When None Dare Urge Restraint, pt. 2

In the origi­nal When None Dare Urge Res­traint post, Eliezer dis­cusses the dan­gers of the “spiral of hate” that can de­velop when say­ing nega­tive things about the Hated Enemy trumps say­ing ac­cu­rate things. Speci­fi­cally, he uses the ex­am­ple of how the 9/​11 hi­jack­ers were widely crit­i­cized as “cow­ards,” even though this vice in par­tic­u­lar was surely not on their list. Over this past Me­mo­rial Day week­end, how­ever, it seems like the ex­act mir­ror-image prob­lem played out in nearly text­book form.

The trou­ble be­gan when MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted* that he was un­com­fortable with how peo­ple use the word “hero” to de­scribe those who die in war—in par­tic­u­lar, be­cause he thinks this sort of au­to­matic valor at­tributed to the war dead makes it eas­ier to jus­tify fu­ture wars. And as you might ex­pect, peo­ple went crazy in re­sponse, call­ing Hayes’s com­ments “rep­re­hen­si­ble and dis­gust­ing,” some­thing that “com­mie grad stu­dents would say,” and that old chest­nut, ap­par­ently offered with­out a hint of irony, “unAmer­i­can.” If you watch the video, you can tell that Hayes him­self is re­ally strug­gling to make the point, and by the end he definitely knew he was go­ing to get in trou­ble, as he started backpedal­ing with a “but maybe I’m wrong about that.” And of course, he apol­o­gized the very next day, ba­si­cally stat­ing that it was im­proper to have “opine[d] about the peo­ple who fight our wars, hav­ing never dodged a bul­let or guarded a post or walked a mile in their boots.”

This whole epi­sode struck me as par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing, mostly be­cause Hayes wasn’t even offer­ing a crit­i­cism. Soldiers in the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary are, of course, an un­touch­able tar­get, and I would hardly ex­pect any at­tack on sol­diers to be well re­ceived, no mat­ter how grounded. But what gen­uinely sur­prised me in this case was that Hayes was merely say­ing “let’s not au­to­mat­i­cally ap­ply the sin­gle most val­oriz­ing word we have, be­cause that might cause fu­ture wars, and thus fu­ture war deaths.” But ap­par­ently any­thing less than max­i­mum praise was not only in­cor­rect, but offen­sive.

Of course, there’s no short­age of ra­tio­nal­ity failures in poli­ti­cal dis­course, and I’m ob­vi­ously not in­tend­ing this post as a poli­ti­cal state­ment about any par­tic­u­lar war, policy, can­di­date, etc. But I think this ex­am­ple is worth men­tion­ing, for two main rea­sons. First, it’s just such a text­book ex­am­ple of the ex­act sort of prob­lem dis­cussed in Eliezer’s origi­nal post, in a purer form than I can re­call see­ing since 9/​11 it­self. I don’t imag­ine many LW mem­bers need con­vinc­ing in this re­gard, but I do think there’s value in be­ing mind­ful of this sort of prob­lem on the na­tional stage, even if we’re not go­ing to start ar­gu­ing poli­tics our­selves.

But sec­ond, I think this epi­sode says some­thing not just about na­tion­al­ism, but about how peo­ple ap­proach death more gen­er­ally. Of course, we’re all fa­mil­iar with af­ter­lifism/​”they’re-in-a-bet­ter-place”-style ra­tio­nal­iza­tions of death, but la­bel­ing a death as “heroic” can be a similar sort of ra­tio­nal­iza­tion. If a death is “heroic,” then there’s at least some kind of silver lin­ing, some sense of jus­tifi­ca­tion, if only par­tial jus­tifi­ca­tion. The movie might not be happy, but it can still go on, and there’s at least a chance to play in­spiring mu­sic. So there’s an ob­vi­ous temp­ta­tion to la­bel death as “heroic” as much as pos­si­ble—I’m re­minded of how peo­ple tried to call the 9/​11 vic­tims “heroes,” ap­par­ently be­cause they had the great courage to work in build­ings that were tar­geted in a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

If a death is just a tragedy, how­ever, you’re left with a more painful situ­a­tion. You have to ac­knowl­edge that yes, re­ally, the world isn’t fair, and yes, re­ally, thou­sands of peo­ple—even the Good Guy’s sol­diers! -- might be dy­ing for no good rea­son at all. And even for those who don’t re­ally be­lieve in an af­ter­life, fac­ing death on such a large scale with­out the “heroic” mod­ifier might just be too painful. The ob­vi­ous prob­lem, of course—and Hayes’s origi­nal point—is that this sort of death-anes­thetic makes it all too easy to numb your­self to more death. If you re­ally care about the prob­lem, you have to face the sheer tragedy of it. Some­times, all you can say is “we shall have to work faster.” And I think that les­son’s as ap­pro­pri­ate on Me­mo­rial Day as any other.

*I apol­o­gize that this clip is in­serted into a rather low-brow at­tack video. At the time of post­ing it was the only link on Youtube I could find, and I wanted some­thing ac­cessible.