Friday, January 05, 2007

Exceptionalism: a good rant

Exceptionalism is the idea that somehow you are different, not subject to the same laws that other people/nations/groups are. It is the opposite of the "priniciple of mediocrity", the idea that one should be very suspicious of any theory which involves the idea that your own planet/nation/self/etc. is somehow "special" or different. The idea that "It's OK if you're a Republican" is an example of exceptionalism, as are "We are God's chosen people" and "Only a member of my ethnic group could possibly understand the suffering my people have been through." I don't particularly care for exceptionalism, because it is any manifestation of the ubiquitous self-serving bias, which must be combatted at every opportunity. And exceptionalism is so often used to justify immoral actions: It's OK for us to invade a country that didn't attack us, but not OK for other countries to do that. Amanda Marcotte has a great anti-exceptionalist rant over at Pandagon:
Exceptionalism of the sort she describes is a self-feeding monster. Look no further than at how Ann Althouse can pitch a fit at Jessica’s nerve having breasts like she had a right or something and then flip around and whine that she’s the subject of sexist attacks. You see, sexist attacks are for those unterwomen, but Ann’s an uberwoman, an honorary man, really, so it’s uncouth to use sexist attacks on her. Exceptionalism is a worldview that is disturbingly impervious to reason, which is why you have abortion clinic workers reporting that when they have anti-choicers come in for abortions, they want special rights to use the backdoor or not have to sit in the lobby with those dirty abortion-having women while they wait to have abortions. Exceptionalism is what makes a lot of Americans bemoan the injustice of 9/11 in one breath and support the injustice of the Iraq War in the next. Exceptionalism is what allows right wing Israelis and their supporters to invoke the Holocaust when arguing for Israel’s right to kill and oppress. You take its persistent existence and couple it with its utter lack of logic and it’s hard not to wonder if exceptionalism is built into our genes, a trick of the brain that overrides reason.

It makes right wing politics possible, really. If you had to admit that you believe openly that might makes right to be a conservative, then the number of admitted conservatives would probably hover at no more than 10% of the population most the time. But exceptionalism is that worldview that makes it easier to sleep at night, because you believe you deserve your spot on top of others, because you are just so damn special.


Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

Um, I note that an awful lot of the examples here refer to my tribe in particular.

1) While "chosen people of God" is by definition exceptionalist, I wish you hadn't brought up that example, because I don't think Jews take it to mean quite what Gentiles tend to assume we do. (But I'd rather discuss this another time)

2) As for Israel, keep in mind that exceptionalism can work both ways. Compare the ratio of all the newspaper articles, international outrage, and U.N. Resolutions against Israel to the casualty counts, with the same ratio for Darfur, Black September, Kosovo or any other violent conflict. I realize that "otherse are worse" is not a defense, but surely this disproportionate outrage can itself only be attributed to negative exceptionalism. And of all these terrible, terrible massacres that are occuring, why is this particular conflict (which, I would point out, has two sides) compared over and over again to the Holocaust?

I realizie that in fact Ms. Marcotte went out of the way not to paint all of Israel with the same brush, so perhaps I am overreacting. But I get sick of hearing it constantly stated (or in this case implied) that Israel is like Nazi Germany, when we all know which side truly wants to exterminate the other.

10:48 PM, January 08, 2007  
Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

(oops, sorry, that link should have been to this page)

10:51 PM, January 08, 2007  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

OK, I think there were probably too many examples that referred to or could refer to Judaism in that post. And comparing the Israeli occupation of territory to the Holocaust is absurd on the face of it. I don't think that's quite what Ms. Marcotte was doing: she was saying that the Holocaust was being used as inappropriate justification Israeli actions, not that it was equivalent to those actions. But the close proximity of those two ideas in her prose might indirectly foster some notion of equivalence, and other people make the comparison very directly. I think that is wrong.

I agree that the amount of outrage focused against Israel is way out of proportion given the moral realities of the world, and that Israel is on the receiving end of a mountain of prejudice. Israel is under a microscope, and I think the world would be better off focusing some of its attention elsewhere. The whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes up a lot more of the world's mental real estate than it merits. But alas, our minds are easily duped in these matters. My D&D Miniatures collection probably takes up more of my mental space than it morally deserves, but nonetheless it does. I think key here is to recognize the difference between greater and lesser matters in the world vs. greater and lesser matters that affect us personally or push our mental buttons. I think a lot of people in this world have a very sensitive "Israel button", and furthermore are unaware that this is a personal reaction and not a global moral reaction. Like many people, I'm just shocked at how much people CARE about this issue. But there's no end of things people will attach their identities to. You here stories all the time about sports fans rioting over matches.

This whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exacerbated by another form of exceptionalism: "This land is more holy than other land." The fact that the three major monotheistic faiths of the world have this exceptionalist opinion of the same sliver of terrain has been the cause of no end of troubles for quite some time. Everyone has some degree of "exceptionalist" sentimental attachment to homeland, but those feelings seem rather stoked where certain real estate on the eastern shore of the Mediterranian is concerned. It's interesting that the religious fanatics who came to America in its early days didn't seem to have such attachments. I wonder how that has affected the American national character.

11:41 PM, January 08, 2007  
Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

I will fully and openly admit that I have an "Israel Button," and that is precisely why I so rarely post about the subject. I have passed up a number of your posts taht have dealt directly with the issue, because I tend to get overheated about it (that, and I know that Brendan reads this blog, and will kick my ass in a second :P ). The reason this post in particular got me writing was precisely that the Israel point was so minor.

The reason the Holocaust is brought up so much is not so much taht Israelis use it to justify abuses, but that they use it to justify the existance of a Jewish state to begin with. Therefor the Arabs have been hard at work to equate Israel's actions with genocide, and thereby undercut its claim of a Right to Exist. At first when they started saying it, I'm sure the reaction here was largely outrage. But as time goes on, the more they mention it, the more people start to believe they have a point. And if a liberal blogger, whose phrasing makes it clear taht she doesn't necessarily support the destruction of Israel, is now drawing that comparison (whether or not she believes in equivalency), and doing it so easily, without any need for explanation, then it means that they are succeeding.

The only way exceptionalism and identity attachments will ever go away is if we end the idea of "tribe" altogether. This utopian idea is not alien to the left (cf. John Lennon's Imagine), but when you think about it, that is not possible, without assimilating everyone into One Perfect Culture, a very right wing idea.

Sorry to have hijacked this thread :/

2:04 AM, January 09, 2007  

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