Sunday, July 18, 2004

moral equivalence

[NB: I'd written a long, long post on this subject, which got deleted by Blogger earlier today, thereby royally pissing me off and forcing me to take a rather angry, violent shit on the keyboard, the monitor, and the CPU. What follows is a piecemeal reconstruction of some of the basic themes of the original post.]

My friend the KimcheeGI noted in an email to a bunch of us that there's a new litmus test out there for the Korean government: the online release of the Paul Johnson beheading video. Will this video be banned as well? Or will we see further evidence of the "just another foreigner" mentality?

Among the replies to Charlie's email was one that both (a) denied that the "just another foreigner" mentality has been a factor in Korean censorship considerations and (b) went on to argue that Koreans aren't the only ones who are most concerned for their own: after all, are Americans as concerned about French victims of terrorism?

Point (a) is simply bullshit. Only someone ignorant about Korean society would try to deny the role of the tribal mentality in Korean international affairs. Most of us foreign wankers all came-- independently of each other, I might add-- to the same conclusion about the Korean government's (and Korean Netizens') hypocrisy in enacting and supporting the suppression of the Kim Sun-il beheading video: no strong measures were taken when it came to the foreigners' beheadings.

The email writer's lame argument is that Korean citizens did express outrage when the Nick Berg video was broadcast by MBC. The problem, in my opinion, is that the Korean reaction was nothing compared to the still-ongoing outrage about the deaths of the two Korean schoolgirls accidentally killed by American GIs. Almost no one is talking about Nick Berg in Korea right now. He's largely forgotten here. The writer also suggests that the citizens of other countries are no different in how they treat foreign victims. While he's right to think that we all have an "our people first" mentality, the writer is implying that all nations exhibit this cultural trait equally, which is plainly false.

The writer's point (b), then, is an example of moral equivalence, and the best way to tackle that is to examine the falsity of the moral equivalence argument, both empirically and theoretically. Let's go empirical first.

The empirical approach shows us a very polarized America right now. This is strong evidence that Americans, contrary to the stereotype propagated by the ignorant, are indeed concerned about what happens internationally. American liberals voice concerns about diplomatic capital, regaining a measure of dignity in the eyes of the world, etc. Whether you agree or disagree with the larger liberal argument is unimportant; what I'm trying to point out is that American liberals show an awareness of what's going on outside America's borders. The same is true for American conservatives, who marshal their foreign policy arguments based on what they know of other countries' histories and cultures vis-à-vis American national interests. Here, too, whether you agree or disagree with the larger conservative argument, it's undeniable that conservatives are also quite aware of what's happening outside America's borders. America is polarized because America is aware and engaged in internal debate. Advocates of moral equivalence wish to paint America as one huge, dumb bumpkin state, making judgements rooted in ignorance of the larger world. To do this, they have to ignore crucial facts about America and Americans. Yes, we have our bumpkins, and some hold political office. But that's by no means the end of the story.

Let's now move to a more theoretical level and examine the moral equivalence position itself. It's usually an argument aimed at America in particular, generally as a corrective for perceived American arrogance. "Americans are in no position to judge," it's argued: the world is complex and if we don't understand everything about another nation's history and culture, it's rich of us to make judgements according to our values and standards. From this perspective, no one holds the moral high ground, because each of our nations has its virtues and flaws. How, then, to argue for the superiority of one's own nation's values? Why hold people of other nations to our own standards?

One major problem with this stance is that, instead of taking the argument to its logical conclusion-- to wit: no one has the right to judge anyone else, therefore everyone should shut the fuck up-- what we see instead is that the argument is repeatedly employed against America. This indicates a fundamental contradiction in the mind of the arguer: he pays lip service to the idea that we're all on an equal moral playing field, while at the same time holding America to a special set of obligations/higher standards/etc. Which is it? If we shouldn't judge anyone, why are these people judging America?

The other problem is the false dichotomy created by the advocate of moral equivalence, who espouses a species of moral relativism and sees his opponent as cleaving to some form of moral absolutism. This is a misperception. To argue for the superiority (or "preferableness") of one's point of view is not perforce to argue for the absolute superiority of that POV. As an American, I naturally feel that American values are superior/preferable. In fact, I renounce proprietary claims and submit that there's no reason American values (cultural norms, etc.) have to be exclusively American. Sounds awful, doesn't it? Sounds pretty ignorant and uncivilized to you, yes?

But, you see: for Koreans (or anyone else), the same dynamic is present. Koreans will naturally feel that Korean values are superior. Some Koreans might even feel that other nations can benefit from the spread of Korean culture and values. And why shouldn't Koreans feel this way?

Notice that one can make the above assessment about America and Korea without pretending to hold a coolly "objective" viewpoint. This is important because, ultimately, we all have our own personal and collective agendas. It would be dishonest to profess total objectivity, and this is what the advocate of moral equivalence is asking for: an absolutely objective, nonjudgemental viewpoint. No one possesses this.

Any dialogue, debate, etc. needs to start from this premise, not from the artificial and impractical premise of moral equivalence. I need to enter the debate fully aware that my interlocutor will make claims about the "preferableness" of his position; ideally, he should be aware that I will make the same claims for my own. This means that people can judge America all they want, but it also means that Americans reserve the right to judge others according to American standards. There's no reason to cry foul when America does this.

[NB: The obvious issue I avoided in this discussion is that of power. This is actually key to understanding why the advocate of moral equivalence is willing to be hypocritical: America represents a special case because it's so powerful-- militarily, economically, even culturally (in terms of spreading "American memes" about). Power, according to this view, implies special obligations and responsibilities. I'm not too sympathetic to the power argument, especially when it comes to an economically and militarily powerful nation like South Korea. Korea can't really argue from a position of total weakness and victimhood any longer. If anything is holding Korea back now, it's Korea. Besides, the addition of power to the equation does nothing to address the hypocrisy of arguing for moral equivalence while simultaneously holding one country, America, to different standards.

NB2: If I see a flaw in the typical American/foreign expat treatment of Korea in debate, it's that we tend to be of two minds about Korea: we either treat it as an incorrigible child (implying it'll never change), or we do what I just did and claim it's a powerful, capable nation that can take responsibility for itself. Which is it? Can it improve or can't it? Is it capable or isn't it? We do need to get our own story straight in this regard. Personally, I'm in the powerful/capable camp. Koreans, especially South Koreans, have a lot to be proud of. The vast improvements South Korea has made since 1953 have been nothing short of stunning. Koreans need to remember this about themselves and stop playing the tragic victim. The evidence of over fifty years is that life in South Korea has been anything but tragic, especially compared to the hellhole that is North Korea.]


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