Power Part IV: Who Sides with Baby Killers?
Those who focus on identity rather than actions.
NOTE: This is a supplement to the series on power in light of the horrific attack by Hamas terrorists on Israeli civilians. It is not part of our regular Wednesday morning series. The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Living Fossils.
This post addresses a question that many people have asked in the aftermath of the attacks: How could anyone condone, support, and even celebrate atrocities like murder and rape? I have seen this question asked in particular by Jews who—before the attack, at least—called themselves leftist progressives. More than a few people, for instance, have expressed confusion about why organizations such as Black Lives Matter—which many progressive Jews supported and marched with—now celebrate the slaughter of innocents, especially Jewish innocents in the Jewish homeland.
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I wish to be candid and say that while I do not practice any religion, I identify as a Jew. I think my ideas here should stand or fall on their merits, but I also recognize that some will question my bias.
With that throat clearing, recall the key distinction that I drew in a prior piece on power. I distinguished two ways that people choose which side to take when a conflict emerges:
Identity-focused side taking: When a third party to a conflict chooses who to support and who to oppose by focusing on the identities of the combatants.
Action-focused side taking: When a third party to a conflict chooses who to support by focusing on the actions of the combatants in the current conflict. This strategy requires choosing impartially, ignoring the identities of the people in conflict.
The attacks in Israel illustrate these two decision processes in action. Most people in the world—the third parties to the conflict—focused on the actions taken by the disputants. Anyone using this strategy sides against Hamas for slaughtering innocent people. For instance, people in Iran—known as allies of Hamas—showed that they sided against Hamas by shouting down those waving a Palestinian flag at a sporting event. They illustrate how choosing sides by actions requires impartiality. Moreover, people using this strategy care about the facts of the matter and seek to know exactly what happened and what the evidence shows. That is why many people are troubled over whether to make images of victims public, balancing the importance of showing evidence against the privacy and dignity of the victims.
However, people do not only choose sides based on actions. They could instead choose sides based on the identity of the disputants. In the current assault on Israel, the people who side with Hamas and against Israel are choosing sides based on identity, while disregarding the actions of Hamas. Accordingly, these people are less interested in the facts of the matter because for them the facts—the actions—aren’t relevant.
Now, recall that people who focus on identity usually claim to be concerned with actions. Everyone says, “I am choosing this side because the other person did this.” This is why supporters of Hamas’ attack call it fighting for freedom or revenge for occupation. This essay is not the place to address such claims. The key point is that no matter what strategy someone is actually using, they will almost always claim to be opposing the side whose actions are the most morally wrong. They rarely, if ever, say “I’m siding with this person because they are a member of such and such a group.” For this reason, you have to look at the facts and their decision to determine which strategy—identity or action—they are using to choose sides.
My point here is a simple one. The present case is just so obvious—arguably no case has been more obvious since 9/11—that no one could choose sides by actions and end up siding with Hamas. The recent attack is as clear as can be that people siding with Hamas must be doing so because of the identity of the attackers. They are clearly not judging the actions of the two sides as they unfolded since October 7, 2023. No one could look at these actions and come to the conclusion—if they are judging impartially—that Hamas committed no wrongs.1
Why the Surprise?
Now, the question I want to address is not why some people chose the Hamas side. My interest is why many people were surprised by the support for Hamas coming from their supposed allies on the progressive left. For instance, one viral post from a well-known leftist organization glorified the Hamas attack with an image of a paraglider representing the terrorists who massacred people at a music festival.
The surprise partly comes from the fact that people who focus on identity always claim to focus on actions. They therefore appear to stand on principles and ethics. These claims refer to actions such as discrimination, a history of oppression, and the taking of land.
However, the key piece to notice is that the progressive ideology is deeply rooted in identity. Identity forms the core of the movement and animates its policies and slogans. Their slogans are exactly not the slogans of classical liberalism, to do with due process, equal protection, and equality under the law. The identity slogans are about particular groups. The lives of one racial group are the ones that matter in conflicts with police. The people to be believed are members of one sex in conflicts with members of the opposite sex. To remedy past wrongs, the people descended from one particular group must be removed or excluded from curricula, positions of power, and so forth.2 The progressive movement is often called identitarian, correctly reflecting its relentless focus on identity, the groups to which individuals belong. This focus is not hidden. It animates the movement itself, including its slogans.
The progressive movement, therefore, clearly espouses what I have referred to as an identity focused regime. Note that a similar regime is found in slogans such as, “From the river to the sea,” another identity slogan saying that people of a particular group should be removed or killed in one particular place. The key to unlocking whether an idea emphasizes identities or actions is to attend to whether the idea points to how to treat a group or how to judge actions impartially.
Another key is that those focused on identity are not very interested in the facts when a dispute arises. Regardless of the facts, they already know what side they are on. Is one disputant part of one or more groups seen as historically oppressed? Then take their side. Nonetheless, as always, they will cite an action as the reason for their position, knowing that only these reasons will persuade people who do not share the same loyalties.
This cover is often effective, which is why many people are surprised to see leftists support Hamas. Moderates on the left thought their political team had at least some regard for actions. They were misled by a rhetoric of actions that partisans commonly use as cover for their identity prejudices. Recall that even the Third Reich accused the Jews of wrongful actions to justify their genocide.
Finally, people are surprised for another reason which is, in my view, the most important one and cannot be over-emphasized. People do not understand the fundamental distinction between choosing sides according to identities versus choosing sides according to actions.
Loyalty to identities is not a strand of justice but rather a rival strategy that undermines justice. In this case, loyalty to an identity overrides the most basic human ethics against murder and rape. Confounding justice with identity is like confounding trade with bribery. They may appear superficially similar but one is fair and the other is corrupt.
