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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fuzzy Moral Accounting Redux

[The following is a heavily edited version of a post I wrote a few years ago.  Based on a few of the comments on yesterday's post... actually one in particular... it seems that the core issue of the post is still not fully understood by some.  Also, since there has been significant turn over in readership here since this was published, some fresh views might emerge.]

Back when I was attending University in Manhattan, a friend of mine got mugged on his way back, late at night, from a concert at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater.  An impromptu splurge on a couple of CD's after the concert had diminished my friends pocket money to a small collection of coins, so instead of taking a taxi as he'd originally planned, he thanked-G-d for his trusty MetroCard and set off to take the subway home.

On his way to the nearest subway station he was dragged into an apartment vestibule by a couple of teenagers and relieved of his new CDs, his watch and approximately 60 cents in change. 

Whether out of disappointment at the paltry haul or just plain meanness, the teens worked my friend over pretty well, leaving him with a split lip, a bloody nose and more bruises than he'd ever experienced at one time in his life.

The next day as the story began to circulate among his friends, a consensus began to form; 'What the heck was he doing on 125th Street after midnight?'  In short, while there was, of course, general head shaking and outrage over the assault, the conventional wisdom held that my friend had to accept at least some of the blame because he had placed himself in unnecessary danger by walking through such a bad neighborhood late at night.

At the time I remember feeling a mild disconnect at this warped logic.  Were the laws less strictly enforced in Harlem?  Was 125th street some kind of 'Indian Territory' that was beyond the long arm of the law after dark.  Were the people who lived in that neighborhood held to a different standard of conduct?

I have to admit that I didn't dwell on these questions overly long as they were in complete discord with the tenets of my liberal upbringing.  And to pursue that line of questioning would have required exploring the many unconscious departures I'd made from political correctness in the name of survival in the big city. 

Let's face it, for anyone with a liberal up-bringing, it's not comfortable admitting why you cross the street late at night to avoid a street-corner full of black or Hispanic men.  So instead I used fuzzy accounting to balance my moral checkbook - not to the penny, as I had learned in school - but by rounding down to the nearest ten dollars.

In the wake of several years of attacks on Jews and subsequent finger wagging over how they should shoulder some of the blame because they were in a 'dangerous area', I am again reminded of that disconnect I felt so long ago when my friend was blamed for his own mugging.

People who wouldn't dream of suggesting that Arab culture is dominated by hatred and death, or that Palestinians view every Jew as a legitimate target, are somehow able to do just that when it comes to acts of terror... taking the necessary logical leap to allow a nice chunk of the blame to be shifted quite squarely onto the victim.

But like the younger version of myself who once-upon-a-time had made peace with not balancing my moral checkbook to the penny, many Israelis reading about 'minor' terror attacks such as stonings, molotov cocktail events and even shootings, perform their own little bit of fuzzy moral accounting and ignore the inconvenient fact that the only way '125th street'  -  or any part of Israel - could be 'fraught with dangers' is if you have sound reasons to expect dangerous/criminal behavior from the people who live there.

On the few occasions when I've had this very discussion with some of my more 'lefty' friends, they've invariably side-stepped my implied accusation by pointing an accusing finger at 'the occupation' as some sort of blanket justification for any aberrant behavior among a small group of otherwise peace-loving people. 

When I have pursued the argument to the next logical question; 'So when someone sees an Arab at a checkpoint... entering a cafe... getting on a bus... or walking in the woods... how can they tell if this is a 'typical peace-loving Arab' or one of these rare dangerous ones?'  At that point the discussion usually disintegrates into tangents about the evils of 'racism' and 'profiling'... with the result that I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to my question. 

So I throw it out to you, a diverse group of the most reasonable people I know:

1.  Can one reasonably claim that a place is inherently dangerous without acknowledging the source of the danger?

2.  Is it worth making a meaningful distinction between an entire culture being violent and only a few bad actors in their midst acting in a predictably violent manner, if the net result to society at large is the same?

3.  Does the [hypothetical] existence of an educated, reasonable, peaceful majority of Arabs who are committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel really matter if they are completely powerless to curb the violence advocated by their leaders and carried out by a small minority of their people?

