This is a cross-post by Professor Richard Landes of Augean Stables


Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society.

Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop. Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth (no matter how convinced they might be of their “Truth”), can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence. Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making, can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

But self-criticism is difficult, especially if it takes place in public. Public admission of fault can provoke a powerful sense of humiliation, and involves an obligation to cease the erroneous behavior and attitudes. Most people actively dislike admitting error, fault, or failure, and will go to great lengths to avoid public concessions. We all develop elaborate means to protect ourselves from such public shame and obligation, by rationalizing or finger-pointing at some other party whom we try to coerce to take responsibility for the problem, either by manipulating public opinion or using force. The extreme expressions of such efforts to avoid responsibility involve scape-goating and demonizing, in which the sacrifice of the assigned “guilty party” is necessary to cover our own refusal to admit any fault.

And yet, self-criticism can become a valuable acquired taste. All positive-sum outcomes depend on some degree of willingness, if only implicitly, to admit fault, to share the blame, and to make concessions to the other side. Without self-criticism and its accompanying learning curve, there is little progress. Hence progressives rightly emphasize self-criticism.


In some cases, however, self-critical progressives can take this strategy so far that they fall into the trap of taking most or all of the responsibility for something when it is not primarily of their doing. To some extent, this unusual generosity reflects the notion that it takes a “big man” to admit fault, and that if we progressives are stronger, we should make the first, second and even third moves of concession and apology, in order to encourage those with whom we find ourselves in dispute.” Combining inflated rhetoric with a therapeutic notion that the disadvantaged should not be held to the same exacting standards (moral equivalence) leads one to fall into self-critical pathologies.

In the most extreme cases, we encounter Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome (MOS): “it is all our fault; and if we can only be better, we can fix anything/everything.” This hyper-critical attitude can be seen with particular clarity in the response of some progressives and radicals to both the 9-11 attack in 2001 in the US, and the 7-7 attack in 2005 in London. For many, “What did we do to make them hate us?” trumped “What are they telling themselves that makes them hate us so?” In a sense, the very preference for the former question underlines our desire to be in control. Maybe we can fix what it is that we do to them, so they’ll not hate us so. Maybe even, they’ll like us.

At some level, this hyper-self criticism operates as a kind of prophetic rhetoric: by inflating the sins, by self-flagellating, one hopes to whip the offending Western party into changing their behavior, a kind of public shaming designed to provoke so much outrage and guilt as to change the situation. When the head of Amnesty International compared Gitmo to the Gulag, the comparison was of course grotesque in its moral equation of Gitmo with one of the most repressive and murderous regimes on the historical record, but Irene Zubaida Khan justified the comparison on rhetorical grounds:

    “What we wanted to do was to send a strong message that … this sort of network of detention centers that has been created as part of this war on terrorism is actually undermining human rights in a dramatic way which can only evoke some of the worst features of human rights scandals of the past,” she said. “I don’t think people have got off the hook yet.”

While one can debate the value of such rhetorical moves designed to create a sense of drama, one must at least become aware of the significant distortions in perception it can lead to. The tendency to hyper-self-criticize leads to a kind of moral self-absorption in which one loses any sense of the other side of any conflict as moral agent. Any attempt to put matters in perspective by comparing gets dismissed: “I refuse to judge myself (us) by their standards.” This kind of thinking undergirds both PCP1 and PCP2, indeed one can gauge the passage from the more moderate to the more extreme thinking precisely in terms of the degree to which self-criticism becomes, like Freud’s tyrannical super-ego, vindictive and destructive.

But the real tragedy here comes with the unconscious racism involved in such a moral argument. The proponents of such thinking fail to grant the “other side” any moral agency. “Their behavior is entirely reactive, a response to our bad deeds. If only we would stop, they would stop.” This approach, which gives us, among other things, the current policy of appeasement in the West, also operates on assumptions that the “other” — in this case, the global Jihadis and the Muslim cultures from which they draw their recruits — are not autonomous moral agents. In other words, they, like animals, can’t help themselves. Hence, we make no moral demands on them, indeed, we lower ourselves to their moral level with our equivalences.



