[For those who come here from a link at Fallows' Atlantic Monthly blog, please click here to get to my response to him.]
There’s been a serious brouhahahaha about John Stewart’s takedown of Egypt’s “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood President Mursi’s for imprisoning Egyptian fellow political satirist, Bassem Youssef for making fun of the president. The take down is pretty devastating – from a Western point of view, and even received an endorsing tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo (oops). The Tablet has a nice summary of some of the issues (HT: Elsie).
I’d like to discuss two honor-shame aspects to this affair, one obvious, the other less so, but both, I think, closely linked.
The first, obvious one, is the reaction of an honor-shame driven leader to having the mickey taken out of him publicly. Associating his own face with both his office and his religion, Mursi took the mockery as a direct assault on the legitimacy of the state. (Psychologists call this ego inflation.) This is classic behavior and explains, among other things, why fascists, who strive to regain the virility that modern values (like free speech) deny them, use the power of the state to suppress dissent.
Note the difference between Bush (Stewart’s target) and Mursi. Although even otherwise highly intelligent people could not stop accusing Bush of (incipient) fascism, somehow we can’t use the appropriate term “Islamofascism” because… it might hurt Mursi’s feelings.
The second aspect concerns one of Stewart’s “gotcha” moments. At one point he shows an earnest Mursi assuring an eagerly attentive Wolf Blitzer that when he’s president, he’ll embrace the whole Egyptian family, and wouldn’t dream of suppressing criticism. Stewart’s implication and our “reading”: what a ludicrous hypocrite.
Here I’d like to introduce an alternative reading. Mursi would not recognize himself as a hypocrite here. When he spoke with Blitzer he was perfectly sincere, and doing what he should do – please the audience by telling them what they want to hear. He was, to coin a term, “polishing his face” in the eyes of the West. In the West we would call this “lying to save face.” Had he told the truth, he would have lost face with his Western audience. But, as my father (definitely of the intergity-guilt school) often put it, “sincerity is the cheapest of virtues.”
However, when confronted with the painful experience of having his personal vanities mocked – the hat! – a different audience and different set of concerns, that cheap virtue proved unbearably light in the face of public mockery. My bet is that if you showed Mursi the interview with Blitzer and asked about Youssef, he wouldn’t see the connection. That’s not what he meant when he made his assurances to CNN and his American audience.
This kind of emotionally-driven dissonance between two different performances is a ubiquitous element of much Arab-West contact. (All of this, of course, analysis forbidden to post-Orientalists.) When Sari Nusseibeh indignantly denounces suicide terror before a Western audience and then praises the mother of a martyr for her son’s sacrifice, he’s sincere both ways. When Islamists deny the Holocaust ever happened and then accuse Israel of being the new Nazis bringing a Holocaust on the Palestinians, they do not see the contradiction. Both statements blacken Israel’s face and strengthen theirs; both offer immense emotional satisfaction and (alas for civil society), a strong resonance with Western infidels who apparently also find such debasing formulas about Jews almost irresistibly attractive.
Such a lack of concern for what would strike Westerners as hypocrisy is not because Mursi doesn’t know about hypocrisy. On the contrary, he and his defenders will readily use the term to accuse foes, including, I’m sure by now, John Stewart and Wolf Blitzer (those Jews who control the Western media). Public hypocrites are quick to throw stones.
But in some cultures where “face” is paramount, the term has a different meaning. I’m told in China, the term is the equivalent of “politeness.” And while Mursi was being polite with Wolff – it was a smashing interview – he expected the same politeness from his public and from his “friends” at the US Embassy. So when they tweeted the take-down, they extended the rude humiliation. (And to think that the field of international diplomacy has a very limited discussion of issues of honor and shame.)
From the perspective of an honor-shame culture (i.e., one in which it is permissible, expected, even required, that a “man” can lie, and even shed blood for the sake of his honor), the hypocrisy is all on Blitzer and Stewart (two of those “Jews who control the media”): from his perspective Blitzer was polite when it suited him, then Stewart stabbed Mursi in the back with Blitzer’s tape. At some level, there is a recognition that this criticism is true. Otherwise it wouldn’t hurt.
But the hurt, the embarrassment, are more powerful than any impartial commitment to equal standards, to conscience.
Which leads me to my final reflection. Why are people who are so easily hurt, so bent of hurting, and why, oh why, do so many Westerners, especially among the elites, cheering them on?