4.  If you can't safely walk down 125th street (or anywhere in Israel) after midnight, isn't that a problem worth fully acknowledging and maybe even addressing... or is it safer (physically and morally) to simply cede the night and the territory to those who would do you harm?

Posted by David Bogner on July 15, 2009 | Permalink


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I think some people confuse "immoral" and "not smart" with each other.

Walking around Harlem alone late at night is not smart, but there is nothing immoral about it. Attacking someone who is simply walking home is immoral.

The analogy I always use is that if I leave my front door open when I leave on vacation, I've done something dumb, but it doesn't give anyone else the "right" to steal my stuff. It is dumb because there are plenty of people in the world who don't care whether they have the right or not; they will do the WRONG thing, the immoral thing, and steal.

Going to Kever Yehoshuah without security is dumb, but not immoral. Attacking people who just want to pray at their holy site IS immoral.

Posted by: Sarah B. | Jul 15, 2009 4:14:27 PM

1. Can one reasonably claim that a place is inherently dangerous without acknowledging the source of the danger?

That's disingenuous, by definition.

2. Is it worth making a meaningful distinction between an entire culture being violent and only a few bad actors in their midst acting in a predictably violent manner, if the net result to society at large is the same?

Yes, but that does not exculpate the society. A society that refuses to act against such phenomena, and does not even really condemn the violence, is culpable.

3. Does the [hypothetical] existence of an educated, reasonable, peaceful majority of Arabs who are committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel really matter if they are completely powerless to curb the violence advocated by their leaders and carried out by a small minority of their people?

Not if they don't speak out. See #2.

4. If you can't safely walk down 125th street (or anywhere in Israel) after midnight, isn't that a problem worth fully acknowledging and maybe even addressing... or is it safer (physically and morally) to simply cede the night and the territory to those who would do you harm?

Definitely wrong to cede the time/area. Horribly wrong. That being said, there is a distinction to be made between the morality of walking down 125th St. and the wisdom of doing so. I should be allowed to walk to Kever Yosef, at night, unarmed. Should I do so? Of course not. Does that mean nothing should be done about it? Of course not.

Posted by: LB | Jul 15, 2009 4:34:48 PM

I come from the more "right-leaning" upbringing and viewpoint, and love the post/points. At the same time, I agree with Sarah B and LB on the difference between wisdom and morality.

It is sad and pathetic that we should have a view of any place as being inherently dangerous - and for that, those responsible for that viewpoint should be indicted. Either there really is inherent danger, in which case we must acknowledge why and who, or there is not. If there is, it is not wise on the person's part to go into such a situation.

What is troublesome is when people can talk out of both sides of their mouth and claim that dangers or attitudes don't exist... then warn of the dangers of a place. On the flip side, those who acknowledge threats have a harder time then questioning how things can happen. I can believe with all my heart that Jews should be settling wherever they want in Israel, but that does not mean that I would not be uncomfortable living in certain areas because I recognize their inherent dangers. This does not mean that if something happens to someone they brought it on themselves; it is still the "fault" of the attacker. But there is an aspect of having made a choice to run that risk.

Great post.

Posted by: Ezzie | Jul 15, 2009 5:17:40 PM

Follow-up regarding my point that someone "claim[ing] that a place is inherently dangerous without acknowledging the source of the danger" is acting disingenuously.

It does depend on the context. Acknowledging the source of the danger is not always necessary - if I tell someone it's dangerous to go hiking alone in the Himalays - the implication is clear.

The issue is when someone is, in effect, obscuring the source of the danger. In our case - just saying it's dangerous to go to kever yosef, or saying "Israelis were shot" makes it seem as if some mystery danger is lurking around these areas. By the way, I think this is more prevalent in Hebrew - a language that loves the passive voice.

Of course, I am not referring to someone who implies the danger in these cases - if I tell a friend that I used to hitckhike on the main road in the south Hebron Hills, but no longer do so because it's dangerous - I'm not trying to hide anything. The context and the audience are important.

Posted by: LB | Jul 15, 2009 6:02:04 PM

It is (almost) always important and valuable to try to acheive clarity; that way, one acknowledges the problem, and has a possibility of dealing with it. If a liberal, one could at least determine that the poor misguided souls out mugging people in Harlem NEED more social programs and understanding so that they won't be forced into this unproductive behavior. For me, of course, the clarity tells me that we need to institute caning as they have in Singapore, as I believe in taking responsibility for choices, and the reprobates will make better choices if they feared the consequences.

