The strange case of the “something worse is happening somewhere else” moral defence

A bizarre article in the Washington Post titled ‘The ugly effort to boycott Israel’ caught my eye the other day. The motivation of this article was explicit from the title; it was part of a growing tide of fightback against the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement that is aiming to coordinate global action against human rights abuses in Israel. The movement employs the same tactics used successfully against the apartheid regime in South Africa; that expressing moral outrage by withdrawing money from the offending regime can force them to make positive changes to their human rights situation.

There are of course many, particularly within Israel, who dismiss the movement as anti-Semitic, like every other criticism of Israel that has come before. However the Washington Post was not claiming this, but instead employing what I have inarticulately dubbed the ‘something worse is happening somewhere else’ moral defence. This defence is employed frequently to defend immoral action, from discrimination against women to stealing, and at its heart holds a very weird and nonsensical premise. It can often be articulated as “what I’m doing might be bad, but look at what they’re doing”. The argument goes: because this isn’t the worst example of this happening, we shouldn’t take action, or even care. We should move our focus elsewhere.

Let’s use this article as an example of this nonsense moral stance, in three stages. The argument goes:

  1. Of course Israel abuses human rights! The author is “outraged” by the settlements policy. He “agrees” that he “doesn’t like the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank”. He thinks “religious parties have far too much influence and that the government is too right-wring and opportunistically anti-Arab” (or racist, as most would call it). He describes some Israeli policies as “repugnant”. “Israel has flaws” he says, to put it mildly.
  2. But the problem is: other people commit human rights abuses, and some of the human rights abuses they commit are worse. The author uses the examples of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, I’d like to point to Burma, Iran, China, Iraq… I could go on and on.
  3. Because of this, BDS is wrong.

 

This weird illogical process makes very little sense for several reasons. Firstly, the BDS movement targets Israel exclusively because that’s what movements tend to do: target specific causes. The author’s strange logic dictates that all groups should be criticising all problems equally at all time, instead of having a focus. Why are women campaigning against domestic violence also not criticising cruel animal testing? Why do those combatting child abuse also not condemn murder?

There are of course human rights organisations that do criticism all human rights abuses; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are two such global organisations that criticise Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The author’s argument also implies that because a problem is not as serious as another problem we should not do something about it. Why do people advocating the rights of women in the UK not get over it, because some women are worse off elsewhere, the logic dictates. The author claims that “no one attempts to isolate Egypt, or for that matter, Saudi Arabia”. I’d like to draw his attention to the following human rights organisations that do just that; in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He is more than welcome to join the campaigning of either. There are frequent calls for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the end to arms sales and general moral outrage at their behaviour. No-one in the BDS movement is claiming the Israel is the only human rights abuser, as this article implies, and many are also involved in campaigns to end human rights abuses in other places (I myself am one of these people).

In a nutshell, the article has made a series of very sensible points, mixed in with some not-so-sensible ones (a sentence about Israel’s “splendid aspirations” is particularly galling). Israel does commit “repugnant” human rights abuses, it correctly claims. So do other countries. This is all perfectly reasonable but the conclusion is totally bizarre. Cohen has made an excellent argument, but it’s not an argument against the BDS movement. The sensible conclusion to his argument is that we should also be boycotting Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And that’s not something anyone in the BDS movement would argue with.

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