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So it goes ...
Various thoughts on ultraviolence, rationality & feelings
Note: I have stolen the term 'hyperobject' for these reflections. Technically 'hyperobjects' was a term coined to refer to vastly complex systems, rather than complicated problems like wars.
The original idea with hyperobjects was that it is their scale as well as complexity that gives them a quality that feels ever-present yet ungraspable. Things we are aware of without ever quite understanding, like 'Global Capitalism', 'the Biosphere', 'climate change', 'the internet'. Things that - when you do try to explain them - quickly bring you into contact with the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (my personal favourite cognitive bias).
I use 'hyperobject' here as a term to describe any large, 'brain-jacking' issue that enters into the widespread public conscious.
The hot takes on last weekend's events are leaving me cold. I have read only two pieces that I didn't regret as an opportunity cost. My main takeaway from all the hyperventilating and bloviating has been to notice the essential vacuity of the media sphere (including, sadly, Substackistan) in the face of 'hyperobjects'.
Also, if ever there is a moment when I'm glad to be off short-form social media it's times like this. Otherwise this week would have been an even worse information noise experience. Many long-form writers I usually admire joined the rush to say something about last weekend. Almost none of it seemed worth saying, except for the purposes of venting feelings.
What do I think about what Hamas did, how Israel is responding and what should happen next?
Nothing. I'm not playing. I'm taking an inward look instead because what I think or say is of no consequence.
The world doesn't need to know what I think of the latest events in Israel and Gaza. And I've quickly discovered that I don't need to know what most other people think about it either.
I don't trust my instinct to start opining on a topic I've only - to be honest - made any serious attempt to fathom properly over the past five days. Although I imagine I'm probably better informed than (taking a wild guess) 80-90% of ordinary people on the background to it all. But a little knowledge is insufficient to start pretending that I have anything worthwhile to say on the politics, morality and solutions that many other people are instantly confident about.
It isn't as if I've spent a lifetime keeping abreast of every nuance in a conflict that predates my existence. I read one book, ten years ago, written by an Israeli who described displacement of Palestinians by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. The book upset me enough to result in a kind of low-level steady-state disapproval of Israel's treatment of Palestinians that persists. Insofar as I have prior sympathies, that's among them.
But something changed when the details of last weekend's assault emerged and I suddenly noticed a hollow feeling, where once I might have felt emotion.
This is because of the inevitability of it all - and the cold, hard rationality of both sides.
Don't mistake this as a they're as bad as each other position or an example of the moral equivocations that we're all expected to be doing at this point. Take it as more of a blank reaction to something that just looks scripted and endless by design.
I remember the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. Perhaps the only prescient thought I've ever had about the Arab/Israeli conflict was when I thought then that kids growing up amid things like that were probably going to want to kill people themselves, when they grew up. And then their kids would too. I'm guessing I would, in their shoes.
Every time I hear about rockets fired into Israel I reflect on how good Hamas is at public relations. Because an obviously effective way to fight such an asymmetric conflict is to keep increasing the body count on your own side, so that people notice the problem you want them to know about.
Grasping that Hamas is always behaving rationally is dissonant. Grasping that more dead Palestinians than dead Israelis is best for Hamas (as a political project rather than a group of people) isn't the sort of way I'd prefer to make sense of things. It's just how it works. See how it's working? Look at the news now.
That's what makes me feel hollow, rather than angry, sad or anything else.
Like the videos of unspeakable things done to people, grasping that it all has an internal consistency hollows you out. Hence the impulse to fill that space with feelings and opinions and liking people who say things about it that feel right and disliking people who say things that don't.
The incentives involved make both sides rational. I'm guessing that each of us knows this at some level and it's too bitter to accept. It's more comfortable to think that someone must be acting more wrongly than the other and we just have to figure that out so that someone will fix it. Then we won't have to have an opinion on whether decapitating the babies is understandable or just a simple manifestation of evil. Or blowing up 17 non-combatants from the same family with a shell through the roof of a home where you've already cut off their water and electricity supply.
