A Moral Movement

In January of this year, horrified by the events unfolding in Gaza, and in response to an article defending Israel’s actions written by a Messianic Jew and posted on the Facebook profile of a friend of mine, I wrote three articles with the intention of correcting common misconceptions about the situation, whilst generating support for the Palestinians’ cause. The articles received four comments, essentially thanking me for taking the trouble to research and write these pieces.

The comments were from old school friends of mine. I welcomed these comments, but nevertheless was perturbed by something: the authors of these comments shared one thing in common, they were all Muslim. As far as I know, these friends were not more politically active or politically aware than my other friends; it seemed to me that the reason they responded to my article was simply because, for obvious reasons, they had a connection with, and felt a loyalty to, Palestine. Around the same time I saw that a good friend of mine, a Jewish girl who I have known for some years, had posted on her Facebook profile that she was attending the protests taking place outside the Israeli embassy in London; she was attending to assert "Israel’s right to defend itself"—she works as an Israeli lobbyist after all. On reading her post, I wrote to her saying that I was to be at the very same protest, but on the other side of the barrier protesting against Israel’s actions. I asked her if we could discuss her reasons for supporting Israel at this time. I never heard anything back.

So why was I perturbed? I couldn’t help but feel that the source of the familial, religious or cultural loyalty that motivated my friends to comment on my articles was the same source that motivated the aforementioned Messianic Jew to write her article defending Israel’s murderous actions and the same force that spurred my good friend to stand in solidarity with Israel. The confluence of these events set me thinking. I began to run some brief thought experiments through my mind.

I imagined going back in time to the point of my Jewish friend’s birth and the point of one of my Muslim friends’ births. Suppose (putting to one side for a moment any ethical considerations) I was able to swap these two new-born babies so that each family would take the other family’s child to be their own. Now, jumping back to the present day, would anyone expect any other result than the Jewish-born baby to now be protesting against the actions of the Israeli government, while the Muslim-born baby stood in solidarity with them? It certainly is not an inevitable result, but most would agree that the odds would be quite appealing. And yet this result is extremely disturbing. To have one’s opinions formed in such an arbitrary way about such serious matters is, it seems to me, the source of much unnecessary conflict. And yet it is, I suspect, something that almost all of us are guilty of to varying degrees.

This train of thought led me to make the following distinction between (1) fighting for the rights of an oppressed group primarily because we deem ourselves to be part of that group, and (2) fighting for rights simply because it seems to serve the cause of justice. A stable movement, one that has a chance of achieving welcome and lasting societal change, will have to be, in my view, comprised of people taking up the second type of struggle. The first type of struggle, though often extremely important and powerful, is not necessarily a moral struggle.

In advocating this view I must challenge another predominant view that is incompatible with my own. This view holds that the struggle of an oppressed group must be fought wholly, or at least primarily, by that group. So gay rights must be fought for by gay people, disability rights by disabled people, black rights by black people, women’s rights by women, Sikh rights by Sikhs, Buddhist rights by Buddhists, and so on. This view has been articulated in various forms by, among others, Gandhi and Malcolm X. There is a powerful logic to it: to overcome the psychological dependancy, or sense of inferiority, an oppressed group has suffered, they must fight and win their own battles. This is a compelling point, but I believe the argument is nevertheless flawed.

The flaw, it seems to me, is to adopt as one’s defining attribute that which has been used by the oppressor as the basis of one’s oppression. We can classify people in any number of ways: height, musical taste, eye colour, class, skin colour, abilities, disabilities, gender, religious background, sexual orientation, name, weight, interests, and so on. To conduct a struggle in which to qualify to take part you must exhibit the attribute singled out by the oppressor is, I suspect, to already have lost a significant part of the battle. The point of such struggles is surely to break down rigid, uniform, and divisive forms of essentialising; to recognise that every individual possesses countless attributes and deserves to live in a society that doesn’t simply define him or her by just one of them.

To neglect to cultivate movements and struggles that are as diverse as possible, to permit and deny people the right to participate on grounds essentially determined by the oppressor, is to reinforce the very forms of racism, sexism and classism that we claim to abhor. A strong movement will be a moral movement, not one comprising many factions each attempting to defend or secure a narrow set of rights. A moral movement will fight for principles, not for particular interests wrapped up in particular identities.

To justify the sort of exclusivity I am arguing against by claiming that a given group must "fight their own battles" is to miss an important opportunity. For what better way to heal the psychological damage resulting from oppression than to defy the very classificatory basis of such oppression and prejudice by standing up not only for your own rights, but for others with whom you share no obvious connection but your humanity? An experience of my sister’s, I think, illustrates this idea rather well.

My sister, Francesca Martinez, a stand-up comedian with a disability (cerebral palsy) was asked in 2008 to carry the Olympic Torch through London as part of the international torch relay. Without giving it much thought, she agreed. As the date of this relay approached, however, news of China’s human rights abuses in Tibet began to surface. I heard about the news before she did, so informed her of the distressing events unfolding in Tibet. Learning of these events she was unsure what to do. Part of her felt that appearing in the relay as a disabled woman was worthwhile as people with disabilities are so underrepresented in the media, but another part was concerned to highlight the abuses in Tibet, and prevent China simply using the Olympics as an international advertising campaign. The media began contacting some of the torch-bearers, asking for a response to the events in Tibet. My sister agreed to speak about these events live on Channel Four News, one of the three largest news broadcasters in Britain. Live on air she decided that to be consistent she would have to pull out of the Torch relay—she was the first torch-bearer to do so. That evening she received over a hundred emails from people around the world congratulating her for her decision. In my view, she did more for disability rights by defying societal expectations and categories, and standing up for people on the other side of the world, than she could have done by approaching the issue directly.

If it is human rights that concern us, then our humanity ought to qualify us to fight on their behalf wherever they may be threatened. Such an approach works on two levels. It supports those in need when they need it, and it undermines the divisive labels that help to perpetuate so much suffering and render us vulnerable to various forms of sectarianism and manipulation.





Leave a comment