Hybris and the politics of condemnation

Somebody complained recently that I never condemn the Russian Federation for its actions, even when it’s obviously in the wrong. This isn’t entirely true. I have on occasion made critical comments. But it isn’t entirely incorrect either – I’m not a fan of the current fad of condemning foreign countries for all sorts of alleged sins.

In the first place, I tend to agree with the Gospel of St Matthew, which asks ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? …  Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ When it comes to foreign policy, I think it decidedly hypocritical for citizens of Western states to condemn others for the motes in their eyes, when we in the West have a bloody great big beam in our own. Once we have earned the moral authority to preach to others about international affairs, then perhaps we can start doing so. But right now, we can’t. We should sort our own affairs out first.

Second, there is already a surfeit of condemnation, much of it of an extreme nature. Adding to this surfeit would hardly be helpful. Somebody needs to be pointing out just how exaggerated a lot of the criticisms are, and thereby contributing to building better international relations. That is this blog’s purpose.

Third, moral condemnation often detracts attention from the real problems. I don’t see, for instance, how adding my voice to those condemning Russia for its support of the Donbass rebels would help solve the problems within Ukraine which produced the civil war in that country and still perpetuate it. On the contrary, it would merely encourage a false belief that the solution to that country’s difficulties lay entirely in coercing Russia. From a practical point of view, the politics of condemnation can be very counterproductive.

Given all this, why are the politics of condemnation so popular? To answer that question, I think it productive to turn to the ancient Greek concept of hybris.

Hybris is often misunderstood having meant simply arrogance. But as N.R.E. Fisher has pointed out in a book on the subject, it meant something more specific. Hybris, writes Fisher, ‘is essentially the serious assault on the honour of another … and the typical motive for such infliction of dishonour is the pleasure of expressing a sense of superiority.’ As Aristotle put it:

Hybris is doing and saying things at which the victim incurs shame, not in order that one may achieve anything other than what is done but simply to get pleasure from it. …. The cause of the pleasure for those committing hybris is that by harming people they think themselves superior.

Ancient Greeks put a great value on honour. Theirs was also an ‘agonistic’ (competitive) society, in which honour was measured in relative terms. There were, therefore, two ways to gain honour. The first was to display some great achievement, which would mark one out as better than others. The second, and far simpler, method was to humiliate other people. By pushing them down, in relative terms you pushed yourself up. This second method was the essence of hybris.

In his study of ancient Greek warfare, historian Hans van Wees has shown that the Greeks rarely fought for material benefits; they didn’t generally annex each other’s territories, conquer each other’s cities, or demand financial reparations. Inter-city conflict was about status. Consequently, there was a lot of hybris. City states would insult or otherwise seek to humiliate others, in order thereby to raise their own relative status. Those at the receiving end of hybris would invariably respond to the insult by waging war, the climax of which would be a shoving match between opposing phalanxes to prove which was the stronger city.

Modern international politics, I would suggest, isn’t so very different. The United States along with its NATO allies (the contemporary equivalent, perhaps, of the Delian League) has the greatest status in the world, but it feels that its relative position is under challenge. Western states therefore insult the potential challengers in order to dishonour them and thus reduce their status. This is the key to the politics of condemnation. We condemn Russia and Putin and throw all sorts of exaggerated insults at them not because it actually helps us achieve any practical results (in fact it probably hinders us) but because it gives us a smug sense of own moral superiority. It’s all about feeling good.

This is pure hybris. The insults serve no practical purpose other than giving the insulters the pleasure of feeling superior. But as the Greeks knew very well, the eventual consequence of hybris is nemesis – downfall. Those who insist on practising the politics of condemnation should beware.

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4 thoughts on “Hybris and the politics of condemnation”

  1. Ha, interesting. In my mind, this is a manifestation of manichean dualism, the eternal struggle of good and evil in the world. It’s a very common frame, very attractive, very typical for most religions and ideologies. At least in respect to their mass-appeal…

    Intellectuals (some, not all) may, of course, have more nuanced views, but the mass-appeal version, I believe, just has to tilt towards the side of manichean dichotomy… That’s just human nature…

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  2. A good President will do whatever is necessary to tone down the words.

    “We offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace; before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. A beachhead of co-operation may push back the jungle of suspicion. Let both sides join, in creating not a new balance of power, but a new world of law. Where the strong are just, the weak secure, and the peace preserved.” President John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address Jan. 20, 1961

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  3. Paul,

    I think this is a very fine post indeed. Unfortunately, having been tied up with other business, I have not had time to comment. But I hope that you will return to this train of thought in subsequent posts.

    The question of honour is interesting. I was fascinated by your observation that it was what the Whites saw themselves as fighting for, more than for any kind of concrete programme.

    In Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ – a much stranger book than is commonly realised – there is a fascinating discussion of honour, conducted by taps on the wall, between Rubashov – the Bukharin figure – and the White officer in the next door cell.

    Happy Xmas.

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  4. hybris, as I understand it at this moment [a work in progress] describes trump’s theory of campaigning, or at least much of his insulting behavior, and perhaps this resonated with those in US society that feel their position slipping away. cheers, nice post, got me thinking.

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