The massacres at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher, still vivid in the memories of the many, can serve as a snapshot of the dilemmas of Orientalism. The theme of the “semi-non-apologism” of the few and of the privileged certainly represents one particular angle for examining the atrocity and the ensuing responses; but the notion of semi-non-apologism, of “yesbuttery,” should not distract critical thinkers from the complexity of the various dilemmas of Orientalism; not all of which may be neatly resolvable, if at all.
As is well enough known, the atrocity in Paris soon led to a variety of reactions: furious condemnation, malicious jubilation, and a phenomenon which can be described in terms of the time-honored phrase of “yesbuttery.”
As is perhaps well known, the latter phrase refers to a phenomenon where, broadly speaking, someone says:
Yes, it wasn’t that so great, it just wasn’t so easily justifiable that x event happened, BUT…
This phrase is probably derived from the phrase “whataboutery” in “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland some decades ago. The line runs as follows:
It was probably pretty wrong for the IRA to bomb that pub; but you can’t blame them for being angry!
Some articles, such as Cohen, have plausibly read the reception of the massacre in terms of yesbuttery; although the article of his I have just linked to does not use the specific term itself. Yet, while I do agree that yesbuttery is a very ugly and unjustified reaction to the atrocity in question, I think it’s worth also pausing to remember the functions yesbuttery can play in an Orientalizing context.
Of course, I do not myself wish to respond to yesbuttery with whataboutery. But I do wish to draw attention to the functioning of yesbuttery in the politics of some governments from outside of the Middle East and North Africa.
And this is not about moral equivalence or non-equivalence, but about recognising the importance of identifying “yesbuttery” in a Western Globalist-Interventionist context.
Firstly, I will name one key “yesbuttery” fallacy of humanitarian interventionism. (Jean Bricmont’s term “humanitarian imperialism,” if anything, is an even better term). I call my first fallacy, the It’s a Good War if it’s a Good War Fallacy.
Yes, OK, a lot of unnecessary suffering was caused by the Iraq war. But at least Afghanistan/Bosnia/Liberia was justified!
In other words: it is permissible to recklessly infringe the sovereignty of other nations and to recklessly endanger the lives of civilians, as long as you are right to do so. Still, isn’t that a consummately circular argument? Such an evidently tautological rhetorical assertion can only ever be purely a prior in character; it does not appeal to any empirical evidence; not even the piercing screams of orphans or the despairing tears of parents.
(And no doubt, I will be accused by some of being merely “emotive,” by appealing to such imagery; imagery that is perhaps too uncomfortable for the self-styled Party of Humanity to acknowledge, but that is surely intuitive enough for everyone else).
Another kind of yesbuttery is the One-Off Atrocity Fallacy.
George Bush made an error, yes; but it was only one tiny little mistake!
First of all, a war of humanitarian aggression is not a single mistake. To plan and conduct a war necessitates a large number of decisions to be made. Any case of humanitarian brutality, humanitarian genocide, or whatever you wish to call it, is not to be considered as one small drop of poison; but rather, as an entire toxic blood-ridden ocean of nihilistic presumption.
But another problem is the flippant and trivialising tone of such apologetics. This brings us to another similar fallacy, which I call the Global Village Railroad Fallacy.
Look, Tony Blair made just one tiny little mistake. Haven’t you forgotten all his achievements?
This reminds me of the flippant saying in the UK that “Hitler made the trains run on time.” One very serious moral error or even crime can outweigh all the “positive” achievements of a leader. This is also true of non-politicians. If you open fire in a crowded bank, shopping mall or university, it is not use saying that it was just a moment of passion. Some individuals are judged primarily by a single atrocious act. Is this so wrong, so harsh, that one cannot entertain doing the same for politicians?
Indeed, there is a saying in the ancient Chinese text, the Zhuangzi: “The one who steals a country is made a prince. The one who steals a fish-hook will be hanged.”
So, should events like the Iraq war be treated more leniently than the peccadilloes (or even enormities) which destroy the reputations of individuals who are not politicians?
Are “ordinary people” (however problematic such a term may be) to be judged more harshly than political leaders?
But what then?
Where does all this leave the notion of yesbuttery?
I would say that, yes by all means, one can and must criticise yesbuttery in relation to jihadist terror. But this does not mean that one can forget yesbuttery in other contexts. In Northern Ireland, whataboutery and yesbuttery were both wrong. They are also very toxic strategies when discussing Islam and majority-Muslim countries.
So, I have no difficulty in condemning, without qualification, the atrocity in Paris. This doesn’t make me afraid to say that I hope criticisms of yesbuttery will be more consistently applied in future. It doesn’t weaken the categorical, uncompromising criticism of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, if one acknowledges that other, Orientalizing, forms of yesbuttery have a corroding effect on the political and social environment too.
For ultimately, this is not a competition for who can be less “yesbuttier” than everyone else…
But sometimes, I fear, the contest is is running in the opposite direction.
In sum, the challenge is:
Yes, one can seek to avoid a self-flagellating, self-Occidentalizing yesbuttery, with regards to Charlie Hebdo. And yes, one can also seek to endeavour to avert a condescending and brutally Orientalising yesbuttery, with regards to the three Orientalising fallacies of yesbuttery that I have discussed here.
However: how does one avoid the situation where avoiding one form of yesbuttery leads to one falling into another? By avoiding yesbuttery in the context of Charlie Hebdo, some may find their fury leading them to condemn all Islam indiscriminately. In that case, humanitarian imperialist forms of yesbuttery might prove tempting; as the latter is founded on a clear value judgment, whereby Muslims (whether Islamist or secular) are one-sidedly portrayed as incapable of self-governance. The “damned if you do do theocracy, damned if you don’t do theocracy” attitude can only endanger the people of Israel, as well as civilians in majority Muslim MENA countries; including, but hardly limited to, progressive dissidents.
Yet, on the other hand, a reaction against neoconservative and other related colonialist yesbutteries might lead to a self-flagellating attitude that would accuse the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo of half-deserving the violence inflicted on them. This can be called “semi-non-apologism,” as a synonym to yesbuttery. Perhaps “semi-non-apologism” is a more emotionally-charged term than “yesbuttery?” And thus more valuable, in certain contexts, perhaps.
Whether it is a question of finding a “fuzzy middle ground” of resolution or conciliation between extremes, or whether it is a matter of holding both poles in tension, is an extremely provocative question. However, some similarly provocative questions could be asked:
In the context of Orientalism or Occidentalism, what other poles or “extremes” need to be either reconciled, or else held in tension?
How might one know when to adopt the former strategy, and when to adopt to the latter?
What do “we” really mean when we draw this rather abstract distinction?
Who are we? (Who decides? By what prerogative? In what context?
How do personal identity facets and the context of communication determine the ethics of discussion?
Are Orientalism and Occidentalism merely pernicious errors that can be clearly identified and avoided; or are they more like boundaries or horizons within which one can move; but which one can never fully or finally escape beyond?
For, if the latter is the case, is this a tragedy to be deplored?
Or does it actually present opportunity for flourishing, for growth and dialogue, and for realistic acknowledgment of our own limitations as individual human beings, rooted in our own individual contexts; these contexts not being “limitations” merely in the sense of an encumbrance, but also in the sense of a condition of any agency and liberty whatsoever?