My wise ex-teacher Jeff Weintraub asks whether I really wish to endorse (see http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2005/08/kitten_blood.html) the:
specific formulation you quoted approvingly from... Lindsay Beyerstein... that there are "very, very few" westerners "who make excuses for brutal theocratic thuggery." [That] doesn't hold up under serious examination. Instead, it's the kind of polemical overstatement that slides into its own form of absurdity and outright... and, I suspect, it amounts to a distortion and trivialization of what you yourself actually believe. OK, perhaps she really meant to say something else, and just didn't get around to refining this formulation.... But if we take this claim seriously as stated, then I would have to say to anyone who found it plausible--I know people who do, and I read others--that they are describing a different planet from the one I'm living on.
Jeff lives on a planet on which he sees many Westerners "who defend the Iraqi insurgents, or at least justify their actions as being a supposed campaign for self-determination, allegedly justifiable rage at Western misbehavior, and so on." He proposes a list of people he thinks fall into this group: "Ken Livingstone, Naomi Klein, Nathan Newman, Michael Burawoy, anti-Orientalists... a lot of people whose stuff I read in obscure fringe publications like the Nation, the Guardian, the New Statesman."
I think I do agree with Lindsay Beyerstein. But I do agree that I need to think about these issues much more deeply than I have done so to date.
I think I live on a planet on which I think I see relatively few such Westerners who "defend... or justify" or excuse. I don't think that many of those whom Jeff regards as "defend[ing]... or at least justify[ing]" the brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombings wrought by Iraqi insurgents or by the favored children of Yasir Arafat are in fact defending or justifying. I think that they are explaining.
What's the difference? Let's back up to Niccolo Machiavelli, who started a form of argument that we fall into quite naturally these days. This form of argument starts with the assumption that we--the writer and his readers--are rational analysts and moral agents who care about consequences and understand what good states of the world would be. We are trying to figure out what to do in order to bring about as good a state of the world as possible. Outside this charmed circle of writer and readers, however, is everybody else. We do not think of the people who make up "everybody else" as rational analysts and moral agents. We analyze them as stimulus-response zombie-automata, who act in certain predictable ways when circumstances push certain of their buttons. We consider them "as they are, and not as we would wish them to be." Most of the consequences of our actions are the reactions they induce in other people. Thus key to figuring out how we should act is to understand what their hot buttons are, and how we can push the right ones to generate the reactions that we want to produce the consequences we desire.
Now things quickly get complex. One important button for us to push is to appeal to their belief that they are moral agents, and urge them to be their best selves. Another important button for us to push is to convince them that we are not rational analysts and moral agents who care about consequent states of the world, but are instead ourselves zombie-automata motivated by honor or revenge or pride--"we will never negotiate with the terrorists!" Explanations tend to leak into moral judgments and so become excuses because of our tendency to grade not on results but on effort: "Given who they are and where they were brought up, we should give them credit for their decision not to burn but only imprison witches." And when the charmed circle within which we demand moral agency is drawn not around us but around them, truly perverse conclusions follow. (Consider Noam Chomsky, who condemns the U.S. government and Israel but nobody else. The U.S. government and Israel are moral agents to be scorned and condemned for their failings. Everybody else... well, they're just reacting to stimuli and there's no point in judging them.)
Nevertheless, the underlying conceptual distinction is clear. We are trying to be our best selves, and are making moral choices. They are pre-wired and are reacting to stimuli. What are the right actions for us depends critically on what their internal wiring from buttons-to-actions happens to be--we take other people as they are, and not as we wish them to be. And for us to act in a way that predictably produces bad consequences because they act like the people they are rather than the people we wish them to be--that's a moral failing on our part.(1)
Where explaining crosses into justifying--or excusing--is when you go on to say not just "we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences" but also to say either that "in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives," or that "given their circumstances, we cannot condemn them for not being their best moral selves." Where I sit, I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral, or even that it is unfair to blame brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers for not being their best selves.
Where I sit, I see considerably more Westerners trying to spread ignorance by condemning explanations which they dislike as "excuses."