However one feels about this hyper-self-critical discourse, one should at least acknowledge the role of a therapeutic inflation that makes for extremely bad history. When one looks at all the forms of imprisonment that cultures have designed for people they identify as enemies, Gitmo is not the Gulag, not even in the same league, not on the same planet. Similarly, the only traits that Israel and the Nazis share, every other sovereign culture in the recorded history of mankind also shares… indeed, when viewed in the context of history, Israel is unquestionably the least Nazi-like state in the long history of cultural conflicts resolved by violence. As a result, the last thing that a sober analyst — as opposed to an enthused activist — wants to do, is read the situation in the light of this rhetoric of therapeutic inflation.

Observers trying to resolve matters to everyone’s advantage, should, when examining evidence from the Middle East, always consider the source. They should never forget how much, normally, people dislike self-criticism and how much they will do everything to avoid it. All zero-sum outcomes depend to some degree on the ability of one side to impose its blame on the other (they deserve to lose). In tribal warrior cultures, there is no need for such arguments since the basic understanding of all the tribes is “my tribe is right or wrong,” and “plunder or be plundered.” But even the most educated, evolved, and enlightened people can fall into the game. No one likes criticism, a fortiori, public criticism.

This purely human reluctance to self-criticize highlights an element of Jewish culture that most outsiders do not really understand, and that leads to a marked misreading of the Middle East conflict. In the comparative history of self-criticism, Jewish culture is probably the most self-critical. Jews are commanded to rebuke each other and to listen to that rebuke. Jews invented prophetic rhetoric. The Ethics of the Fathers (compiled ca. 200 CE) invoke as one of the traits of a great Torah scholar, “lover of rebukes” (6:6).

The ability to both give and take criticism — admittedly one of the most difficult acts of dialogue in the human repertory — constitutes one of the keys to Jewish survival through millennia of oppression, to Jewish self-deprecating humor, and to the dramatic success of Jews once modern civil societies adopt fair rules: equality before the law. One might even argue that Jews, unlike any other culture, so thrive on their ability to self-criticize that some Jews actually can become addicted to self-criticism.

And so, not surprisingly, among nations, the Jewish nation — Israel — has produced among the most self-critical sovereign cultures on record, certainly when one takes into account the behavior and attitude of its neighbors. Under conditions that lead other sovereign entitites to shut down dissent and move to “martial” law, Israel has maintained an extraordinarily vibrant discourse of self-criticism. Post Zionist historiography is impossible to understand without this framework.

Nothing contrasts more with Israel’s culture of self-criticism than its belligerent neighbors, especially the Palestinians. Here we find one of the most aggressive zero-sum political cultures on record. They accept no responsibility for the war they wage, and justify all their behavior — including how they treat their own people — as a response to the Zionists. They demonize the Zionists with conspiracy theories and blood libels drawn from the most delirious of European anti-Semitic fears to inspire their victimized people to take arms against this malevolent enemy. Who could self-criticize when being assaulted by such merciless and powerful forces? Self-criticism under such conditions is unthinkable, and dissent is treachery. The exceptional number of Palestinians killed by Palestinians suggests a culture in which intimidating dissenters and eliminating traitors is the norm.

Our understanding of the Middle East conflict suffers from a peculiar twisting of the dynamics of self-criticism. As a result, many people do not understand the nature of the rhetoric they hear and, assuming it all comes from the same “place” — no one likes to self-criticize — mis-interpret the information they get. In the case of the information coming from Israel and the Palestinian or Arab media, for example, much “even-handedness” has insisted that the Arab media is every bit as reliable as the Israeli, and vice-versa, that Israeli media can be as dishonest and propagandistic. From one perspective it would seem obvious and straightforward to distinguish between the unusually self-critical Israeli press willing to air its disagreements publicly and the exceptional reluctance of the Palestinian press to express serious criticism of their own side, to allow any dirty laundry to go public. And yet, a wide range of highly intelligent and well-informed people tell us the exact opposite.

