Naming and Shaming


I’ve recently read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by British journalist Jon Ronson which looks at a reemergence of public shaming, one where it is the Internet serves as the judge sentencing others to the stocks, the stocks themselves, and the mob throwing rotten fruit at the stocked defendant.

One of the reasons such shaming has snuck up on us in today’s culture is that we’ve relegated shame to a collection of second-tier emotions whose burdens modernity is supposed to be freeing us from.  But, far from being trivial, shame is the mechanism by which cultures are formed and perpetuated.

Philosopher Lee Harris, in his 2007 book The Suicide of Reason, points that that shame is the tool one generation uses to acculturate the next into a society by training children from a young age to feel shameful for believing certain things and acting in certain ways.  Religious communities that raise their kids to feel the hot rush of sweat and queasiness (both shaming symptoms) at sin or disbelief is an example of this phenomenon.  But, as Harris points out, even moderns raising our kids in a culture of reason do not use reason to get them accept cultural norms such as tolerance of minorities.  Rather, we work hard to ensure that our children will feel shame at the gut level for engaging in bigoted behavior, or even having intolerant thoughts.

Given the number of people recommending “naming and shaming” as a strategy within our own community of activists, it’s worth looking at the shame phenomenon and when it has proven effective (or not) a bit more closely.

One pro-Israel organization that has utilizing shaming tactics with some success is NGO Monitor which has managed to get a number of European governments and organizations to stop funding Palestinian “human rights” NGOs that are actually involved with glorifying terror or spreading propaganda (often as part of BDS campaigns).

While exposure of those organizations spending cash to celebrate violence is the tool NGO Monitor uses in its shaming strategy, their success derives from the fact that the entity being shamed (such as European governments) are provided the opportunity to claim that they have not misbehaved themselves but have instead been duped by the Palestinian groups they have funded.  This provides them the opening to take the right action (cut off funding) in order to preserve their self-image as tolerant and supportive of human rights, which helps them avoid the shame of knowing (and being seen) to have abandoned those principles.

In contrast, campaigns designed to directly shame individuals for their political activity (such as the profiles created by Canary Mission, or postering campaigns on campuses that expose Israel haters by name) are not designed to elicit self-reflection.  Rather, they are supposed to create a “price tag” for misbehavior, creating a mechanism whereby future employers, graduate school admissions officers or family members will have full access to an individual’s sordid behavior (often created from background material created by the shamed activist him or herself).

The nature of this form of “naming and shaming” explains the mixed response to and level of effectiveness of such campaigns.  True believers, for example (those who refuse to accept any self-characterization save unvarnished virtue) see inclusion in Canary Mission as a badge of honor.  And those whose inclusion might make them think twice about continuing their activity are making a practical choice based on their own self-interest, rather than engaging in moral reflection. (As an aside, this helps explain why those aforementioned postering campaigns have proven so ineffective, since their narrow audience means they do not create a price tag high enough to trigger a change in behavior).

So that’s shaming our enemies.  But what about shaming our allies?

Such a tactic is not as strange or unusual as you might think.  For, within the divided Jewish community, there are many times one group of activists might think another is not doing enough to deal with a particular outbreak of anti-Israel activity.  And one way to get others to do what you think they should is to try to shame them into doing so by alerting the world that supposed friends of Israel are either not living by their stated principles or – in some cases – actually doing wrong.

In some cases, the shamer can get what they want from the shamee using such tactics.  But while the personal shame we feel when we stray from our principles or self-image is made up of emotions like regret and a desire to do better, public shaming usually drives those constructive feelings out in favor of the resentment we all feel at being humiliated.

Like shame itself, humiliation (or, more particularly, the need to avoid it) is a major driver of human activity since we will all go to great lengths to make it stop.  This can include doing what we’re told will make such humiliation go away.  But, more often than not, we respond to shaming with resentment which can lead to anything from passive aggressive “acceptance” to do the right thing once (but never again) to lashing out at those who have chosen to humiliate us (drowning out discussion of whatever issue triggered the original bout of shaming).

When supposed allies don’t step up (or worse, do the wrong thing) about an issue we feel passionately about, it’s easy to believe that shaming them serves a strategy purpose (or at least avoid considering the negative impact of a tactic that tends to breed more resentment than repentance).

But if we want to utilize powerful but potentially destructive human emotions as political weapons, it might be worth considering what options we have for making friends, neutrals or even wavering enemies feel good about themselves for supporting our cause, rather than hoping self-disgust will motivate others to do the right thing.

Something Smells at Harvard Law

It’s not clear that a reality show like BDS which refuses to shut up or get off the stage can ever be cancelled.  But if recent shenanigans at Harvard Law School are any indication, the “movement” is already way past jumping the shark.

With the disruption of Israeli speakers now considered a “free-speech” right of anti-Israel activists, it was just a matter of time before the unwillingness to hold protestors accountable led to a feeling of invulnerability.  And, as we’ve all learned watching the BDSers’ erratic behavior over the last decade and a half, a sense of invulnerability inevitably leads to self-destructive lunacy.

