Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Complicated Problems are Still Problems

When I teach a unit on controversial topics, I sometimes begin by making an observation about "hard" and "easy" problems. Many of us have a tendency to convert hard problems into easy ones. This can be a great skill at times, particularly for lawyers -- distilling a complex and multifaceted mess of a fact pattern into a simple set of issues that straight-forwardly demand victory for one's clients. As thinkers, though, it is a more problematic instinct. For example, I've argued that there is a peculiar left-right convergence -- some of the time -- regarding how they talk about issues of racism. Some persons on the left think racism is a simple matter, in the sense that once we've identified something as racist that's all we need to know on the matter. And some persons on the right will agree with that sentiment, but proceed to argue that since such-and-such case is not simple but rather quite complex and complicated, it therefore can't be racist (since racism is, by stipulation, something that is straight-forwardly wrong). These two views converge to box out what seems to me the far more plausible reality: racism being often a matter of great complexity and moral difficulty, an appraisal which in no way diminishes the seriousness or gravity of racism as a wrong. Complicated problems are still problems.

Having told this parable, I continue to tell my students that the instinct to make hard cases easy ones is troublesome for at least two reasons. The first one is perhaps obvious: when we do it, we almost always act to exclude morally relevant considerations that should be factoring into our analysis; nuances and wrinkles that make the case a hard case and so are written out. But there's a more subtle problem as well: When we make hard cases easy, we condition ourselves to think that only easy cases are solvable cases -- that hardness is a synonym for "intractable" or (worse) "apolitical". Sometimes this leads to a sort of quiescence around hardness (as in the case of the conservative who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice is a sufficient response to claims of racism). Other times it leads to a suspicion of hardness (as in the leftist who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice represents a failure to take it seriously). Either way, it is a path that leads nowhere, and so I conclude by telling my students to "lean into the hardness." 

All of this came to mind when reading the penultimate paragraph of Daniel May's contribution to the MBL/Jewish flare-up, which discusses the issue of "complexity" and credibility. May offers up a list of some of the more egregious instances of Israeli injustices and then derides those who claim "that such realities must be understood in 'context,' as 'complicated,' or a tragic consequence of 'ha'matzav' (“the situation,” as Israelis call it)." 

May is articulating a real wrong here -- the conservative voice in my parable who thinks he has responded to an allegation of injustice by asserting "it's complicated." Yet there is the question of how we frame our retort. The shortfall of the conservative reply is not that the problem isn't a complicated one. The shortfall is that complicated problems are still problems. It is absolutely true that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is bound up in all sorts of immensely difficult nets and traps which defy simple solutions or easy finger points. None of that removes the fundamental injustices that exist where an entire population is deprived of the basic democratic entitlements to vote for the sovereign authority controlling their lives, where racist incitement against Palestinians continues to surge, where "price tag" attacks by Jewish terrorists occur with near-impunity, where a military occupation persists indefinitely while insulated from any accountability to the people in its cross-hairs. And those fundamental injustices, in turn, don't flatten or dissipate the complexity of "the situation" that produces them. We deal with hard problems by tackling them in all their difficulty and complexity.

There's a reason why I think the most powerful sentence in Stacey Aviva Flint's superb reflection on the Movement for Black Lives platform is also its shortest: "I choose discomfort". The issues posed by police violence targeting people of color, or Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, or the dispossession of ancient Jewish communities in the Christian and Muslim worlds, or continued vulnerability of Arab and Muslim communities to state-sponsored and individual acts of violence, or systematic racism, or ongoing global anti-Semitism, are not easy, comfortable issues. They are not morality plays and we are not blessed with simple and straightforward choices. Crafting a just social sphere is hard, complicated, complex business. That observation is part of the work; it's not an excuse to refrain from it.


Unknown said...

I must disagree with you here. Ignoring or shoving aside important points of context is what produces one-sided narratives and demonization of an already beleaguered minority group. If we care about fighting antisemitism (and I know that you do care, as I do), we can't allow that to happen. Balance, cognizance of all relevant facts, and dispensing due consideration to the perspectives of all parties involved is essential to finding a just resolution.

That is why I will take it upon myself to respond to the following...

[where an entire population is deprived of the basic democratic entitlements to vote for the sovereign authority controlling their lives,]

It is the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, who are in charge of the Palestinians. Israel has a military apparatus consisting of checkpoints (which both Israelis and Palestinians must pass through) and the wall (built to prevent suicide bombings), but I can't see Israel taking them down and leaving until there is a real assurance that the Palestinians won't simply renew their attack once the IDF is gone. No such gestures have been forthcoming. We also cannot forget the 3 peace offers that were rejected with no counter-offer (Arafat responded to the 2000 offer with the Second Intifada).

[where racist incitement against Palestinians continues to surge,]

This pales in comparison to the literally Nazi-like rhetoric about Jews, including open calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing, coming from the Palestinian Authority. Of course, all this does is reinforce Israeli distrust towards Palestinians. I think racist incitement from the Palestinians is the bigger problem here, although both deserve our attention.

[where "price tag" attacks by Jewish terrorists occur with near-impunity,]


[where a military occupation persists indefinitely while insulated from any accountability to the people in its cross-hairs]

See points 1 and 2.

David Schraub said...

I'm sorry, but this argument that the Palestinian Authority is "sovereign" over the West Bank is just obvious bullshit. It is, and I'm astounded that basically intelligent people try to pitch it. If all of the West Bank was governed like Area A, then maybe there would be a case. But a basic attribute of sovereignty is that the sovereign is in control of the relevant territory in its totality -- including over security. A sovereign Palestinian Authority would have the authority to determine how people move in its territory and who gets to live there (just as Israel has in its territory) -- authority it lacks. Simply put, if the situation were reversed and Israeli Jews were under Jordanian occupation under these conditions, we would not say that Jews were effectively exercising their self-determination rights. Even if the argument is that the Palestinian Authority is sovereign, it just is currently under invasion by another sovereign state, then Israel couldn't possibly have any objection to Palestine being recognized as a state by, e.g., the UN. The ferocity with which Israel protests such arrangements indicates that it does not see its relationship with the PA has being one of coequal sovereigns -- which makes sense, since it obviously isn't.

The notation that this deprivation of sovereignty is warranted for X, Y, and Z reasons may well be true, and may well be important -- the theme of the post, after all, was that all the facts must sit side-by-side in their full complexity. But those facts which allegedly warrant the deprivation do not in any way demonstrate that there hasn't been a deprivation.