Likewise, if there really were an unwilling majority being 'held hostage' by a violent minority, it would be important to acknowledge it, and act accordingly. In the Israeli situation, of course, that's not true, as the elections in Gaza have demonstrated. Therefore, I have no problem in acting accordingly, such as advocating the use of human shields for our soldiers, as it will cut our losses, which is my primary concern.

Posted by: Shalom, Cherry Hill, NJ | Jul 15, 2009 7:00:20 PM

These are rhetorical questions, I expect. I should ask my Rhetorical Butler to answer them.

Posted by: Elisson | Jul 15, 2009 8:05:38 PM

YAY, Sarah B! You go girl! GREAT answer! Clear and concise! Thanks for articulating what was bothering me about the comments yesterday!

Posted by: zahava | Jul 15, 2009 8:41:12 PM

Then, of course, there is the soft bigotry of low exepctations. If you lower moral standards practiced by an ethnic, racial or religious group, then you are not only promulgating bias, but also promoting depravity. This is what always bothered me about Sabra and Shatilla, which the Palestian perpetrators were excused for. The thinking was that "this is simply what these people do." Uh uh. Not acceptable.

Posted by: Ari | Jul 15, 2009 11:45:15 PM

Testing to see if this works.

Posted by: Baila | Jul 15, 2009 11:52:52 PM

I agree with a number of others. I have every right to walk through the Tenderloin in the dead of night, but if I did so, my friends would have every right to ask if I'd lost my mind.

But I don't see the analogy working perfectly. If I live in the Tenderloin, as many do, I have a different problem.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Jul 15, 2009 11:59:52 PM

"Then, of course, there is the soft bigotry of low exepctations."

That's a truly great expression, but it doesn't really address the problem of people excusing Palestinian or Arab violence. The problem is not that Palestinians are seen as incapable of better behavior, it's that their behavior is considered, by many, superlative.

Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Jul 16, 2009 12:05:25 AM

I have walked through the Tenderloin late at night. For complete safety, it is best if you wear dirty old army fatigues (especially if they are too tight), have several pronounced twitches, and radiate instability. Ain't nobody gonna bother the nut.

I can't help but think back to the time when David mentioned the Glock 19 9 mm on the seat next to him, however (or last week, when he mentioned flashing girlscouts in a mall in Tel Aviv).
I think I would rather have the Glock than the split lip.

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Jul 16, 2009 12:10:37 AM

Um, just to be clear for the sake of people who are not regular readers, I have never flashed girl scouts, in a mall or anywhere else for that matter. We now return you to your regularly scheduled comment thread.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 16, 2009 12:15:52 AM

trepp, i have enjoyed your blog for some time. i may be the commenter who drove you to re-post an earlier blog entry, and appreciate the courtesy.
so here are some of my thoughts:
a] the law is in fact less strictly enforced in harlem [and palestinian areas]
b] arab culture does seem to have a dominant strain of hatred and destruction
c] i dont know if 'palestinians' feel that every jew is a legitimate target, but i think that enough of them do to make me want to figuratively cross the street when i see them hanging out on a street corner, and think someone would be crazy not to.
there is a difference in my attitude toward the victim when a palestinian attacks someone who is taking all necessary precautions, and when a victim did not figuratively cross the street, as happened at the tomb of joshua.

1. no. we acknowledge that arabs are the source of terrorism in israel.
2. it is worthy to differentiate between an evil culture and a culture with a few bad apples. this difference can help us in negotiating with this culture on many fronts. but in our case, as previously mentioned, the arab culture in this region is way to riddled with destructive energy for comfort.
3. yes it does, in the sense that it gives us at least *something* to work with, instead of nothing. but in the foreseeable future, not really.
4. emphatically the former!

treppenwitz, keep it up.

Posted by: fred | Jul 16, 2009 1:10:47 AM

Let's see...

admits to feeling a "disconnect" with his "liberal upbringing"...

underscores the inadequacy of left-liberal handwringing that he himself engaged in previously...

Coming along quite nicely. Quite nicely indeed.