In this case, the lunatic behavior was provided by second year Harvard Law student Husam El-Qoulaq who – lacking a mob to shut down Israeli political leader Tzipi Livni when she spoke at the school – dazzled the audience (now the world) with his ingenious repartee by asking the Israeli why she was “so smelly.”

Apparently, Mr. El-Qoulaq managed to get through four years at Berkeley and now two-years at Harvard – much of it spent obsessed with Jews and Israel – without realizing that “smelly Jew” is a bigoted slur right up there with “shifty negro” or “lippy broad.”  If this weren’t bad enough, he also managed to get through a dozen years of primary and secondary school without learning that he shouldn’t act like a five-year-old in front of grown-ups.

But wait!  There’s more!

In a move that demonstrates the difference between what happens when bigoted remarks are directed against a Jew vs. any other minority on college campuses today, Harvard Law School decided to issue a statement condemning El-Qoulaq’s atrocious behavior without calling him out by name.  In fact, the school edited the incident out of a video of the event they posted on YouTube and refused to divulge the name of Mr. You-Smell! for several days (no doubt trying to protect him from the consequences of his action).

As it turned out, it wasn’t difficult for Internet-dwellers to discover the name Harvard tried to keep under wraps.  For Mr. El-Qoulaq had left quite an online paper trail as a leader in the BDS “movement,” both at Berkeley and now at Harvard.  Despite best efforts to wipe away that paper trail by deleting every account and web site featuring his name and track record as a BDS activist, Net-activists – including the folks at Canary Mission – were able to “out” him in days.

Putting aside my mixed feelings towards Internet mob-shaming in general and Canary Mission in particular, it strikes me that had El-Qoulaq come clean immediately and sincerely apologized for his gross behavior and anti-Semitic commentary, that shaming rituals would either not have been needed or might have backfired.

Instead, abetted by Harvard, he tried to keep his identity a secret.  And, in the second-most ludicrous document generated during this whole absurd episode, he made one of those “I’m sorry my calling a Jew smelly was misinterpreted” pseudo-apologies which included an invitation to reach out to him despite his having gone to ground.

And what’s the most absurd thing to come out of this incident, I hear you cry out?

That award goes to this letter published by eleven “Jewish students and recent alumni of Harvard Law School” who sent it to Harvard Law Record in order to “write in support of our friend and peer Husam El-Qoulaq, and to condemn the efforts we’ve seen to defame his character.”

In addition to the usual tropes one expects in such an AsaJew missive: Cast Lead! War Crimes! “condemned by the U.N. and other credible organizations” (!), the key arguments his defenders present seem to include:

  • The whole “you smell” directed at a Jew thing should be seen as a mischievous joke (maybe a pun or palindrome?) that is in no way akin to a bigot saying a Jew smells
  • El-Qoulaq publically accused a Palestinian who doesn’t hate Israel of also being smelly, so he should be seen as equal-opportunity critic of odiferous opponents (unfortunately, this one doesn’t help against those accusing him of acting like a misbehaving five-year-old)
  • This whole controversy involves insincere accusations of anti-Semitism cooked up to defame and silence a brave peace warrior because: you’re a racist!
  • We’re Jews, and thus you must accept what we say when we declare our friend “Not guilty.”

Before leaving that last bullet point, I’ve been told that not everyone on the list of signatories is actually Jewish which, if true, would make their self-description as “Jewish students and recent alumni of Harvard Law School” the most beautiful piece of BDS-speak yet.  (We said “Jewish students” and alumni, but we never said the alumni were also Jewish!)

Getting back to my original point, only a “movement” that feels invulnerable to consequences, one which looks only to the like-minded to confirm what is and is not appropriate would even think that acting in such rude, vulgar, ridiculous ways represents anything other than foolishness harnessed to fanaticism.  But this is what passes for political theory and rhetoric these days in the land of BDS.  Pity it’s the rest of us who have to pay the price for history’s most vicious and brutal case of political self-indulgence.

Going on the Attack

A couple of items on this year’s “War on BDS” news list overlap with a theme I’ve mentioned previously: the efficacy of the “offense vs. defense” paradigm when talking about what to do about the propaganda assault on Israel.

At the fundraising event I mentioned last time, one hint of how donors were hoping to see their money spent was to turn the battle against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions into one where the other side was no longer in full control of the initiative.

Like most high-level political desires, such a hope cannot be judged until implemented as a set of concrete strategies and tactics. But a different initiative, one that’s been making news since it launched about a month ago, does provide something to grasp onto and analyze.

The project is called Canary Mission (not sure if this name is a reference to the “Canary in the Coal Mine” metaphor or if it’s just an inside joke – or the last obtainable URL), a web site (and associated social media assets) designed by folks eager to “take the fight to the enemy.” And controversy surrounding the project centers around how “taking the fight to the enemy” has been defined.