Even-handedness demands that we give both sides a hearing. If the Palestinians start shouting about tunnels under al Aqsa and rioting, and the Israelis deny that there are any tunnels, the media presents this in terms of what each side claims. No mention of the ridiculous nature of the accusations — that would be to judge! — nor of the violent contempt with which Muslim building projects in Solomon’s Stables violated every norm of civilized behavior and destroyed precious sites of knowledge.

As a result, for uninformed observers, the Middle East conflict may seem bewildering. If one presents the “refugee problem” in terms of “both sides,” and you get your typical self-critical Israeli to speak, you get Israelis taking 50% of the responsibility, while the Palestinian spokespeople will put 98% of the responsibility on the Israelis, largely using and citing the self-critical Israelis to make their points. The uninformed comes out thinking, “Okay, so Israel’s about 75% responsible/guilty.”

In order to understand this problem, one must understand a critical cultural issue: civil societies thrive on self-criticism, and authoritarian ones thrive on scape-goating and demonizing. To take the “narratives” from both sides as equally legitimate (or worse, to primarily trust the demonizing narrative from the authoritarian side because they are “losing” the battle with civil society), is to make critical category errors. In the battle between a totalitarian society and a democracy, “even-handed” approaches will always favor the totalitarian state. Rather than appreciate the value and difficulty of self-criticism, reward it, and encourage it on the other side, it punishes the self-critical and rewards the demonizers.

Instead, one needs to factor in the role of demonizing and refusal to self-criticize not only in producing the narratives we hear about the problem, but also in the creation and exacerbation of the problem itself. In the history of nations and ethnic disputes, normal response of a culture faced with the behavior of Arab elites and their genocidal discourse and war plans in 1948, would have been massive return massacres by the victorious enemy against whom they had declared so merciless a war. Thus, if one places the Palestinian refugee problem on the vast the panorama of such ethnic disputes — even ones contemporary to it (like India and Pakistan, 1948) and ones contemporary to us (Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan) — the blame for its insolubility seems to reside primarily, overwhelmingly, with the Arab elites.

By not holding them responsible, by approving their lethal narratives, by affirming their boundless sense of entitlement, by justifying their rage and violence, the West has nurtured a monster… Global Jihad. Only by understanding the dangers of their hyper-self-criticism will Westerners at once learn to respect themselves, and show respect for Arab and Muslim culture by demanding minimal levels of self-criticism from them. Only then will the destructive combination of demopaths and their dupes be broken.


To explore this subject of Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome further Professor Landes has a highly recommended post here.

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14 replies »

  1. This perceptive essay is essential background to understanding of the Middle East.

    Reader comments reflect the unwieldy mass of information they receive against Israel and are unable to evaluate through not having the necessary tools. Readers often feel safe in accusing Israel of acts impossible for any moral people to carry out The world’s media accepted with alacrity the Jenin ‘massacre’ blood libel based on Israeli anxious self-accusation and fulsome apologies and Palestinian straight out lies. This was a case where facts could be ascertained and although the UN after examination admitted that the charge of massacre was a lie and that Israel had sacrificed soldiers’ lives to protect the Arab populace there are people still so convinced by their own prejudices that they refuse to give up their cosy ‘proof”of Israel’s guilt. Fisk, the reporter, does this and so do commenters on CIF, notably Berchmans, Moeran and Papalagi.

    Despite having this parallel example before them the scandal of the Goldstone Report is still accepted by the unsophisticated and the prejudiced. Perhaps Prof Landes’s essay would teach them to realise their misconceptions and their preconceptions but I wouldn’t bank on it.

  2. Self-criticism, self-hate, Jewish anti-Zionists : it all sounds very familiar.
    But there comes a point when I ask myself, how much more am I supposed to understand and empathize with my enemies?

