read:

IAW is an attempt to associate Israeli policy towards the Palestinians with the Apartheid policies in South Africa, a comparison not only insulting to Israel (and wrong) but also to those South Africans who suffered under Apartheid. Anti-Israel campaigners would do well to avoid such inaccurate, harmful and insulting comparisons. 

  •  “...We should concentrate on more ‘pressing’ or ‘worthy’ issues such as civil war in Syria, or gay rights in Russia” 
The reason Israeli Apartheid week is wrong has absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian Civil War or Russia’s gay rights record (though, the writer should make a better attempt at not belittling either). The fact that pro-Palestinian (read anti-Israel) activists have no concern for the Palestinians at the mercy of Assad because Israel is not to be blamed (unless you subscribe to one of the many Zionist conspiracy theories that suggest Assad is actually an Israeli proxy) is really neither here nor there. Though it is something that perhaps can be considered…
  • Mandela supported the Palestinian plight
So what?! Mandela was an avid supporter of peace, freedom, self-determination and, wait for it, Israel. It is clear what the writer is trying to do here. Mandela is a man who is respected across the world so if he supports the Palestinian plight, then we must all support the Palestinian plight. I call ad hominem. Hitler loved dogs, ergo we should all hate dogs? I don’t think so! Besides, the writer conveniently ignores that Mandela believed that Israel deserved and needed security and had the right to exist as a Jewish state, something many speakers at Israeli Apartheid week fundamentally disagree with. 
  • IAW is important because Ariel Sharon was painted as a hero in Western media
Consider it this way:
  1. Ariel Sharon was painted as a hero
  2. We must paint Israel as an Apartheid state
Yep, makes perfect sense.
  • "To critique the politics of the state of Israel is not anti-Semitism – indeed, many Jewish organisations such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians also oppose Israel“
The first point is, of course, correct. It is interesting, however, how her proof of this is that there are Jews who oppose Israel. So? Jews can be anti-Semitic. And besides, no one ever denied that it is possible to critique the policies of the State of Israel without being an anti-Semite. It just seems that the majority attending IAW are unaware of this - read the report above. I need only note one example - the number of Nazi comparisons made by supporters at rallies during IAW. Critiquing the policies of the State of Israel is one thing, in fact, it is encouraged in a democracy like Israel. What is, and will always be, unacceptable and downright anti-Semitism whether the writer likes it or not, is any comparison between Hitler’s Nazi regime and Israel. The fact is IAW makes no efforts to distance itself from such comparisons. 
  • "I abhor the politics of Saudi Arabia – does that make me an Islamophobe?”
Well no. Saudi Arabia is an Arab state, not a Muslim state. There is nothing else really to say about this point, other than the lazy flippancy in which it is made is very telling. 

(Note, the US state department designates Saudi Arabia as an Islamic state; Wikipedia as an Arab state.)
  • "We must not ignore Palestinian blood because the news has deemed Syrian blood more worthy of attention”
I find this the most troubling point in the entire article. I am not sure where the writer has been the past few years (probably on an anti-Israel rally in a country with freedom of speech) but this is an absurd statement. We do not need to get into the ins and outs of news outlets and whether they focus to much attention on Israel or count the UN resolutions on Israel compared to those on Syria. Instead, let’s ask the following question: “Has a body of a child or family murdered in Syria ever gained international recognition and outrage as a photo of the aftermath of a supposed Israeli attack?” Unfortunately, the answer is yes. More than once. We live in a world where we are sheltered from those murdered in Syria until someone can con us into thinking they were murdered by Israel.

Perhaps I can suggest an addition to the writer’s list at the end. We can support the Palestinian cause, we can oppose Putin’s homophobia, we can deplore Assad’s slaughter and we can oppose anti-Semitism and the poison, lies and hate that is Israeli Apartheid Week. And damn it, we should.

Sorry, I can't remember

A woman is in court, accused of murder. The most fundamental question the jury is asked is: “Did she do it?” This question opens up a can of worms much more full than we usually imagine. Let’s call the accused Sarah. When we ask whether Sarah committed the crime, what we mean is did Sarah commit the crime or was it John or Emma or Luke. However, we ignore a question just as fundamental: is the Sarah in court is the same Sarah as the past Sarah who we suspect of the crime. In general, we ignore the question of what makes Person A the same person today as yesterday or tomorrow. This is the question of personal identity. John Locke’s account of personal identity, born out of his desire to understand what someone can be held legally and morally responsible for, is assessed in this post.

