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Whose Reality Is It?
I watched a short video a couple days ago, simply a camera panning over the ruins of a city block in Gaza, lingering on the remnants of people’s lives. A laundry basket. A child’s toy. The title of the video was, “There used to be a city here.”
Normally, an article that begins with a video like this would go on to cite statistics on casualties, arguing a case for the Palestinian cause, or perhaps for a ceasefire or a humanitarian corridor. Or maybe it would be to dismiss the video as a propaganda ploy. I won’t do any of these. The video made me sad, but it was the comments on the video filled me with the urgency to write this essay.
There were three basic kinds of comments: pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace. The first two were much the same in tone. They were filled with hate in various forms: sarcasm, calls for violence, triumphalism, derision. Some samples:
“Inshallah the rest of Gaza soon.”
“Something is missing..... i would add a few more brandished toys, some teddy bears, with no dust or debris on them of course, you know, Pallywood style.”
“Site clearance for Israeli apartheid real estate developers.”
“Tell your bosses to surrender.”
“Gaza deserves hell and damnation.”
“Israel doesn't have humanity, all those who are supporting them in this heinous act are also shameless and cruel people. Israel doesn't deserve peace and will never get this land.”
“There are no innocents in Gaza. They're all favoring barbaric Hamas, cherishing manslaughter and the kind of terrorism ISIS was conducting. They're all being reduced to rubble, ashes and dust these days, as they all deserve.”
The other kind of reply, the small minority that I call “pro-peace” wasn’t just calls for peace. It was mostly expressions of pure feeling like tearful emojis. Why is that “pro-peace”? Because peace starts from a place outside of story and interpretation. Of course, the execution of peace policies requires knowledge of facts and histories, but it doesn’t start there. It starts with the human reaction to violence that lets it hurt and says “No more.” “Never again” — not just to me, my side, or my people, but to anyone. In contrast, the partisan feels the pain through a filter of story that directs it toward revenge: the desire for someone else to suffer as I (or those I support or identify with) have suffered. That’s my definition of hate: the desire for another to suffer harm.
Peace is not the opposite of violence. Peace is the opposite of hate.
Nor can we equate peace to the absence of violence. Not all violence comes from hate. Sometimes it comes from the desire to protect oneself or another from harm. Or, as in nature, to obtain food or meet other needs. But hate often takes the guise of these other aims. It masquerades as protection, deterrence, or justice, but something more primal lurks beneath.
Conflict is inextricably part of our world, and the kind of pacifism that pretends otherwise will always be a fantasy that actually sabotages real peace by sequestering it in the domain of the impossible and nourishing a toxic cynicism.
Partisan stories tell us how to interpret any event, any photograph, any video, every news item. Quite a few of the commenters said the video was faked or staged or that if you just panned out, you’d see that Gaza is fine. Or they “added context”; such as, “...and the Hamas tunnels” or some version of “they deserved it.” They are afraid, with good reason, that the other side will use the video to support its narrative in the information war that rages atop the kinetic war. What gets lost in that maneuver, though, is empathy. Which, as I said, is the genesis of peace. Because, if you feel what another is feeling, then hate — the desire for another to suffer — makes no sense.
And so, in the interest of preserving the war narrative, people find ways not to feel, and governments find ways to help them not feel, for example by censoring, curating, and interpreting information. Otherwise, how could this war continue? The video I mentioned above is relatively tepid compared to those of children trapped in the rubble, slowly dying as family members try futilely to dig them out because of lack of fuel and equipment. Or doctors describing what it is like to perform life-saving amputations when there is no anesthesia left. War can only persist if somehow the public is shielded from its visceral horrors. They must not be allowed to connect with the human suffering of the enemy. The internet must be cut off. The pictures must be labeled fake. The victims must be dehumanized. The killing must be framed as someone else’s fault, or a sad necessity.
Entering into the narrative of either side, one feels like one has entered a separate reality. Every contention of the other side is swiftly demolished as a transparent fallacy. How could anyone believe it? Why, they must be moral cretins. They must not be very smart. They must be crazed by religious fervor. They must be dupes of an evil ideology. They are contemptible at best, they are deplorable, they are abominable. “Israel doesn’t have humanity.” “Gaza deserves hell and damnation.” We must cleanse their stain from upon this earth.
This is the ultimate horror that results from the commandeering of reality by information war narratives. Final victory in war comes by extinguishing the enemy. Final victory in information war comes by extinguishing their humanity. The former follows the latter: Throughout history, dehumanization is a precursor to genocide.