(1) Of course, their failure to be their best selves--who we wish them to be--is a fatal moral failing on their part.
I think it would be a good idea, in principle, for you to post something along these lines. The issues are important, and you're right that they underlie a lot of moral and political debates, blogospheric & otherwise. So they deserve more careful attention, and it would be useful and enlightening for you to deal with them.... [But] you... [need] to complexify and refine it a bit, precisely because the issues are important--and also, in some ways, more complex than either you or the (mostly right wing) people who were the polemical targets of the "Kitten Blood" post present them as being....
(1) I think [you present] my own position... in a slightly misleading way... in part because it eliminates some conceptual and empirical distinctions I tried to make, and conflates some of my points that are related but not identical....
(2) Even in terms of presenting your own argument, including the key distinction on which it's based--i.e., between "explaining" a phenomenon and "defending" or "justifying" it (or, I would add, straightforwardly endorsing it at one pole and absolving, whitewashing, apologizing for, and/or making excuses for it at the other)--I think you will want to refine and complexify your analysis a bit. (This is quite aside from whether or not, or how much, I think I will agree with your argument in the end.)...
In my humble opinion, the alternatives as you currently present them are misleadingly oversimplified, both conceptually and empirically (let me emphasize, not just oversimplified, but substantively misleading).
You want to make the point that there is, in principle, an analytical difference between "justifying" and "defending" certain phenomena (including terrorism, mass murder, dictatorship, torture, jaywalking, failure to wear seat belts, plagiarism, student cheating, systematic lying by the Bush administration, murdering abortion doctors, etc.) and merely "explaining" them. I agree completely, of course, and it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. (OK, there are all those epistemological/axiological arguments about whether the fact/value distinction can really be made to hold up, and there's something to those arguments, but in the present context we shouldn't get too persnickety.)
However, it is also true that there are different ways to "explain" things. While it is certainly correct, and worth saying, to point out that NOT ALL analyses presented as "explanations" are always or necessarily identical to justifications, it does not logically follow that NO "explanations" (or pseudo-explanations) are intended to serve as justifications, apologies, or extenuations... or that they don't wind up being close to identical in practice, even when the people making such arguments aren't entirely aware of the conceptual slide themselves.
I believe it was Madame de Stael who said that to understand all is not to pardon all. But the reason she took the trouble to say this is that many people DO believe that once you have "explained" something it is no longer possible to judge or condemn it, so that in practice an "explanation" falls somewhere between an excuse, an apology, or an outright justification. This is especially true when such a strategy of extenuating "explanation" is applied to SOME people, groups, actions, or institutions... but not others. Then what is going on falls somewhere between fallacy and hypocrisy, or some combination thereof.
Nor is this a purely hypothetical or uncommon phenomenon. I would go so far as to say that it pervades journalistic & blogospheric discussion on certain issues, on all sides... so thoroughly that it's almost difficult to decide on specific examples. Over the past year or so, Norman Geras (for example) has gone through the tedious process of identifying a large number of examples and analyzing the pseudo-"arguments" involved to demonstrate where and how these particular fallacies manifest themselves. (Just a few of the most recent examples are http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/mccarthyism_at_.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/roots_of_steele.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/asking_the_righ.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/kens_unfair_bal.html http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2005/08/apology_and_its_1.html... but let me emphasize that these are NOT at all the most significant or penetrating examples, just the ones that happened to be most recent. So if these particular examples don't convince you, Geras has dozens more from the past few years.)
At all events, in order to adequately address the issues that concern you, it is conceptually insufficient and misleading to rely exclusively on a simple binary distinction between "explanation" and "justification... or even between pure-explanation-without-justification and deliberate "explanation"-as-justification. There are a lot of intermediate steps between these two ideal-typical poles--and they happen to capture most of the actual debates in question, so that the binary distinction you want to use, while potentially a useful and clarifying opening step in a polemical response to simplistic attempts to equate all analysis with apologia, becomes a misleading (and even ideologically mystifying) false dilemma if it is used to shut out all the actual forms that most of the real arguments take.
