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Thursday, August 25, 2005

The continuum of good and bad

I have been guilty of taking a binary approach to far too many issues in my life lately.  I think it's one of the reasons I'm so stressed all the time.  In my world, something is either good or bad... sacred or profane... I or 0.  Binary. 

There are so many things in our world that are so clearly good or bad that we have little problem defining them in binary terms.  For instance, who would argue with the statement:  Terrorism is bad... charity is good?  Easy one, right?  That kind of question is as basic as the two positions on a light switch.  On or off... there is no middle position.

But perhaps we need to shake ourselves loose from the idea that the switch has only two positions.  Maybe even such easy questions require a dimmer instead of an on-off switch to answer properly.

Allow me to muddy the waters a bit:

Hamas is technically a charitable/social welfare organization that is tasked with providing necessary services to the Palestinian population.  True, many, if not all of these services are supposed to be provided through the staggering amount of money that the International community continues to dump into the big slot machine known as the PA.   But part of Hamas' popularity among the people on the street comes from their ability to deliver many of these services when nobody else will. 

Obviously their sponsorship of, and direct participation in attacks on Israel make them quite popular amongst a segment of the Palestinian population as well. But the fact that they are also involved in charity work is a simple proof that the most basic assumptions of good and bad that I mentioned earlier are not really such perfectly binary choices.

Let's go to the other end of the spectrum for a moment. 

To many, the International Committee of the Red Cross represents all that is right in the world... the pinnacle of what is meant when we say 'Good'.

If someone is taken prisoner, who do you call to go in and make sure they are not being mistreated?  The Red Cross.  If a tornado cuts a swath through your trailer park or your house is washed away in a flood, who is there within hours bearing blankets, food and a ride to a warm shelter?  The Red Cross. 

In fact, my parents were recently in a bit of a bind after my mother broke her arm in a canoeing accident on the mill pond behind their house.  My mother is the only driver in the house (my father is legally blind) so they were effectively stranded.  So the local Red Cross chapter arranged a driver to take mom to her doctor's appointments and physical therapy sessions! 

This should be a clear 'check' in the 'good' column.  Correct?

Well, the International Red Cross' reputation has taken a few hits over the years.  They refused to intervene on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust, and this remains a big black mark against them.  Since that time they have been dragged a little further down the good-bad continuum in the eyes of many people because of their refusal to recognize and accept Israel's Magen David Adom (MDA, or the Red Star of David, is Israel's 'version' of the Red Cross-type national organizations) into the international organization. 

The International Red Cross recognizes all of the other national chapters of the Red Cross.  Even after they had voted in 1949 (in a secret ballot) to refuse recognition/membership to Israel's Red Star of David organization, they quickly went on to officially recognized more than 25 chapters of the Red Crescent Society (the 'version' that exists in the Muslim world), as well as the red crescent symbol. 

Inexplicably, over half a century later the ICRC still refuse to even consider recognizing the Red Star of David.  The official reason is that the Jewish Star is not one of their symbols. 

Really... I'm not making this up. 

The Red Crescent wasn't one of their symbols either, but once the ICRC accepted it, it became one their symbols.  So in a bit of circular logic, by not accepting the Red Star of David they are providing the only reason for excluding the entire Israeli MDA and it's good work from membership in the international organization! 

Obviously Hamas and the the ICRC are still light years apart on the good-bad continuum, but my point remains that in nearly everything we see as either 'good' or 'bad', there are shades of gray... settings along a dimmer instead of an 'on-off' light switch.

As Israelis and Jews, we hate that we are judged quite subjectively by elements and events that we don't consider at all representative of who we really are.  Yet we have little trouble taking a very simplistic/monolithic and, yes, subjective view of others. 

We label The UN, 'The Arabs', the ICRC, The Olympic Commitee and even the other countries in the Eurovision song contest as either 'good or 'bad'... I or 0.

Are we the only complex society in the world?  Are we the only ones who deserve to be judged only by our 'good' attributes? 

We cried foul when the Arabs wouldn't accept 'Jewish blood' from us when their own emergency blood supply ran dry.  They could only see Israel/Israelis as either good or bad... so the 'good-bad' switch remained firmly in the 'off' position. 