But, in a form of psychic blowback, the humanity that the war to dehumanize the enemy ends up extinguishing is our own.
Today we possess potent new weapons for the waging of information war. Artificial intelligence allows anyone with sufficient technical knowledge to fabricate photographs, audio recordings, and video. For more than a hundred years, the photograph served to anchor the public in a common reality. “Photographs don’t lie,” the saying went. Photographs had the power to pierce narratives and unravel whole ideologies. The “Napalm Girl” photo from the Vietnam era and the Abu Ghraib photos from the early 2000s delivered body blows to American ideas of our singular virtue. Of course, in reality, photographs always did lie, or at least served lies. They could be curated, they could be staged, they could be altered. Nonetheless, for a time and however imperfectly, they anchored us in a common reality.
That function began to collapse around 20 years ago with the explosion of computer generated graphics in entertainment. The mind’s natural assumption that what we see is real began to waver. That assumption, the product of millions of years of evolution with the promise of the photograph to deliver the perfect image, cannot guide us through the information battlefield. What can?
What can is the same thing that always could. You see, in an important sense nothing has really changed. We had a temporary reprieve, at least it seemed, from the prison of subjectivity in the hundred years of the photograph’s reign. We had, a least it seemed, an alternative to the long process of gathering first-hand reports and judging their reliability, weighing both sides’ contentions and evaluating them through the lens of their self-interest. Because here was truth. The photograph doesn’t lie. Well, it does; together with video it is the most powerful propaganda tool ever created. Maybe it is a good thing we no longer trust it. Now we are back where we started.
Recognizing more clearly than ever the factitious nature of the image, the word, and the partisan narratives built atop them, we turn toward other paths to truth. Whenever I’m in the middle of a he-said-she-said situation, I always look for what is true regardless of who is right. There is always something, and that is where I start. Because it is free of either side’s narrative, that truth doesn’t come with a prescription for what is to be done. In fact, I take my own initial bewilderment as a sign that I am on the right track. When I hear the horror stories coming out of the Holy Land, that’s what I feel: a bewildering intensity of horror, grief, and anguish. It may take the form of a question that does not seek an answer: “How could human beings do this to one another?” or “Why does God let such things happen?”
I have felt such questions wailing in me a lot in recent weeks. Their purpose is not to seek philosophical answers that dampen the force beneath them. It is, first, to drive an honest inquiry into causes and conditions. How, indeed, could human beings do this to one another? If we discard the convenient war narrative of “Some people (the enemy) are just evil,” then we must look at history, economics, and politics. In the case of the Holy Land, we look at 75 years of robbery, dispossession, humiliation, and tyranny over the Palestinian people, and many times that of genocide against the Jewish people all over the world. Such honesty is difficult, though, when one has been complicit in creating the conditions that give rise to atrocity.
Second, these questions give shape to a feeling that seeks action, not answers. The action could be to comfort those who have suffered, it might be to stop further suffering. Channeled through stories of hate and blame, it might be to wage a war of revenge and punishment. Channeled through an historical and social understanding, it might be to work for a political peace process.
What then, shall we do, outside the shadow of hate and blame? What shall we do from the full feeling of the loss of Israeli and Palestinian mothers? What shall we do, knowing the keening of a mother, the whimpering of a child cowering in a basement? Those of us whose hands are far from the levers of power may not be able to do much except call for this and that: ceasefires, humanitarian corridors, and so forth. I support such calls, but for the hate cycle to reverse, people from within the warring parties will have to do something brave.
Brave would be for Hamas to release all hostages, unconditionally and unilaterally.
Brave would be for Israel to stop the bombing and restore humanitarian supplies, unconditionally and unilaterally.
You may think, depending on which side you are on, that neither of these is brave; that one is simply humane and should have been done before it even started, and the other is foolhardy given how the other side would just take advantage of it. It is precisely such calculations that make these brave. To advocate peace in a time of war is always brave. As one Israeli peace activist told me a few days ago, “If you say anything, they will slap you.”
What motivates bravery? Let’s call it courage. Courage means, “the capacity of the heart.” It comes when we open our hearts to actually feel. Then, if we don’t channel the grief into despair or the anger into hate, we do whatever it takes to stop the cycle of harm. Another cycle can take its place, with each side responding to the other’s brave gesture with its own, as the whole world watches, affirms, and rewards each step. Yes, I am aware of the fruitlessness of nonviolent protests and peace movements in the past in Israel and Palestine, but now is different. All eyes are on them. Israel / Palestine is now the fulcrum upon which the whole world could swing toward peace.
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