    Arabs are Arabs and Jews are Jews, that’s all you need to know. There’s nothing racist in stating a plain truth : Israel is a democratic and civilised country, whilst the Palestinian Arabs are rejects from the surrounding Arab countries where civilisation and democracy are in very short supply. The Arabs routinely use propaganda, lies and deceit in their war against Israel. Any Westerner with an ounce of common sense must know that, so it takes a lot of dishonesty, naivety, or brainwashing to favour the Palestinian cause over that of Israel. Antisemitism is always useful, too.

    Let’s hope that by the end of 2010 our enemies are more miserable than we are.

  3. Another fundamental article for anybody trying to understand the Arab Israeli conflict and the role the media plays in it. Perceptions are key when talking about the “man in the street” whether that’s in the US, the UK, France or Japan. One of the first observations you’ll often hear from people that don’t understand the conflict is the fact that there is no lack of Jews or Israelis that are very critical of Israel, which often translates into support for these arguments, for if the Jews and Israelis are critical of these policies, then they must be true, right?

    This fabulous article by Mr. Landes provides very important background to this most central of influences on public opinion on the Arab Israeli conflict, whether it deals with the Lebanese, Hamas, Iranians, or any else.

    This is another of those articles that should be circulates as widely as possible. Its an aspect of human perception and touches on the media’s reporting, and will cause all of its readers to think twice about their perception of the conflict, particularly after the manner of reporting of the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza.

  4. airplay

    Arabs are Arabs and Jews are Jews, that’s all you need to know. There’s nothing racist in stating a plain truth : Israel is a democratic and civilised country, whilst the Palestinian Arabs are rejects from the surrounding Arab countries where civilisation and democracy are in very short supply. The Arabs routinely use propaganda, lies and deceit in their war against Israel. Any Westerner with an ounce of common sense must know that, so it takes a lot of dishonesty, naivety, or brainwashing to favour the Palestinian cause over that of Israel. Antisemitism is always useful, too.

    No. there are simply too many who don’t fit the mold anymore especially those that have grown up in the horrible Western Liberal Democracies and recognise abomination for what it is. They reject much of what the religion of their parents tells them. Their problem is that they are pretty devoid of influence in the Arab/Muslim world which is being flooded by extremism.

    And there are plenty of extremist Jews who, to an entity observing us from space, would seem exactly the same as the extremist Muslim. The fact that Jewish extremists are a very small percentage of Jews generally may not be noticed by those ‘observers’. The fact that the influence of these extremists on Jewish culture and politics may be registering as very minor in the sum total but it is there.

    Muslim extremists control whole governments in some Arab countries. Iran, Saudia and Afghanistan before the US liberated it. In other Arab countries, they have tremendous influence on Government decisions. (Egypt).

  5. Richard – this paragraph pf yours nails it, IMO:

    “From one perspective it would seem obvious and straightforward to distinguish between the unusually self-critical Israeli press willing to air its disagreements publicly and the exceptional reluctance of the Palestinian press to express serious criticism of their own side, to allow any dirty laundry to go public. And yet, a wide range of highly intelligent and well-informed people tell us the exact opposite.”

    One of the best comments ever made by Bill Maher, who is a supporter and rational critic at times of Israel, is that we in the liberal and sane left-wing sections of Western society have to learn – again – to accept that “different” does not mean “equal”, and sometimes we simply have to accept that some things are “better”.

    Israel’s open media, much as I dislike some of the perverted commentary of people like Gideon Levy or Amira Hass, is not merely presenting a “different’ view from the Arab media – it is largely showing everything, warts and all, rather than trying only to present the face that someone has decided will be most appealing from a PR perspective.

