On respectability cascades
From the River to the Sea 'is subject to various interpretations'
This week Andy McDonald became - as far as I know - only the second MP in history to get in trouble over a speech involving rivers. In his case it was the Jordan, the Middlesbrough member losing the whip after telling a rally ‘We won’t rest until we have justice, until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.’
McDonald’s offence was to use a phrase uncomfortably close to the slogan ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, which has long been a common refrain at protests, not just by British Muslims but by white leftist sympathisers, some of whom are such foreign policy specialists that they can’t name the river in question. (As an aside, I wonder if this ignorance perhaps reflects the decline of religious literacy, since I suspect that a century ago most British people would have been able to answer the question ‘what is the river in Palestine?’)
The phrase has been around since the 1960s and originated with the PLO, but today its actual meaning is disputed. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has called it ‘a deeply offensive chant to many’ and Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said it ‘should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world’.
But many sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would deny that. US politician Rashida Tlaib says that ‘From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.’
An explainer in the Guardian cited Palestinian-American writer Yousef Munayyer, who argued that it was merely a way to express a desire for a state in which ‘Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them.’
Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned broadcaster, quoted Nimer Sultany, a law lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who said it meant ‘the need for equality for all inhabitants of historic Palestine’.
On the other hand, Yehudah Mirsky, a rabbi and professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, told them that ‘To Jewish Israelis what this phrase says is that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, there will be one entity, it will be called Palestine – there will be no Jewish state – and the status of Jews in whatever entity arises will be very unclear.’
That feeling is obviously widespread, and I think it’s fair to say that, while some use the phrase to mean aspiring for some sort of a Palestinian state or in a single entity in which Israelis and Palestinians live together in harmony, others clearly don’t.
European authorities seem to be unclear: the Germans and Austrians, for instance, have banned rallies for using the slogan, but Novara Media report that the Dutch courts have ruled it ‘subject to various interpretations’ and therefore protected.
(Incidentally, some Israelis have been known to use the phrase too, although I think it’s fair to say it’s nowhere near as popular there.)
The sentiments about aspirational freedom may well be true, and to me what McDonald said seems fine, a call to some sort of peaceful co-existence between the two sides.
On the other hand, I suspect that most people using the phrase don’t have in mind the continued existence of a Jewish state, and personally if I was campaigning for a Palestinian homeland in peaceful co-existence with Israelis, and loads of maniacs and religious extremists who wanted to commit mass murder were also using the same catchy slogan, I’d probably find something else to chant.
Perhaps it’s an example of the problem Scott Alexander called respectability cascades — how ideas and phrases can lose credibility if they become associated with people viewed as bad, mad or low-status. This is a problem far more commonly affecting people on the Right, because the Left has more control of taboos and language. However, just as pro-Palestinian leftists are now learning that cancel culture is a real thing, so they also suffer from the social impact of respectability cascades.
When I did pre-med in college, I learned physiology from a distinguished professor whose focus was herpetology – the study of reptiles and amphibians. His pet issue was endocrine disruption – hormone-like pollutants that were changing the sexual maturation of frogs and other animals, and which were suspected to have deleterious effects on humans. He made us read a bunch of papers on this, all of which demonstrated a clear scientific consensus that this was a well-known environmental problem and all the respectable environmentalists and herpetologists were concerned about it.
After college I went about a decade without thinking about it. Then people started making fun of Alex Jones’ CHEMICALZ R TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! shtick. I innocently said that this was definitely happening and definitely deserved our concern, and discovered that this was no longer an acceptable thing to talk about in the Year Of Our Lord Two Thousand And Whatever. Okay. Lesson learned.
We can imagine a world where endocrine disruptors proceeded the same way gay rights did. A few distinguished scientists sounded the warning in acceptable elite language to other elites, but they were a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Then 0% respectable conspiracy theorists took to Twitter to make all-caps posts about TURNING TEH FROGZ GAY!!! At first they were roundly despised, but a few 10%-respectable people saw the taboo was broken and joined in, and then 20% respectable people saw the taboo had weakened even further, and so on. Finally, the cascade catches up to members of Congress, who ban the polluting chemicals. The distinguished scientists thank God for sending Alex Jones to accomplish what they could not.
But in this world, my impression is that the scientists were making slow-but-non-zero progress, doing really good work, and then Jones’s adoption of the cause destroyed it. Now it’s much harder for the scientists to convince anyone to care, because caring has become a signal that you’re a conspiracy theorist or otherwise a disrespectable person. Jones hasn’t just failed to contribute to the fight against endocrine disruptors, he’s shot it in the foot. My professor should send him a private email asking him to shut up for the good of the cause, and to leave the issue to people who can wage it non-counterproductively, ie 100% respectable elite scientists.
Endocrine disruption had fallen down the respectability cascade and therefore it wasn’t acceptable to discuss the issue — even though it was clearly (probably?) true.
Alexander followed this up with another post on ‘hyperstition’, ‘a belief which becomes true if people believe it’s true.’ That is, if enough people believe a phrase is associated with a particular (unworthy) position, then it will become so.
“All lives matter” is a hyperstitious slur. Taken literally, it’s an inoffensive sentiment, perhaps the most inoffensive one. My impression is that for the first week of its existence, it was mostly meant inoffensively, used by nice elderly people who thought it was a friendly amendment to the Black Lives Matter slogan. But once the media successfully convinced everyone that it was a racist attempt to erase black lives in particular, and that people would scream at you if you used it, then the only people who kept using it were ones who cared so little about BLM’s opinion that they didn’t mind - maybe welcomed - being screamed at. I think use of All Lives Matter had very low - maybe 51-49 - correlation with political opinion the first week it was in use. Now it’s probably 99-1.
Images can be hyperstitious slurs. Forty years ago, most people with Confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars were probably proud Southerners not trying to make a statement about race. Now if you still have a Confederate flag bumper sticker on your car, you’re either making a statement about race, or deliberately thumbing your nose at the prevailing signaling equilibrium - which is itself a statement about race. The campaign to turn the Confederate flag into a slur successfully turned it into a slur; its use now incurs much more suspicion (correctly incurs, in a purely Bayesian sense) than it did forty years ago.
Actions can be hyperstitious slurs; consider eating at Chick-Fil-A. If enough people who care about gay rights boycott them, then eating there actively signals that you’re defecting from the boycott and must not care about gay rights very much. On the other hand, if only a small fraction of people who care about gay rights boycott it, then eating there doesn’t signal anything and it’s fine. If anyone ever credibly said “eating at Chick-Fil-A is a strong defection from the gay rights cause” and everyone believed them, there would be a stable equilibrium where nobody who cared about gay rights ate at Chick-Fil-A. But as long as people don’t believe that, it’s fine.
There are obviously anti-Semites and Hamas sympathisers among the millions of people who feel strongly about this cause, and some of the scenes of naked racism against Jews have been very disturbing; but conservatives should be wary about linking a reasonable idea (support for a Palestinian state) with obviously extreme and dangerous political positions, just because the tribal markings appear similar. After all, this is a line of attack often used against us. Having said that, it is also in the interests of moderates in any movement to distinguish themselves from more sinister elements by altering their language, and even abandoning certain familiar phrases, even if they might seem reasonable to them and they feel it’s unfair to do so. After all, words mean what most people think they mean.