Yet I won't buy so much as a plum from a Palestinian fruit stand 5 minutes from my house because I can't differentiate between the good and bad people within their society. 

How different is it that they fear we might give them tainted blood... and we fear they might attack anyone who stops to shop in an Arab village?  Before anyone attacks my analogy with statements like, "But we have never given anyone tainted blood, while they have killed innocent shoppers in Arab villages", let me remind everyone that they no longer hold the monopoly on terrorism.  Tainted blood is only one way to kill an enemy... and we no longer have the right to say that Jews/Israelis don't act that way.

I am not quite emotionally ready to go looking for the 'good actors' among the societies that have sworn to destroy my tiny country.  But intellectually I know that such people must exist.  I need only look at my own society to see plenty of nut-cases and extremists (on the left and right), as well as good, altruistic, brilliant people, to prove this to myself.

Many of Israel's PR problems, and our own perceived position along the world's good-bad continuum, stem from the fact that we demand that the world look at us as a whole.  "We are Israel... see us as a whole and accept us as we are!"  But you have to admit, there are parts of that 'whole' that are not particularly 'good'.  Perhaps we need to make fewer excuses for the bad actors in our own midst so that the good becomes unmistakable.

I'm not saying that we need to be 'even handed' (I hate that term), and place everyone fairly in the center of the 'good-bad continuum'... some people and actions deserve the judgment/placement they have receive.  I'm simply saying that we may need to look more closely at the factors by which societies deserve to be defined before assigning a relative good-bad rating.  Maybe we need more 'sort-of-good' and 'pretty-bad' in our rating system.

Maybe we need to consider installing a dimmer where there is currently only an on-off switch.


Posted by David Bogner on August 25, 2005 | Permalink


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insightful as always. ive got to say ive only been here about 3 weeks so far, but already my on and off switch has become a dimmer. there are so many sides to everything, no black and white, and im beginning to think that those who think in black and white need to reevaluate their thoughts.

Posted by: Lisa | Aug 25, 2005 1:15:19 PM

In addition to installing a dimmer, maybe we ought to recognize a society's progress too? Going from really dim to half-lit is a great thing, even if being half-lit is not where we want to remain.

Every social group is imperfect, and admitting that imperfection and an intention to improve is, in my opinion, essential because it acknowledges the acceptance of reality.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Aug 25, 2005 2:03:03 PM

There has been no good in the Eurovision song contest since "Land of Milk and Honey" and "Abba".

I'm fairly new to this region of the blogosphere and I have to admit that I was a little bit worried by the emotion that was rising to the surface (understandable given the recent events and their meaning to different people). This post was however truly outstanding, at least from the perspective of this lefty liberal who has always believed not that we are all equal but that we all deserve to be viewed with open eyes and an open heart - quite a challenge really but one worth attempting.

I must have to say though that it is a shame that you haven't tried the Palestinian fruit. As they less frequently use the high tech methods of Israeli farmers (greenhouses, sophisticated fertilizers etc used to provide volume and a fast turnaround) the growth is slower and the flavor is frequently absolutely excellent. The chefs in the Presidents house even use Arab cold press olive oil (trust me I know), phenominal and the best I have ever tasted.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 25, 2005 4:46:06 PM

Hard feelings don't just disappear overnight. What you said makes sense to me.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 25, 2005 5:00:14 PM

Lisa... If you learn nothing else during your time studying here your trip will have been worthwhile! BTW, it is really a shame that you are studying within walking distance of my office and we still haven't met! We'll have to fix that.

Steve... I appreciate the sentiment, but I'm less willing to give people or countries a good mark simply based on progress. That is something like grading on a curve... and it is unfair to those who work harder at being 'good'.

Lisoosh.. After I wrote my entry about 'forbidden fruit' a friend pointed out to me that many of the Palestinian farmers use pesticides that have been banned in much of the civilized world for their toxicity and effect on wildlife. It may be a matter of pure economics (black market stockpiles of the stuff must be dirt cheap), or it may be that the banned pesticides just work better and damned the consequences to the environment... but I now have a new reason to be wary of that plum. Thanks for the compliment, though. :-)

Jack... Hard feelings don't even begin to describe the animosity on both sides (some warranted and some not). But we can't do all our driving while looking in the rear view mirror.