When people see support for Hamas’ actions, I often see them argue that whatever harms the Palestinians have suffered, they do not justify the attacks. That is true, but to me it misses the point. The issue isn’t whether the historical harms over decades or centuries justify the attacks. The point is that nothing could justify such attacks. The correct response to supporters of Hamas is to ask, is there any action they could take that would lead you to side against them for that action? I think it’s clear that if there were anything at all, surely this would be it. And if there is literally nothing that they could do that their supporters would consider wrong and punishable—leading to siding with their victims—then these supporters have simply abandoned the justice of actions in favor of a loyalty to identities.
The language of progressivism contributes to the confusion. For instance, the term “social justice” sounds like it is concerned with actions. After all, “justice,” as conventionally understood, focuses on actions and is impartial, treating everyone the same. This is why the embodiment of the idea, Lady Justice, wears a blindfold. She doesn’t care who you are, your identity. She focuses solely on your actions. Her scales symbolize how she weighs the actions taken.
Social justice as practiced by the progressive left is precisely the opposite. Just imagine if the same brutal attack occurred between groups of the same identity, say Hamas against Hamas or American whites against American whites. Would they still support the murderers? The idea is absurd. Their choice of sides shows that they have taken off the blindfold and thrown away the scales.
In fact, their commitment to identity without justice is illustrated by their exaggerated outrage at minor offenses by people with the wrong identities. As the satirical Babylon Bee aptly put it in a headline, “Harvard Student Leaves Lecture On Microaggressions To Attend ‘Kill The Jews’ Rally.” Minor offenses—“micro” is the right word—trigger harsh condemnation and macroaggressions from progressives when someone from an historically powerful group acts, even accidentally, in a way that puts them into conflict with a member of a favored group. Calling commitments to identities a kind of “justice,” a term that stresses actions, obscures what progressives are really committed to.
Another source of linguistic confusion is the term ally or allyship. People view allyship as good, even “moral.”3 However, to be a good ally is to choose sides in conflicts not by judging actions but based on identity. If your friend intentionally harms another person without provocation, to be a loyal ally is to side with your friend despite their wrongful action (as I discussed in the opening vignette in Part III on power). A good ally ignores actions and chooses sides based on loyalty. The emphasis on being a good ally has convinced many people that doing so is morally good, without noticing that it requires unjustly ignoring the actions of the disputants, and often feeling virtuous in doing so.
Additionally, identity apologists sometimes pretend that someone—or some group—should be judged based on their actions, but that the history between groups should be “considered” or “taken into account.” But that’s the usual cover for favoring identity allies. As seen among the supporters of Hamas’ attack, history is not only “taken into account.” Instead, they consider only history—their version of it—and disregard all of the actions that were taken.
This is the essence of choosing sides by identities.
Moments Without Empathy
Given the foregoing, the progressive support of Hamas is not in the least surprising because it is consistent with progressives’ commitments to identity. Nonetheless, how could these commitments override the basic human sense of compassion for brutalities inflicted on innocent people? The answer is that the psychology of moral condemnation and revenge can turn off empathy. A deep aspect of human nature is, usually, to feel automatic empathy for those who are harmed, especially vulnerable individuals such as children and animals. However, another aspect of human nature is that empathy can be interrupted under certain circumstances. Often, this interruption is binary: it is not reduced, but removed entirely. Empathy is interrupted when the other person is a member of a rival coalition—as evidenced by Hamas’ allies expressing joy rather than sorrow over the rapes and murders—when the other person is viewed as having committed a moral wrong—even if it is a small one—and, of course, if the harm was a product of revenge. Once empathy is suspended as a result of these processes, people are, in a word, vicious. Without the dampening effect of empathy, people are capable of the most horrendous acts, as we have just seen. Moralists and avengers become, temporarily at least, psychopaths and sadists. And, in terms of third parties, their empathy for the victims can be inhibited as well out of loyalty to the perpetrators or other reasons. Once people believe that someone who is harmed “deserved it,” there is often no end to the cruelty they are willing to countenance.
Implications of Identity Strategies
I previously warned that choosing sides by identities can be “disastrous.” When I wrote that, I could not have contemplated the horror that would subsequently unfold. It is possible that organizations such as Hamas engage in these sorts of despicable acts in part because they believe that there are many third parties who will back them based on their identity—and, to be sure, the identity of their victims, Jews—no matter what they do. All the signals sent internationally—from governments, institutions of higher learning, or other prestigious organizations—might reinforce this belief and, to my way of thinking, increased the chance that such attacks would—and will—take place. Related, the focus on identity is likely to divide Western support as some stick to their focus on identity in choosing sides.
Miscarriages of justice—actual justice, not “social justice”—will continue as long as there is broad and deep support for choosing sides by identities. The gruesome terrorist attacks by Hamas have shown many people that supporting progressive causes encourages loyalty to identities, which reliably results in the abuse of power under the cover of the favored identities.
Identitarian loyalties empower people to act without regard for morality or justice so long as they are on the side of a privileged identity, without concern for the consequences they would face if judged by their actions.
“Moral judgment” really is the idea that we choose sides by looking at the actions of the parties to a dispute, ignoring their identities. Identitarian commitments are the opposite of this and are, in word, immoral.
I am not going to indicate the acts here. They are well covered by the international press and, especially, on social media. I probably should be explicit about the full scope of the loathsome acts, but I find I do not have the stomach to set the words down.
“Intersectionality” doubles down on identities by combining the different groups to which one belongs to determine which identity combinations should be favored.
Jon Haidt, who is among the best known for work in moral psychology, considers loyalty (and its opposite, betrayal) to be one of the foundations of morality. I view this as a category error for the reasons discussed here: loyalty is the opposite of choosing based on action, i.e., moral judgment. Please see my work with Peter DeScioli for additional detail.