Ms. Butler fights the regressive “my side, right or wrong” with the liberating “your side, right or wrong.” It’s the post-structuralist version of the Sermon on the Mount: “Love thy enemy more than thyself.” But what if that enemy embraces a savage form of loving themselves and hating us? What if it takes an extreme interpretation of Muslims’ edict to “love and hate for Allah’s sake”? This enemy makes all our utopian and multiculturalist projects impossible. — Benjamin Weinthal and Richard Landes, “The Post-Self-Destructivism of Judith Butler.”
Judith Butler is an American academic (philosophy) known for her quick mind, impenetrable prose and anti-Israel activism. The quotation is from an article about the controversy surrounding her selection by the city of Frankfurt to receive its important Adorno Prize for excellence in philosophy, music, theater and film.
I’ll leave it to Weinthal and Landes to describe the particular trouble with Ms Butler and the Germans, and to others to evaluate her academic work, which (despite my philosophy degrees) is far beyond my understanding.
But I find the quotation above perceptive, illuminating perfectly how Westerners fail to conceptualize the struggle that we find ourselves in (or don’t recognize!) today. Despite our obsession with diversity, we fail to understand precisely how some cultures are diverse.
Virtually all humans favor their own family members, especially their children, over unrelated humans. This is an innate characteristic that can be explained as a result of natural selection: those humans who behave like this are more likely to pass on their DNA to future generations.
Tribalism is an expansion of this ‘family’ preference to larger groups — extended family, tribe, people, nation. The evolutionary argument to explain it is a bit more complicated: those groups made up of individuals who tend to favor members of their own group and to display hostility to other groups are more likely to dominate others, obtain choice land and hunting grounds, and survive as groups, thus promoting the survival of their members, who will pass on their ‘tribalist’ genes.
What we call ‘patriotism’ is a fellow-feeling that applies to a very large unit, the nation. It is an extrapolation of the same feeling that we have for smaller groups.
Natural selection works because of environmental pressures, so societies in different environments have evolved different degrees of tribalism. Nomadic peoples often come into contact and conflict with ‘strange’ groups that they must either dominate or be dominated by. Settled agricultural peoples, on the other hand, rarely meet strangers, and can even obtain an advantage by cooperating with neighboring tribes rather than fighting with them.
The Hebrew Bible is (among many other things) an expression of tribalism along with rules for cooperation when appropriate (e.g., treating the stranger who dwells among us well). The ancient Hebrews were a nomadic people and behaved like one; later, the Prophets spoke to a primarily agricultural population.
Christianity and liberal Judaism went much further, suggesting that the favored treatment previously reserved for tribe members should be expanded to all humankind. Judith Butler and other Jewish anti-Zionists often claim that their anti-Zionism is based on Jewish ethics — by which of course they mean a very liberal or even Christianized Judaism, one which depends on a special way of reading the Torah (or often on not reading it).
Today, as has happened numerous times before in history, massive cultures or empires are coming into conflict with one another. One side is radical Islam, whose basic principles are drawn directly from the culture of nomadic Arabs of the Seventh Century. Many of their leadersare Arabs, who are only a few generations removed from a nomadic lifestyle and whose culture reflects this.
On the other side we have people of European heritage, formerly farmers, whose culture was profoundly influenced by Christianity (even if they reject it today).
Both sides imagine their place on the spectrum of tribalism as an absolute moral principle. The Islamists are certain that the proper world order is for the infidels to submit, and violence and war in order to bring this about is not only not wrong, it is profoundly right.
The West, on the other hand, believes in peace and above all, cooperation. It believes that war is only justified in self-defense, that it is possible to solve all disagreements by negotiation and compromise, the way a farmer negotiates the location of a fence with his neighbor.