Posted by: David | Aug 25, 2005 5:20:32 PM

What a bummer.
I don't think I will say anything to my very Jewish Moroccan in-laws who LIVE to eat Arab lamb chops either. They're old - let them enjoy themselves.

Posted by: lisoosh | Aug 25, 2005 5:51:04 PM

so lets fix it, you know where i am! dinner one night, shabbas are just depending on the week. id love to hear more insight

Posted by: lisa | Aug 25, 2005 5:58:28 PM

But we can't do all our driving while looking in the rear view mirror.

Nah in Israel they are too busy talking on the phone and making obscene gestures at other drivers, which is why it was easy for me to fit right in. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Aug 25, 2005 7:34:38 PM

This is, without question, the blog entry that I have enjoyed reading the most on your site. Thank you, for thinking the thoughts and for sharing them.

Posted by: nrg | Aug 25, 2005 8:13:25 PM

David, sorry that my words were not clear enough. I didn't mean for it to come across as grading on the curve or being happy with mediocrity. Every society should clearly strive to be good. I just think that if progress is recognized, it's more encouragement to keep improving.

If a failing student takes a 'C' grade to his parents, that's a very good thing. It's good that he's no longer failing, but he needs to keep working towards that 'A'. If we tell him not to bother us until he can come back with an 'A', then I think he's less likely to have the motivation to get there at all.

Similarly, if a society makes improvements in morality, human rights, peace, etc then we ought to applaud that, and follow it up with expectations for further improvement. I think that failing to recognize a society's achievements could very well lead it to believe the effort to improve is not worthwhile.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Aug 25, 2005 8:58:56 PM

This reminds me of the t-shirt:

"There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those that understand binary, and those that don't."

Seriously, though, I recently wrote about something similar here:


I guess the difference for me is that I would say that perhaps instead of a dimmer, I'd recommend more, but smaller lights. Although I think I'm stretching the metaphor way too far...

Posted by: Dave | Aug 25, 2005 9:26:11 PM

There's another joke:

The world is divided into two kinds of people, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't.

(I have more thoughts on splitting the spectrum into it's opposite poles, but no time....)

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 25, 2005 10:58:41 PM

Well, new feelings about the Red Cross here. I had no idea. This was a very, very good post. Makes me think that you should be writing articles for magazines or some such. Thanks.

Posted by: JC | Aug 26, 2005 6:10:44 AM

David, you are not entirely wrong to have a binary approach to some of these issues Nobody said it would be easy:
True…Israelis/Jews are not perfect.
True…That you need to have a more open-minded understanding of some people, events, organizations and other issues affecting your religion, community etcetc

But some of these people, events, and organizations deserve to be branded ‘black’ regardless of their efforts because they do more harm than good. The Red Cross and Israeli MDA (speaks for itself especially here in Africa) for instance, exemplify more good than harm and end up deserving a shade of grey if not white.
Hamas! on the other hand allow me to slip into the mud Black, 0, “off”, no questions asked!!!

Posted by: kakarizz | Aug 26, 2005 8:16:25 AM

Lisoosh... Probably a good plan. ;-)

Lisa... I will shoot you an email early next week. Looking forward to it.

Jack... The Ayalon... the 405... same difference, right?

nrg... Therefore it can only go downhill from here! Don't you hate it when a blog 'jumps the shark?' :-)

Steve... I know what you meant, but in human terms it is hard to give a country an 'attaboy' when they have gone from public beheadings to 'only' caning and cutting off hands. The same can be said for going from directly engaging in terror attacks and simply using proxies or sponsoring terror attacks. Some things don't earn a gold star no matter how much of a relative improvement they might be.

Dave... I read and enjoyed that post when you published it. It also made me giggle becasue of another blog called 'Occam's toothbrush' whose name just kills me every time I think of it. Thanks.

Doctor Bean... Feel free to elaborate when you have more time. I guess that would qualify as a drive-by comment. :-)

JC... It wasn't my intention to bash the Red Cross (although this bias against the MDA is maddening), but rather to point out that not everything is black or white. Most everything is some shade of gray.

kakarizz.. Let me play devil's advocate for a moment: What if you were a Palestinian parent of a critically ill child who couldn't get a vital medicine because the PA had diverted all the donated stores of this life-saving medicine to the black market and had pocked the proceeds. Along comes Hamas and gets you the necessary doses... no questions asked. It not only saves your child's life, but he makes a complete recovery. In this very narrow focus, Hamas isn't all bad is it? Now don't get me wrong... I still think Hamas is about as far down the good bad scale as one can get becasuse of its terrorist activities. But there is a small sliver of good that they do. So what value do you place on that?

