Being “minimally civil”

Submitted by AWL on 12 February, 2020 - 10:32 Author: Cathy Nugent
Strange Hate cover

Keith Kahn-Harris, in his book Strange Hate: Antisemitism, racism and the limits of diversity, argues that selective anti-racism and selective racism have become dominant modes.

Certain minorities, and certain sub-sections of minorities, are approved when they express a political or social orientation that is a close fit to another group. In other words, there is a process of political selecting out going on.

For Kahn-Harris, Jews have precipitated the development of selective anti-racism, and in his book how Jewish people are treated forms a “case study”. Unfortunately he does not make any substantial comparison with other groups.

Kahn-Harris is a Jewish leftist and a sociologist, and both of those biographical facts are relevant to how he sees antisemitism. In this book he tries to unpick the logics of the “cycle of accusations and denials of antisemitism that have permeated left-wing politics for years and have more recently spread to the right.”

That “controversy” (about who is correct on what constitutes antisemitism) has risen to the surface in Corbyn’s Labour Party and is very much in the foreground in this book; but that is not a new controversy.

The antisemitism on display as the controversy plays out does not appear as violent hatred of Jews. There are however a number of bewildering disputes involved, and Kahn-Harris takes us through some of them.

The AWL has long differentiated between a distinctively “left-wing” strand of antisemitism and other forms. Kahn-Harris also makes that distinction.

On the one hand there is “selective” antisemitism, on the other, what he calls “consensual” antisemitism. In the “zone” of selective antisemitism there may be love for some Jews — anti-Zionist Jews for example — but bewilderment and disappointment at other Jews, some Zionist Jews perhaps. For Kahn-Harris this is a zone that Corbyn drifts into and out of.

It is not that Corbyn’s heart is full of hate, but he is confused (in a way that someone who is Labour leader, and was at the time of writing a potential Prime Minister, ought not to be).

For Kahn Harris a process of selection is made possible by the long and convoluted history of antisemitism. You can only be disappointed by people who are for you a somewhat mysterious, homogenised group - a view on which antisemitism relies.

To accuse someone in this zone of being a pure and simple antisemite is to ignore a real ambivalence, and that is not helpful. On the other hand, many Jews experience antisemitism as antisemitism whether it is “consensual” or “selective”.

This is a useful book which will get you thinking more deeply about the political logic, or lack of logic, on the left as it discusses these issues.

Kahn’s proposed solution to the cycle of accusation and counter-accusation is what he calls “sullen solidarity”. If humans cannot let go of their hate, anger and abusiveness (which may appear to them as a passionate embrace of a cause) then they must learn to live side-by-side with others in a way that does not demand respect, or some soppy “all you need is love” formula for life.

I think Kahn-Harris is making a broader point about free speech, while avoiding that concept. If politics is all about contestation — of analysis, historical record, logic of argument — then all politics, everyone’s politics, must be open to contestation.

But being open to contestation is not easy, and requires a special kind of commitment in the age of online politics, when we are pushed into responding to the views we disagree with by anger and contempt -because that’s the way to do something in the allotted word-count which will get your response “shared” widely.

If we are not all to be driven into the ground by cycles of accusations, and counter-accusations, we must learn to be “minimally civil”. It’s an interesting idea.

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