So it goes.
Read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-five. Those words capture it perfectly, as great literature is often wont to do.
We try to understand who is really at fault and it's exhausting because everyone seems to be at fault. To think otherwise seems to require major discounting of certain data points. But we try anyway. And some of us end up distilling our positions into slogans about decolonising not being a metaphor or something about Palestinians being nihilistic barbarians. What a relief that must be.
We try to understand other people's reasons for thinking what they do and that leaves us feeling hollowed out too. It makes my brain itch that highly educated leftists insist that Hamas is fighting a war of liberation, when Hamas won't recognise Israel's right to exist where it is, let alone undertake to ever co-exist with it. It makes my brain itch to read about all the times 'Bibi' helped Hamas and why he thought that was best. The logic of it all makes me feel hollow. Because every step actually makes sense.
So it goes.
The logic of making TikToks so that everyone knows about you raping and mutilating and destroying living people makes me feel hollow. I'd feel differently if this behaviour really was irrational. Then I could process it differently. Then I could join in the comforting chorus saying well actually this proves that we're just dealing with evil so fill your boots, Israel, and have at those Gazans. Get your own back, like they do in those revenge films that make us feel bad until 'justice' rushes in at the end to fill the hole.
The logic of hostage taking makes me feel hollow. It's obviously rational. You can comfort yourself that it's just evil only by discounting the incentives to have hostages.
The logic of making life (for those that survive your shells) even harder for ordinary people in Gaza makes me feel hollow because it makes sense. I'd feel better if it didn't. I'd feel better if it was an obviously irrational thing to do.
Feel free to dispute this by pressing a sympathetic thumb on the moral scale measuring who's most at fault.
As a dissonance management strategy it's probably the best available.
I saw a video once, long ago, showing a young American woman's head after a bulldozer ran over it. She had been trying to stop a Palestinian village being razed on the West Bank (I may be mistaken - I'm not going to check exactly where this happened now) to make way for a new Israeli settlement. She was still recognisably human, which made it worse.
The point of this video was to stir a response. Did they see her lying in front of their earth mover and crush her anyway or was it an accident? These were earnest discussions at the time, because we have to make sense of horror. We distract ourselves by processing things so that they'll go on the right shelf. Otherwise we just feel hollow.
This is now how I feel about this conflict. I'm allowing the hollow feeling to remain, because I recognise that all the other thoughts I have are about fooling myself that something I would prefer is possible. That someone can fix everything by just making the right moral call and somehow instrumentalising it in a way that magically suits everyone involved.
But what suits everyone involved right now is that we feel angrier about one vile thing than we feel about another. That's our role, as extras in the drama.
Take a side and imagine that you know what's best to happen next.
Write an essay about 2 or 3 state solutions so that readers will say 'nice try' and then you will have been on topic with the current thing and can move on to your actual domain again in a couple of days. Your walk-on part is played.
Write something about how much those grinning Hamas fighters enjoy livestreaming their atrocities, in contrast with how the Nazis kept their programmes under the radar. Readers will love it, because it fills the sensemaking hole. Ah, that's it. They're even worse than the Nazis.
I presume that this helps some people.
If I have to read the phrase 'moral compass' again this week I might just have to turn my internet off for a while.
Remember, though, that none of these actors are crazy or stupid. They all know what they're doing. They are all following reason. Regardless of where you stand on the moral underpinnings of their reasons, it all makes perfect sense.
I feel quite differently since realising this.
Which is hollow. And hopeless.
Since writing that I'd only read two worthwhile pieces on all this a third one has landed. It's perfect as an overlapping read with this and contains many points I wish I'd thought of. Here it is.
For a more conventional and even-handed essay, this by Isaac Saul of Tangle, is the best I've seen in the genre. The writer's sincerity - as someone with skin in the game - is admirable.
And this approach sparked my curiosity. Doubtless it would trigger anyone who feels invested in the morality of the conflict, but as a practical idea it seems interesting. Which guarantees that it will remain on the fringes of commentary.
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