Posted by: David | Aug 26, 2005 1:58:41 PM

David - if you don't mind me adding something to your response to kakarizz. Apart from the straightforward issue of Hamas Good/Bad there is also the issue of Palestinian support for Hamas. When we hear that X% support Hamas, how much of that is based on the social services Hamas provides as opposed to supporting actual terror attacks? Isn't it a relief to think that maybe some of the numbers aren't that frightening, that if they received the services they require from their own government, support for Hamas would fall? Doesn't that give hope? And doesn't that help us to deal with the situation in an intelligent manner - give us a way to cut off the support Hamas receives in the community at large? Cut off their supply of indebted people? It may not stop terror but it might make the organization more manageable.

Posted by: Lisoosh | Aug 26, 2005 3:43:53 PM

David, I agree very much with where you're going here. I rarely see things as black/white. My relationship with my Palestinian coworker is an example of this.

There is a spectrum, and as long as you understand what that means, that not everything falls smack in the middle, that there is no moral relativism, that some things really are mostly bad, then it's ok to look at things that way.

Re: Hamas. The Mafia does a lot of good things too, right? They provide jobs for out of work gansters, they're good to their 'families,' they provide a neighborhood authority. Would you say these are redeeming qualities and the FBI should stop fighting Organized Crime? A little good should never wipe out a whole lotta bad.

Posted by: psychotoddler | Aug 26, 2005 11:38:10 PM

What you say is true - but life would be so much easier if it were black and white. I think that always looking at the other person's side might be an important enterprise but it leads to a lot of confusion and unhappiness along the way.

Posted by: houseofjoy | Aug 28, 2005 2:46:34 AM

Lisoosh... Mind??? That's what this comments section is here for! Thanks!!!

Psychotoddler... Just so we're clear... I wasn't trying to bolster support for Hamas here! I was simply pointing out that there are those who might have cause to see Hamas a something other than pure evil. Lisoosh makes a couple of interesting points worth reading.

House of Joy... I agree with you for the most part, but... (you know where this is going, right?)... I think a lot of our unhappiness stems from our own worldview. For instance, if you look carefully we are really dealing with a bully (actually several of them) here in this part of the world. Most of the ther kids on the 'playground' are loyal to one bully or another because that bully keeps them out of trouble and even beats up the people they don't like very much. Right now most of us are looking out at the entire playground and seeing nothing but bullies when this is neither accurate nor helpful. What we need to figure out is how to make the bully's protection obsolete (or even counter-productive).

Posted by: David | Aug 28, 2005 11:48:58 AM

I have to admit I am confused. I actually went back and looked through your old posts to see if I could understand your take on the political situation here in Israel. I seem to see pro-disengaging but anti-disengagement, combined with kick the butts of anyone who hurts us.

What does it mean to "make the bull's protection obsolete (or even counter productive)"


Posted by: houseofjoy | Aug 28, 2005 8:56:55 PM

House of Joy... I'm a puzzle, I know. :-) Basically I was grudgingly pro-disengagement, but I did not approve of the way Sharon savaged all due process to make it happen. I also did not approve of doing it unilaterally or under fire (the latter was yet one more thing Sharon promised he would not allow). I am a humanist in that I know for a fact that the Palestinians are human beings and deserve to have all the life, liberty and happiness that I do. But I also strongly believe that everyone has free will and must at some point be made to take responsibility for the choices they make and the policies they celebrate. I firmly believe we are at war with the Palestinians and need to come up with an official doctrine for fighting this new kind of war. The Geneva Convention and international law do not have any provisions for fighting against an army that wears no uniform and respects no laws... yet this is the army we face. Therefore we need to finally say the hell with it and come up with a new doctrine of war. G-d knows the rest of the world will have to adopt it for their own struggle against militant Islam sooner or later.

So there it is... still confused? :-)

Posted by: David | Aug 28, 2005 9:46:18 PM

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