Stewart, Youssef, Mursi: A Study in Honor-Shame dynamics

[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?

11 Responses to Stewart, Youssef, Mursi: A Study in Honor-Shame dynamics

  1. James Fallows said:

    “It is much easier to establish that one hypothesis is false — for instance, that IDF soldiers were in the wrong place to do the reported shooting — than to prove that some other one is true.”

    Such a ridiculous claim!

    He attempts to allude to Karl Popper’s ideas about falsification and falsifiability, but he completely misconstrues the issue.

    The two hypotheses that are tested are the following:

    1) The Al-Durah incident (as seen on TV) was not staged.

    2) The Al Durah incident (as seen on TV) was staged.

    Since he believes that it is easier to establish the falsity than the truth of an hypothesis, then he could attempt to establish the falsity of hypothesis #1, i.e. that the Al Durah incident was NOT staged. If such an attempt was successful, i.e. if it proved that it is false that the Al Durah was not staged, then he would have proved that the Al Durah was indeed staged.

    He can’t be that inane as to claim that the general principle he cited excuses him for not speaking out about the staging as being the most plausible hypothesis.

    He is just keeping up with journalistic Joneses – sans cojones

    P.S. Apologies for the sexist term/allusion to guts. I deliberated against it, but i couldn’t resist the pun!

  2. Richard Landes says:

    thanks for that. i imagine that Martin should have some major things to say on the reasoning involved here.

  3. DavidS says:

    Has Fallows provided any support to Karsenty’s defense against Enderlin’s defamation suit?

    • Richard Landes says:

      surely you jest. that would be to lose his “objectivity” as a journalist. note that when it comes to defending Enderlin, other journalists have no problem pronouncing, even without knowing the evidence.

  4. mika. says:

    Journalism or Nazism.. an age of rampant and official information deception..

    Same trick, same people, same purpose.
    Nothing is coincidence. Nothing is by accident.

    EVERYTHING presented on the CIA/Vatican propaganda outlets is all lies all the time. People really need to understand how thoroughly ignorant and how thoroughly manipulated they are by the CIA/Vatican propaganda outlets.

    • Richard Landes says:

      some people always say “always” and “never,” but it’s never “always” and “never.”

      • mika. says:

        I stand by my statement, Richard.

        EVERYTHING presented on the CIA/Vatican propaganda outlets is a lie in one form or another. It is purposely meant to deceive, distract, and omit from the truth and the real narrative. People are presented with propaganda theater and deceit, and it is ALWAYS in complete contradiction to the truth and reality.


        Contrary to popular belief and CIA propaganda, the US oil industry was using its full political mojo to prevent their being handed ownership of Iraq’s oil fields. That’s right, the oil companies did NOT want to own the oil fields – and they sure as hell did not want the oil. Just the opposite. They wanted to make sure there would be a limit on the amount of oil that would come out of Iraq.

        That supports the theory that the oil industry has foisted “Peak Oil” via the conspiracy theory back door, whilst purposely limiting supply to support the backdoor theory. The end result is record profits as the price fixers at Vatican owned Goldman Sachs bid the higher prices as part of the ruse. Since “consumers” are captive, they’ll have to pay the going rate. It’s a fancy way for the Vatican/CIA gov mafia to tax the peons on the monopoly Vatican slave plantation without overt tax legislation. But see, you’re double-taxed in this process. Once for the cost that goes to funding the military and the war to secure those oil fields where supply must be limited, and second, directly by the price fixers of oil at Vatican owned Goldman-Sachs.

        And btw, the Yom Kippur and the Iraq war served the exact same purpose. Increase the demand for US petro-dollars by limiting the supply of oil, drastically increasing the price of oil. The Yom Kippur war was pre-planned between Vatican/CIA men Dayan, Sadat, and Kissinger. That’s a well known fact in Israel. That’s why many in Israel, including my then very young dad, were furious and wanted Dayan hanged for the murders he engineered, the maimed soldiers and families he destroyed.

  5. Dr Landes wrote:

    Such a lack of concern for what would strike Westerners as is this because Mursi doesn’t know about hypocrisy.

    Is there a word missing from this sentence or the meaning was lost on me?

    (This is in the fifth paragraph, counting backwards from the end of the article).

    • maybe the word “hypocrisy” is missing after the word “as”? Like, “Morsi evinces a total lack for concern for not being seen as a hypocrite in the eyes of the West because he doesn’t know what really counts as hypocrisy”?

  6. […] My take on the role of honor-shame in this incident here. […]

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