Bad people can argue their case too
One of the things that really distresses me when TikTok goes off on geopolitics is how grossly under-read so many TikTokkers really are. A lot of these folks were little children when 9/11 happened, and have since informed themselves almost purely through social media. As much as they decry "corporate media," they are themselves ardent consumers of media that is even more slanted, more slipshod, and more irresponsible than what they rely upon. How seriously are we to take such hot takes, really?
There is a simpler explanation for the TikTok-bin Laden thing than this moralism-evil thesis. It is this crude law: shallowness, trivia, vacuity and bogus 'knowledge' will always expand to fill the amount of mass-media bandwidth available.
I think you're right to point out that an overdeveloped, overdetermined moral sense can often lead to evil. But isn't there also a danger of an underdeveloped moral sense, too? I think about this a lot because I study antebellum abolitionist culture. In Civil Disobedience, Henry Thoreau wrote:
“There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them…They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect.” This is the plodding, halting, progressive humanism--others might call it liberalism or proceduralism or whatever--that you refer to in this piece. And to me, it seemed insufficient to the moral demands that slavery put on Americans.
In emphasizing the danger of moral commitment--something I often do myself--I think that we also might tend to overlook the dangers of a lack of commitment. For the wild-eyed, religious, and vehement speech and action of U.S. abolitionists helped extinguish slavery in this country.
Of course, I am not saying that any contemporary issue is analogous to slavery; I guess the point is that slavery gives us an example showing that, at times, the ethic of progressive, piecemeal reform and non-interference is not sufficient to a particular moral challenge. The question is how to determine whether one's moral capacity is, as you put it, overdeveloped, underdeveloped, or just right--and in which situations a sense of deep moral commitment is warranted.
Just a comment saying thank you for being sane on the Internet.
Could not agree more with your distinction between moralists and sadists.
The difference between the ordinary person and the firing squads of the Holocaust, or murderous jihadists, or the Japanese doomsday cult ‘Aum Shinrikyo’, is a worldview. They are/were ordinary people, who in different circumstances might have been a neighbour, or a friend, or a family member, or us ourselves.
Beware all those who paint the world black or white. Where there is moral certainty, there is permission to pursue any means in the name of the righteous ends.
One of my main tasks in my Intro to Christian Ethics class is to disrupt the confusion of moralism for ethics. Moralism is the weaponization of morality to create a hierarchy of good and bad people. So, I spend some time with movies like The Bicycle Thieves or Mi Vida Loca, where sympathetic people do bad things, and get the students to distinguish between acts and character.
It's also occurs to me that Paul does a great job of subverting the apocalyptic symbolic system - like Revelation is a long fantasy of dividing the world into good people and bad people, but Paul uses the same symbolic system to put everyone on an equal moral footing.
I've also assigned bin Laden's text when I discuss terrorism in my death class. The students are generally better than the Tik Tokers at distinguishing between "makes some good points" and "has a valid argument."
Who would have thought that there are two sides a story? Who maybe considered that people aren’t “just evil?” Who? How many times must we be shocked to find that perhaps we shouldn’t make generic high level criticisms especially when the stories are obviously shaped to fit the ideologies of the home country. And yet we will return to exactly that in due time when the next scapegoat for all our problems becomes available.
Badiou makes a similar point in his Ethics - that evil is the corrupted willingness to do good.
A brilliant perspective. For those who wish to dig more deeply into this, I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt's (deservedly influential) The Righteous Mind.
Hitlers very power was his logic--he just took it to a terrifying extreme. The perversion most evident in the use of human bodies to make soap and lampshades.
I admit a lot of the OBL apologetics awoke something grumpy in me. But then I lived it (from afar, granted). I had years to go through emotions about it all, and what I thought of my country. Many people “awakened” by his banal letter didn’t watch friends go off to war amd come back not the same. I did, again, from afar. I was safe and raised two great kids. I have tried to teach them about the banality of evil. To be humanist thinkers. And to shed no tears for people who choose wanton murder. I see them respond to Gaza with, I hope, appropriate consternation and empathy. To understand there are no easy answers, but oppression doesn’t have to mean to choose murder. I hope those reading the letter come around to ponder it and know that evil is a choice.
This explains the strange responses I have gotten when I try to explain the strategic reasons Hamas carried out their recent attack. I was accused of being a Hamas sympathizer because I said it wasn’t merely to “kill some Jews” but to disrupt a deal between Israel and Saudia Arabia. Obviously Hamas would kill all the Jewish people (including myself) if they could, but they can’t, and that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some logic and moralism behind their actions.
This is good on how the whole thing is more of a moral panic in the mainstream rather than anything that was actually at all big on TikTok really - most of the boost seems to have come from the mainstream panic itself: https://tiktoktiktoktiktok.substack.com/p/115-the-osama-bin-laden-tiktok-panic
Your point still stands of course, but worth bearing in mind
Folks need to re-read Martha Gellhorn's work, "Eichmann and the Private Conscience"
I wrote about this recently as a similar problem vexing critiques of technology: why not become Kaczynski?
What they should be learning is that smart people with Anti-Social disorder are very good at creating “social camouflage” to rationalize their desire to inflict suffering on others.
Hit the mute button: Do not listen to what they say. Watch what they do. Their actions reveal their true intentions.