    The idea that there is a need to “balanced” in every reportage, even when it is painfully obvious that the views presented by one side are clearly fabrications, half-truths, or designed to mislead has led to a dumbing down and devaluation of the news, except for those targeted by these deceptions who are looking for authoritative reinforcement of their views,

  6. Apologies, I sent my post before I had finished it.

    Prof Landes points up very well the tendency of Arab/Muslim societies to externalise blame and to believe that others are the cause of their difficulties. This may well be due to Arab/Muslim child rearing practices which use shaming as a means of discipline and corporal punishment. Muslims in these societies grow up fearing to question or to be seen to be different from their peers.

    The following, from “The Trouble with Islam” at http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/2008/09/the-trouble-with-islam-part-i.html#more , echoes Prof Landes’ arguments:

    “..Islam in its current fundamentalist versions, does not support the kind of self-criticism and self reflection that is a sine qua non of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Since the Koran is the definitive word of Allah, understanding of the book requires rote learning with almost no room for speculation and personal discovery. In the West, although there is certainly a large and revered body of literature which attempts to explain and explore G-d’s will, few pretend to know his will, while all can strive to understand it and move closer to it. Questioning authority is an aspect of the Judeo-Christian ethic that has become part of the West’s secular religion. Islamic authority operates in a very different manner. Although there is no central authority in Islam, ethics are determined by a charismatic leader whose words take on the force of law for his followers. Ethics are thus imposed rather than part of an organic understanding of the world and one’s place in a community. Along with the Honor-Shame dynamic, there is no religious framework that can be internalized for the control of shameful impulses. By definition, shame only occurs when the community finds out about the shameful act while guilt occurs in the absence of anyone else but the guilty party’s conscience. Note, the source of shame is external for a Muslim, there is no shame unless he has been seen to be shameful, while the source of guilt is internal in guilt based Western cultures…

    Muslim children are not encouraged to introspect or to self-reflect. Critical thinking is actively discouraged, which means that they cannot reality-test their ideas and concerns with others for fear of being cast out or otherwise shamed. There may be violence or other abuse. Such children may well turn into adults who lack empathy and who are impulse-driven without having any language for or awareness of their own feelings and therefore lack the capacity to form mutualistic in depth relationships.

    This last is, I believe, why they are so easily able to use their women and children as cannon fodder (in Gaza and Lebanon) – their children and wives are two-dimensional objects in their world.

  7. Mitnaged. That is a nice concise possibility that explains the Muslim Mindset.

    I have noticed that any references to ‘Muslim Mindset’ of CI(F) are deleted very quickly. One wonders if apart from BellaM, the other ‘moderators’ are Muslim. Such is the sensitivity of CIF to ‘Muslim sensibilities’.

    One thing that I have noticed. Muslims in academic institutions throughout the evil Western Liberal Democracies seem to do very well and no field is without its Muslim researchers. Let us hope that they soon have their ‘reformation’. I am sure that many of them cannot wait for it to come.

    An example of the Muslim Mindset. Our Neighbor and Why We Have to Kill Him

  8. Hello, Mitnaged, good points about how Muslim children’s development may be affected by their culture and religious imperitives.

    I note that neither Prof Landes nor yourself mention the role of locus of evaluation in the development of societies which follow people who shout the loudest, and whose members seem not to be able to think for themselves:

    Western societies tend to privilege the development of an internal locus of evaluation. People are actively encouraged to think independently and to argue their point of view. Children thus reared tend to develop into adults who are not herd followers, can think for themselves and can tolerate being disagreed with because they have a sound sense of their own values.

    Islamic societies are authoritarian and rear their children by imposing their will on them. Islamic societies are comprised of people who hold an external locus of evaluation because such societies they are shame- and honour-based and rely upon these to control their people. Children reared in these circumstances rarely, if ever, are able to make contact with their true selves and achieve the psychological congruence necessary for normal development.

  9. There’s a bit too much ‘self-criticism’ from certain people and countries, and not enough of it from other places.

    A bunch of people who ‘self-criticize’ constantly should really consider stopping, because frankly it doesn’t actually help them, and just helps other people criticize them more.