Locke’s account begins, as most great Philosophical works do, with a distinction. Locke distinguishes between sameness of substance, man (or woman) and person, with the former not our concern. According to Locke, a man is nothing more than a certain animal, so the physical body that we have. Sameness of man, therefore, is just sameness of physical body. However, this is not what Locke takes personal identity to consist in. Locke defines a ‘person’ as, “…a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places.” He goes on to state that sameness of person consists in sameness of consciousness, which we take to mean memory.

This is referred to as an account of psychological continuity, because there is a continuing of the psychological features of the person – that is their memory, their beliefs, their personality. For Locke, memory is what is most important. So if a person X, can remember doing an action Y, then person X was the person who performed that action. This what Locke refers to as: remembering from the inside. We have special access to our memory of past events, because we were that very same person that did them.

There are two cases which bring out Locke’s thought. One is a case that Locke himself considered: the prince and the pauper. If the consciousness or mind of a prince is put into the body of a pauper, and the pauper can remember being the prince, then we could say that the pauper is the prince! A modern day example is a case where two men (Brown and Robinson) are in a car crash and Brown’s body but not brain survives, but Robinson’s brain but not body survives, so Robinson’s brain is transplanted into Brown’s body. Locke would say that this new creation is the same man as Brown, but the same person as Robinson, if they can remember being Robinson, which we would suggest, because they share a brain, that the person would.

What this post has attempted to establish is what it means to be the same person throughout time. Why does this matter? Simply put because we reward and punish people for actions we say they committed. When we punish Sarah for murder, we are saying that the Sarah in court was the same Sarah as the one who plunged the knife into the victim’s neck. Locke’s theory of personal identity gives us a basis for coming to this conclusion. Sarah can be said to be the same person that committed the crime because it can be proven that Sarah remembers committing that crime. More on this later.

Let’s return to a case previously discussed, the prince and the pauper. Locke’s theory forces us to conclude that because the pauper can remember the prince’s past life, the pauper is the prince. From this is follows that the pauper’s body would be responsible for all of the prince’s actions prior to the transfer of consciousness and not responsible for the any of the pauper’s prior actions. Where we see the pauper’s body, the Law must see the prince’s actions - according to Locke. The question to be asked is “who” exactly are we punishing if the pauper’s body is put in prison. It seems fairly intuitive that, after the transfer of the prince’s memories, thoughts etc, it would still be the prince - despite the physical change.

Another case to be considered is that of children and the mentally impaired. Locke’s definition of “person” (thinking, intelligent etc) would render children and the mentally impaired not (at least full) persons. Oddly enough, the Law does exactly the same. We hold children and mentally impaired humans much less responsible, often to the extent where they are not held accountable at all, for their actions in virtue of the fact they are children or mentally impaired. Locke’s theory gives us a reason why we do this: children and the mentally impaired are, in the legal sense, not persons and therefore we do not hold them responsible in the same way.

In a legal sense, therefore, Locke’s theory seems to have a lot going for it. However, in a crucial way it falls down. Let’s return to Sarah and a statement made above: “Sarah can be said to be the same person that committed the crime because it can be proven that Sarah remembers committing that crime.” This leads to two fundamental issues:

  1. Believe it or not, it is virtually impossible to prove what someone remembers and what someone doesn’t remember
  2. To forget something would necessarily be a defence in a court of Law. 
The first one is quite simple. Only Sarah truly knows what Sarah remembers. Suppose Sarah claims to not remember murdering her physics teacher - do we believe her? In most cases we are likely to dismiss Sarah’s claim but Locke would force us to consider it more closely. If Sarah cannot remember committing the crime, she is not the same person that committed the crime. It seems uncontroversial to argue that we do not punish criminals for actions that literally another person committed. It becomes vital to prove whether Sarah remembers committing the crime, yet this is impossible to do.

The second one is just false. Sarah stands up and claims to have been under the influence of alcohol when she murdered the victim and therefore cannot remember doing it. Let’s suppose it can be proven that she did not remember it. Locke’s theory now forces us to believe that a different person committed the crime. Again, it seems uncontroversial to argue that we do not punish criminals for actions that literally another person committed. Do we acquit Sarah? Taking Locke at his word would force us to do so. Intuitively this seems wrong, Sarah is surely guilty of something, even if it is on diminished responsibility - and, indeed, the Legal system tends to agree. We assume that people remain that person even throughout lapses in memory - and hence we can punish them (or reward them) for actions they cannot remember committing. Sorry Sarah, it seems your appeal to Locke’s theory of Personal Identity won’t work.

There are limitations to Locke’s theory. He may help us answer questions of personhood when we consider princes and paupers or why children are not held accountable, but his theory is, at least in part, not compatible with our modern legal system. Can’t remember doing something? Tough luck!