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May 16, 2017 4:54 pm

What Can BDS Teach Us About the Culture Wars?

avatar by Jon Haber

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A protest in support of the BDS movement. Photo: FOA / Facebook.

Many who criticize outrageous forms of behavior on college campuses, from “microaggressions” to “safe spaces,” warn (either out of fear or glee) that once students who have been sheltered from challenging ideas and conflict enter the “real world,” they will quickly discover what it’s like to encounter an obstacle without “Daddy” there to intervene.

While I understand where such a sentiment might come from, it fails to note that new moral cultures tend to first take hold in the world of ideas and then work their way out to other parts of society. For once new ways of thinking and acting arise and achieve success, it is only natural that other people will try to replicate behaviors they might have otherwise never considered.

The campus situation is made more complicated by the fact that the evils protesters claim to be fighting against are not imaginary. Racial bigotry and gender stereotyping continue to be prevalent in our society, even if we have placed their most obscene aspects (such as common use of the “N word” or blaming women for being raped) beyond the pale. Poverty endures, even if millions aren’t starving in the streets. In fact, who would listen to protesters for a minute if the issues being chanted about didn’t resonate with targeted audiences?

But here is where experience dealing with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) “movement” against Israel provides important insight into what might be wrong with perceiving today’s campus uprisings as simply misguided tactics used in support of noble causes.

Before going further, I need to invoke some philosophy by bringing up that much-maligned 19th-century thinker, Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ll let you read about the famous controversies surrounding the man and his work on your own, but for now you should be thinking about what he had to say about guilt as a form of control.

According to his theories, the powerful people of the world were brought under the control of the weak once the former were convinced that use of their power (never mind misuse and abuse) was something evil, for which they should be ashamed. In fact, Nietzsche saw the entire Judeo-Christian moral code as the means whereby the meek did inherit the earth — by convincing the strong that their strength represented sin for which they needed to atone, in particular by putting it into service for those less powerful than they.

I’ll get to how those ideas were put to malicious use by others shortly, but for the purposes of this discussion keep in mind that attempts to use guilt to motivate action can only work on those already sensitive to the evils being condemned. To cite an obvious example, if everyone in a society believed it virtuous to denigrate people of other races, then no one would know what you’re talking about if you condemned the “evils of racism.”

So accusations of bigotry or indifference to the suffering of the poor can only work against those who sincerely believe that everyone is susceptible to those evils. But doesn’t everybody fall into this category?

The BDS movement provides a powerful counterexample. For, as anyone who has engaged with BDS proponents has seen, the boycotters insist that they are fighting on behalf of human rights, justice, and a wide range of noble causes and beliefs. But even as they vociferously insist others subject themselves to the boycotters’ own moral judgment, they are equally adamant that similar moral judgment targeting them is inadmissible.

More than that, the very notion that those whom the boycotters claim to represent (and on whose behalf they fight) exemplify the very sins being protested (human rights abuses, racism, sexism, etc.) is ignored or shouted down. In other words, to invoke my previous articles here and here, with the BDS movement we have the strange hybrid of people using the “Culture of Victimhood” to insist that those living in a “Culture of Dignity” obey them while ignoring the brutality routinely practiced by a “Culture of Honor” those boycotters support.

If others are now reading from the BDS playbook, creating a culture of one-way moral judgment where ends justify any means, we may be looking at a contagion not likely to end well.

The best-case scenario is that the current protest culture will turn out to be another moral panic that tends to flare up in this country, but eventually blows over.

A more troubling possibility is that a “Culture of Victimhood” will take hold beyond the campus driven not by those seeking to fight injustice but by the ruthless (i.e. those most able to suppress their own guilt even as they demand others feel guilty enough to bow down before them).

The threat from such a scenario is two-fold. First would be the degradation of thought and virtue currently taking hold on campuses, a phenomenon those of us who deal with BDS takeovers of institutions like academic associations and mainline churches have seen for years. Even more troubling is the possibility that a backlash will take the form of a new moral culture that, like dark ideologies of the 20th century, try to get “beyond good and evil” by rejecting all moral codes that equate power with sin.

Is there an alternative?

Possibly, but thoughts on that will have to wait until next time, when this series concludes.

Part III of a series. Part I is here, and Part II is here.

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