  10. I’m tired off waiting for the urgently needed reform of the ‘Muslim mindset’ by Western Muslims. They are obviously too nervous to speak out against the backwardness of their Muslim culture which prevents their co-religionists in the Middle East from living in peace with Israel or the West.

    Political correctness is self-defeating and dishonest.
    Jews have bent over backwards to understand their enemies. Our enemies know that we are too humanitarian and that the IDF will do almost anything to rescue a missing soldier. They will respect us more when they lose the next war and Israel has expelled Hamas into Egypt.

  11. Fairplay

    Our enemies know that we are too humanitarian and that the IDF will do almost anything to rescue a missing soldier.

    Yes. And that earns us the respect of the civilized world.

    I would have loved to see Chechen women and children gathering on the open roofs of buildings or crowding in front of ‘freedom fighters’ when the Russians were attacking Grozny. Somehow it didn’t happen. It only happens when Muslims are attacked by Western Liberal Democracies.

  12. Jerusalem Mite,

    You live in Israel, don’t you? How is it that you have retained your Galut mentality? The respect of the civilised world is all very well, but Israel must first survive its most uncivilised enemies. Jews are most respected when they are meek and second-class citizens. Our enemies would respect strength and self-reliance even more than our humanitarian qualities.

    We are not taught to turn the other cheek and allow our enemies to attack us repeatedly. When we are kind to those who are cruel, we become cruel to those who are kind.

  13. Fairplay, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for “moderate” Muslims to influence their extremist brethren. They are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place:

    The main stumbling block to unequivocal condemnation may be the Islamic cultural imperative that a Muslim’s prime loyalty should be to the Muslim community, the umma, particularly when it is perceived to be under threat from outside.

    Also within the Islamic narrative are stories of those who betrayed the Prophet – the polytheists of Mecca who exiled him to Medina in 622 CE, which is when the Muslim calendar begins. Once in Medina, he accused the Jews of having betrayed him by not converting to Islam and by siding with his opponents in Mecca. In March, 627 CE, after the Battle of the Trench, (so-called because the heads and bodies of the slain were dragged into trenches), Muhammad imposed the ultimate penalty on the men in the Jewish clan of Qurayza – his third and final major Jewish rival in Medina – the beheading of all the Jewish males and enslavement of their women and children. The Qu’ran records this in Suras 33:25-27.

    A lifetime of Qur’anic teaching and a cultural narrative warning Muslims of the dangers of the infidels can inculcate a natural sense of suspicion and isolation, and also, most importantly, a natural sense of superiority. This is often made worse by a peculiarly Muslim sense of victimization. It has been argued that the Muslim mind is preoccupied by conspiracy theories and that Muslims often tend to believe that they are the victims of heinous plots hatched against them by their enemies (see Heggy, 2005 and Pipes, 1996),

    Being a Muslim places some unique pressures on the observant Muslim. One of them is an insistence upon loyalty to the Islamic community, the umma. The Qur’an constantly warns him of the evils of the mushrikun and kafirun and clearly states, in typically dichotomous, authoritarian and absolutist terms:

    Believers, do not seek the friendship of the infidels (kafirun) and those who were given the Book before you, who have made your religion a jest and a diversion. 5:56

    Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil their fate. 66:9

    So, the failure of “moderate” Muslims to speak out against Islamist extremism may not only be as a result of what you call nervousness on their part (although they stand to come in for a great deal of criticism, maybe even physical harm, if they persist). No, I believe that it is as a result of their being frozen and immobile and caught between doing what is morally right by distancing themselves from Islamist-inspired violence, and their commanded loyalty to their Muslim brethen no matter what.

    The Islamic narrative is dominated by the notion that a Muslim cannot and should not trust anyone other than another Muslim because all others will betray him. Reactions to alleged persecution may be exaggerated because they are a manifestation of persecutory anxiety and fear, and perhaps even an act of faith to convince their brethren of their solidarity so that they would not be cast out of the fold. The furore over the Muhammad cartoons was perhaps a deliberate and calculated manipulation of this fear of ostracism.