(For example, consider the following possibility in purely conceptual terms. A typical fellow traveler--not a CP member--says in the 1930s about Stalinism in the Soviet Union:
Well, of course I think murdering millions of people and suppressing civil liberties isn't nice, and it would be false and despicable to suggest that I condone it in any way. At the same time, we have to recognize that Stalinist industrialization works, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs... and, anyway, it's clear that all the excesses of this process are completely explained--I'm just explaining them, not justifying them--by the effects of capitalist encirclement, anti-Communism, the need to suppress Trotskyite wrecking, etc.... and anyway, what about the history of western colonialism, the oppression of negroes in the US south, and other distracting subjects that I can multiply indefinitely? Superficial moralism is all very well, and I used to be a little uneasy myself about all those stories I heard about concentration camps and the rest, but I have just explained that everything happening in the USSR is necessary and inevitable, however regrettable... and it wouldn't be happening at all if world capitalism would just be good enough to curl up and die. So if anyone actually criticizes, condemns, or opposes Stalinism in the Soviet Union, they ought to be denounced as naively destructive at best, and in most cases as objectively fascist. And anyone who accuses me of justifying dictatorship, mass murder, and political repression is either confused, or else a liar who should probably be sued for libel. All I've done is to explain why everything that's going on--and maybe it's not really going on, anyway--is necessary and inevitable.
I'm not asking whether you think these quite typical kinds of arguments were factually valid and/or moraly defensible. I'm simply asking whether you think someone who offered these arguments was "making excuses" for the crimes of Stalinism, or "defending" them, or even perhaps "justifying" them. If your answer to all three is no, then we have a real disagreement--but frankly, I find the possibility that you would actually deny the undeniable in this case quite non-credible.)
(3) Regarding the argument you are trying to develop in order to draw the key distinctions ...
Where explaining crosses into justifying--or excusing--is when you go on to say not just "we have pushed their buttons in ways that have, predictably, generated bad consequences" but also to say that "in acting as they have, they have been their best selves and acted from praiseworthy and moral motives." I see very few Westerners crossing that line. I see many arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being (predictably) human, and that we ought to recognize that people will be human in calculating what we should do. I see very few Westerners arguing that brutal theocratic thuggist terror-bombers are being moral.
This is intriguing and has interesting possibilities, but I also think it still needs some work. Even after it's refined a bit, I think I'm still not going to agree that this is the most appropriate or illuminating way to draw the line--conceptually, factually, or morally. (The criteria for "justifying" here is so demanding and exclusive that, in my humble opinion, it obscures the real isues rather than clarifying them.) But that's not my main point here at the moment. Even in its own terms, I think you want to reformulate your argument a bit to convey what you really have in mind. More on this later ...
(4) And then in empirical terms, I think you need to take more account of the fact that while pure-explanation-without-justification-or-moral-extenuation is certainly possible in principle, and sometimes even an accurate description of what specific people are doing in concrete cases, the mere fact that someone CLAIMS that this is what they're doing (or that third parties, on their behalf, claim that this is what they are doing) is not sufficient, by itself, to immunize them from criticism. In the real world, ideological polemics don't work that way. In some cases, claims of this sort are genuine and valid. In other cases, they are more properly described as examples of logical fallacy, bullshit, self-deception, and/or outright dishonesty. If you appear not to have noticed this distinction, that will simply weaken the force of your argument, and make it easier for the pseudo-moralists of the loudmouth right to dismiss the valid criticisms you are making. And once this distinction is recognized, it requires some argument to plausibly support the idea that certain of the people I mentioned really belong in the first category rather than the second. (In a lot of cases, as I noted above, Geras has established pretty conclusively that they belong in the second category, so it might be worth considering his painstakingly accumulated pile of examples. I think I've demonstrated that in a number of specific cases, too, by the way ... but not in such a thorough or painstaking way, or in a way that focuses so tightly on these specific issues.)
By contrast, I think (rightly or wrongly) that the blanket absolution you are currently offering does no service to our understanding of the realities of the situation or of the genuine issues at stake....