One of many destructive human impulses, I think, is the desire to stand with victims of oppression. It’s also one of the most valuable, of course, but the problems arise when people misdiagnose the nature of the person or group they feel are being oppressed, and misjudge the actions they believe their treatment merits. The desire isn’t wrong, then – I’ve not turned into Ayn Rand – but it has a great potential to be misdirected.
The latter point, after the decade we’ve endured, will be just as surprising as thin cuts of leavened dough. As the advance of science has allowed us, or, at least, our rulers, to project influence on an ever grander scale our ambitions have grown. This is true of our humanitarian impulses. We’re no longer occupied with, say, funding a new roof for the local orphanage; we’re feeling compelled to rescue millions across the world. Yet the expansion of our humanitarian will isn’t always matched by a knowledge of how, if at all, our goals could be pursued. Military intervention is an obvious example. (To say that it’s been a clumsy tool in aiding the oppressed is like saying a mallet was, perhaps, unsuitable for the construction of an Airfix model.) It’s also true of all manner of grand ideas to solve all manner of hardships, though – for humans or for other creatures. Roger Scruton writes of how some activists managed to close an African hunting resort. Local farmers, for whom the animals no longer drew profit, promptly shot them all.
An even more fundamental problem is the temptation to depict people as victims when the nature of their struggle is far more complex. We prefer to deal with clear-cut cases of oppression – the bullies against the bullied - but in a world teeming with power struggles and competing interests the reality is often more, er – muddy than we’d like. This is true on a micro and macro level. Think of people who’ve rushed to defend those who’ve been accused of crimes: the mysterious Mr Rideh, Julian Assange or Dominique Strauss-Khan. (You don’t have to agree that all or any of these men are guilty to accept that people who’ve assumed they’re innocent were busily engaged in the projection of their biases.) Think, also, of people who’ve backed less than admirable “resistance” forces. A century of Communism has lumbered the left with the tag “useful idiots” and from a bearded Irishman defending Soviet Russia to a mustachioed Scotsman rhapsodising over tyrants that’s been somewhat fair. But it’s also insufficient. To a list of serviceable fools and knaves we should add the Yanks who lauded the Muhajideen; harebrained humanitarians who endorsed the KLA; unlikely terrorist sympathisers who’ve backed the MEK and so on.
There are three factors that bias us towards perceiving men and groups as victims and towards promoting their cause. They can be so worked up over the evils of people, groups, states and so on that they feel comradeship with any force that stands in opposition to them. Yet one’s enemies needn’t be a reflection on one’s character. A corrupt force could oppose another on different premises to your’s, or, indeed, be corrupt in ways distinct from that opposition. In some cases, I’ll admit, it can be worth supporting lesser evils over greater ones as they might at least serve to reduce the evil. Yet they could, in fact, be worse, or at least be so malign or incompetent that – like a vile mixer stirred into a noxious drink – their contributions don’t offset the original harm but add to it.
Others may be inclined to support a force if they’re weaker than the entity they’re struggling against. This, after all, is how we’d expect victims to be: poor, outnumbered and outgunned. My problem with that is that the outgunned still have guns; or, in other words, that the fact that X is unable to wreak havoc on the scale of Y needn’t mean they’re incapable of doing tremendous harm. Anybody with a lethal weapon and a dark ambition is powerful – whether rich or poor; many or few et cetera – and the extent of their structural power is hardly relevant if you’re in their way. The dominant force may be more worthy of one’s opposition if they’re doing more harm but that needn’t mean the weaker deserve particular sympathy. Others still, in a mental mistake that draws on both these fallacies, impulsively support the victims of injustice. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with opposing illegitimate treatment but I think people can feel that unjust suffering or, indeed, the mere endurance of hardship reflects positively on someone’s character. It needn’t. Anyone can be ill-treated. The Muslim Brothers were viciously abused under Mubarak but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to abuse people themselves. A victim of injustice may deserve no more support than you believe injustice necessarily confers one.
The desire to aid the victims of oppression, then, as valuable as it is, deserves careful regulation. Yet it’s very strong in us: for the reason that we’re compassionate beings, I hope, but also as it flatters our self-image and nurtures our desire to perceive the world as one of moral absolutes, in which a scheme justice may be comprehensively achieved. Only when we realise that it isn’t and it can’t, perhaps, can we truly assist or, at least, avoid worsening the condition of the luckless.