... may I suggest that your problem in discussions with lefties is that you may follow them off into philosophical/political discussions, instead of holding their feet to reality's fire?

It's tempting, because you are well-read yourself, with a probing intellect - and may still want to impress them with that - but resist the temptation and insist that the leftie explain how their theories and fine sentiments play out in reality.

A theory is only useful if it explains reality - yet the left-liberals have taken the incredible step of spinning away from reality to preserve their pet theories. Anyone who thinks that "Socialism just hasn't been tried yet" or "America is a racist society" now, in 2009, is in deep denial of reality. In this sense they are "fundamentalist true believers" in a way no modern Orthodox Jew is.

The inability to apply moral standards to Pali behavior is not unique - it is part of the PC worldview that gives entire races, genders, and classes a pass, excusing them from responsibility for their actions and blaming others for their failures. American lefties blame white victims of black criminals just as lefties of the world blame Israeli victims when Palis attack.

... and all these lefties, sensing that reality is not on their side, love nothing better than an interlocutor who climbs into their fantasy bubble and joins them for a round of navel gazing.

No. No. No.

Insist on an explanation of how every grand moral/political pronouncement plays out in reality, what are its consequences.

Its less satisfying - and you'll get less approval - but necessary.

Posted by: Ben-David | Jul 16, 2009 2:31:56 AM

"Was 125th street some kind of 'Indian Territory' that was beyond the long arm of the law after dark?"

The answer is, "yes," sometimes. Just an example of where the "liberal" mindset (your word; not mine) fails in the way that it tends to see the "conservative" mindset fail -- absolutism, in sociology, is probably a vice.

It is normal to ask such questions: "what were they thinking/doing?" and although we would LIKE the question to be absurd or meaningless, it is not. Because "common sense" shouldn't be put aside in service to some political ideal, liberal or conservative. Especially when it is you, and 125th Ave, and your skin color.

Not happy with seeing things these ways, but have come to accept it. ;o/

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jul 17, 2009 2:21:28 PM

I too have moved away from my previous very liberal viewpoints. We need to hold society to the same standards to which we hold ourselves.
It seems to me that bleeding heart liberalism should be the domain of teenagers and university students. Reality is where the adults belong. While we still need to see people as individuals we should not ignore trends in behaviour/crime. No longer do thugs have to be responsible for their actions. All youth are "disenfranchised" and merely acting out their inner frustrations. Get them a social worker, psychologist and whoever else so they can blame society and their childhood. Most of all let them blame the Jews, it has become fashionable once again.

I remember playing war with my neighbours in 1968, as the youngest of the group I had to be the Arab while everyone else was Israeli. I went home crying to my mother because my sister and I were the only Jews in the group, didn t that entitle me to be Israeli? I grew up in the post-war era of what I believed to be enlightenment. I miss it and I am sorry that my kids will not have the same freedom from fear that I did.

Please forgive my rambling, the topic has hit a nerve.


Posted by: Lisa | Jul 17, 2009 9:45:29 PM

When we talk about people being "angry" at the chasidim who visited Joshua's Tomb, I think we need to distinguish between two types of anger:

1) The anger a mother might have toward a child who was mugged walking through a bad neighborhood at night, or

2) The "anger" of strangers (or worse, of the muggers' fellow-travellers) toward the same person for "bringing it upon themselves".

In the former case, the anger is an expression of love and concern. In the latter case, not only is it an expression of hate, but it is perhaps the ultimate example of hypocrisy.

In the case of Ha'aretz, I'm not inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Posted by: psachya | Jul 18, 2009 12:40:48 AM

When I was learning to drive, I once paused for a fraction of a second too long at a stop sign to check both ways to see if any cars were coming. My crazy driving teacher yelled at me "What's wrong with you? Why were you checking, you have the right of way, just go! Don't look!" When I got home, in tears, I told my father the story. He said "You may have had the right of way, but some speeding maniac isn't going to care who has right of way. Would you rather be right or be dead?" I should have every right to daven where ever I want, but the Arabs don't care if I have that right, they'll kill me anyway. That doesn't mean we should excuse them or blame the victim or ignore the problem and do nothing to fix it, but until it is fixed and the area is safe, I personally would rather be alive than right.

Posted by: G | Jul 20, 2009 12:08:29 AM

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