Canary Mission approach falls under the category of “naming and shaming” with the focus of the site being a long list of individuals (and a shorter list of organizations) with BDS ties, each of which is called out with extensive descriptions, bios and links that highlight each person or group’s atrocious behavior (mostly on college campuses).

I suspect that had Canary Mission focused just on groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), they would have received less pushback from the Jewish media and parts of the organized Jewish community.  But a naming-and-shaming approach that targets individuals has elicited less-than-fulsome praise by many people and organizations that are themselves staunch critics of BDS and similar anti-Israel propaganda campaigns.  And, needless to say, the BDSers are crying “McCarthyism!” and desperately trying to link any and all opponents to the now-controversial Canary site.

Years ago, another “take-the-fight-to-the-enemy” type launched a different site called “SH*T List” (or something to that effect) which included hostile bios of Jews associated with anti-Israel projects (I believe the SH stood for “Self-Hating,” although I can’t remember what the IT abbreviated).  And while the Canary Mission site is less vulgar and more well-put-together than I remember that SH*Tlist site to have been, it’s worth recalling the reaction to this previous instance of “naming-and-shaming” targeting individuals when critiquing this new effort.

Before getting to that critique, I should note up front that profiling individuals (and hinting that getting profiled persons in trouble with potential employers is a campaign goal) doesn’t sit all that well with me.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a wuss too huddled into a defensive crouch to do what needs to be done.  Or perhaps my distaste for the personalization of politics (by foes and friends) rubs me the wrong way.  And while I understand enough real history to dismiss the BDSers charges of McCarthyism, a program that can be perceived as attacking real people in hope of causing them harm (at least when it’s time for them to get a job) seems like a bad choice.

These personal feelings aside, most of the issues I have with this “going on the attack” strategy are pragmatic.  For – as just mentioned – in the months since Canary launched it has been condemned by a number of people across the political spectrum who share the organization’s goal of seeing the BDS “movement” sent back into the hole it crawled out of, causing cracks in an otherwise remarkably united anti-BDS front across Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

Meanwhile, after launching into their usual mode of outrage, the BDSers seem to have settled into wearing inclusion in the Canary Site list as a badge of honor (similar to what happened with SH*T List).

Also, as someone with a penchant for military analysis, I’m not exactly sure what the goal of this political tactic might be.  Is it to get BDS partisans so worried about their future that they withdraw from the field?  This might provide some advantage to our side, although only if a shamed person is not immediately replaced by some other as-yet-unnamed (and unshame-able) individual of equal energy and talent.

Perhaps such public outing is designed to educate the public about the vast, interlinked network of organizations behind BDS propaganda campaigns.  If that’s the case, the site certainly does the job by making these networks part of storylines associated with specific individuals.  But organizations like NGO Monitor are able to accomplish this same goal far more effectively (by exposing sponsors of BDS activity who would prefer to remain in the shadows) without turning to tactics that divide allies.

Another possibility is that these types of aggressive tactics are ends in themselves, a way to show that Israel’s supporters can throw a punch, rather than just be on the receiving end of the boycotters endless propaganda blows. This psychological factor certainly seems to be in play among many friends and allies who are more comfortable with Canary’s name-and-shame tactics then am I, and it’s one I can sympathize with.

But only to a point.  For looking out at our side’s most recent successes (notably passage of anti-BDS sanctions legislation by many states), it’s not clear that campaigns which risk casting us in a bad light are as effective as is working with people whose sympathies partly grow out of respect that we have not stooped to the opposition’s level.

As I’ve stated again and again on this site, if you’ve got militant goals (like seeing Israel destroyed), that leads you to accept certain strategies, such as waging a propaganda war designed to make that destruction seem moral and appealing. And if allies share those goals, then it is easy to create a united front around ugly and manipulative tactics like BDS.

But if you are not united behind destroying someone else (which we are not), then a strategy built around ginning up hostility, while easy to kick off, becomes impossible to sustain long enough to bite.  Which means our side is required to select different strategies and tactics, ones which may lack the kind of offensive explosiveness we have come to expect from Israel’s enemies.

But remember that the explosive choices made by Israel’s foes – including their choice to engage in a war against the Jews where no rules apply – has led to a war of all against all across the Middle East where “no holds barred” now applies to what those enemies are doing to each other.  Which points out that aggressive tactics carry risks when they become both ends and means.

While all wars must combine offensive and defensive strategies, it is vital that choices of when to attack and defend be smart and made at the right time. For every example of when the choice to engage in a pitched battle has led to victory, there’s another when an overeager desire to take the fight to the enemy has led to self destruction.

Once again, the IDF (which has successfully defended Israel’s borders while rarely initiating needless offensive military action) should serve as our role model.  For no one can doubt the aggressiveness of their defensive strategy, just as no one can doubt how the “Attack! Attack! Attack! “ strategies of Israel’s opponents have led them over a cliff.