Moral Borderlands

7 May 2010


One of the most problematic borders in the world today: but every border, though a limit, is also an overlap.

In his The Next 100 Years George Friedman characterized borderlands in this way:

“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”

I cite this not as a paradigmatic definition, but because it is the most recent reference I have on borderlands. When I was looking up information on borderlands today I found that there is an entire journal devoted to their discussion, Journal of Borderlands Studies, so one can expect that borderlands have received many definitions and have been conceived in many ways.

Geographical regions have borderlands in space. Geopolitical entities have borders in both space and time. For that matter, we can identity the borders — well-defined or ill-defined — of almost any temporal phenomenon. That is to say, anything that exists in time will have a temporal border at its beginning and at its ending — when it comes to be from something it is not, and when it ceases to be and cedes its place to something that it is not (to employ Aristotelian language).

When I was thinking about it today, it struck me that there are moral borderlands, and moral borderlands, like geographical borderlands, are regions of tension and conflict. While I am sure that there are a great many examples that might be adduced, I am going to discuss only two of them that happen to be on my mind at present.

Several times I have cited an earlier post of mine, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, in which I suggested that, in the wake of profound social changes wrought by industrialization, that societies have been casting about for a robust and sustainable way to live with the consequences of industrialization. In the terminology of today’s post, I would now say that the periods of transition between social models are moral borderlands.

A consensus on social organization means a moral consensus on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable within a given society. When one form of social order is breaking down and another is in formation but still inchoate, the moral conventions of the two different social models often clash. What is right for one age, is not always right for a later age, and at the point of time when those ages overlap, there is moral conflict between the representatives of the old order of society and representatives of the new order of society.

Moral conventions are deeply integral with the totality of social conventions, and indeed in a fine-grained account of social life there are a great many cases in which it would be problematic at best to distinguish what is a moral convention from what is a mere social convention without moral force. This may be less apparent today, in an age of relative tolerance and rapid change, but it is true to some degree even now.

In the agricultural economy of the pre-industrialized world it was commonplace for people to have large families. Children were put to work on a farm as soon as they were physically capable of even the smallest task. Another pair of hands was always needed for the labor-intensive task of subsistence farming, and having a large family also had the added benefit that, in the unlikely event that one lived into old age, there was a higher likelihood that at least one child would be willing to care for the aged parent in a world with no social safety net whatsoever. The alternative to being supported by a child was the most object poverty imaginable.

The misery of working conditions in the early periods of industrialization was compounded by the acceptance of institutions such as child labor. If children routinely labored on the farm, why should they not labor in the factory? It took time to sort this out.

For the subsistence farmer, a large family is “good.” Many other things are good as well, and the subsistence farmer is not likely to distinguish between eudaemonistic goods that make for a better and more comfortable life and strictly moral goods. As I noted above, in many cases it would be difficult to draw the distinction in any kind of rigorous way. The way of life is completely integral with the conceptions of life’s goods for the two to be separated without violence.

The first social consensus of industrialization included features now understood to be exploitative and inhumane.

The Industrial Revolution emerged in this context. Families displaced from rural circumstances for a variety of different reasons, or simply drawn to the growing cities for their intrinsic attraction, did not suddenly change their moral outlook upon moving into the city. A large family was still good. So people continued to have large families, and they put their children to work in the factory system as soon as they were able, just as they would have put them to work on the farm as soon as they were able to do farm chores. We now look upon industrial-scale child labor as a great evil, but it emerged from a moral borderland. The way of life of country people was retained after their move into cities, and it took time for this to change, just as it also took time for the factory system to demand skilled and educated labor. It is easy for us to condemn child labor and consign it to the horrors of early industrialization, but it is more important to try to understand how it came about — it didn’t come out of nowhere, but from the context of lives in the midst of change.

Another instance of moral borderlands that is on my mind is the use of nuclear weapons. I mentioned in a couple earlier posts (Revolution, Genocide, Terror and The Threshold of Atrocity) listening to Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. The author begins with an uncompromising indictment of Truman as a mass murderer because of his decision to use newly available nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after the end of World War Two, and throughout much of the Cold War, it became commonplace to speak of nuclear war as “the unthinkable.” And certainly in the context of mutually assured destruction, nuclear war had become unthinkable. But when the first nuclear weapons were made available, there was no conception whatsoever of nuclear war, and the use of the most recent weapons technology was far from unthinkable. On the contrary, the failure to use a new weapons technology in a war would be more unthinkable than the reverse.

The end of the Second World War saw the introduction of nuclear weapons, so there is a sense in which the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War. But we don’t think of it that way. The Second World War saw the introduction of many transformative technologies such as digital computers for code making and code breaking, ballistic missiles, and jet fighters. No less important were social technologies of military doctrine that both began and ended the war. German’s Blitzkrieg over Europe was a new doctrine, a new social technology, for existing armaments, just as the firebombing of Dresden was a new doctrine for the use of existing armaments. The war made men become clever in diabolical ways.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

The Second World War was the culmination of mass warfare, the predictable outcome of the emergence of an industrialized society based upon mass man. We will probably not see its like again any time soon. The age of precision munitions is upon us, and this has already changed war dramatically. When we look at the casualty numbers of earlier wars and compare them to the casualty numbers of recent wars, the truly remarkable thing is how low casualties are now. While the role of intensive media coverage gives the impression of mass suffering, in fact far fewer people are suffering from war than during the twentieth century. It sounds heartless and cruel to say it straight out like that, and it is cold comfort to those who are suffering from war, but it is nevertheless true. At least for the time being, the age of mass war is over.

Though over now, as we noted above, the Second World War was the culmination of mass war, and nuclear weapons are the culmination of weaponry for mass war. Nuclear weapons aren’t good for anything except mass war, and they created a paradigm of mass war that became unthinkable the more it was thought about. But just as it took time for the evils of mass child labor to become apparent, so too it took time for the evils of mass nuclear war to become apparent. For those who condemn Truman for his decision to drop the bomb, there are a great many contemporaneous quotes to draw upon of those who saw clearly the nature of nuclear war. But the end of the Second World War was a moral borderland, and in the borderland there are two moralities and an underlying tension.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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crematoria ashes with Wittgenstein quote

At what point do we pass the threshold of atrocity? If a single death is a tragedy (and therefore not an atrocity) while a million deaths is a statistic (and therefore possibly an atrocity), at what point between one death and a million deaths do we pass the threshold of atrocity? This is what philosophers call a “sorites paradox” or a “paradox of the heap”: if you continue to pile grains of sand together, eventually they will form a heap, but when? What is the threshold of a heap?

I introduced the phrase “the threshold of atrocity” in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities, in which I attempted to identify on-going forms of political brutality that fall short of atrocity but which nevertheless ruin countless lives. In that post I predicted that the world would see more violence and suffering that falls just short of the threshold of atrocity as a result of political calculations of tyrants and dictators who are learning to contain their depredations within limits that will not arouse the interest of the wider world (“rousing the sleeping giant,” as Mike Burleson put it in a recent New Wars post).

One form of near atrocity is population transfer. In his series of lectures for The Teaching Company, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius discusses population transfer in his seventh lecture, “The Hinge of Violence.” He observes that after the First World War, with the ideological reconstruction of political entities as nation-states, the “problem” of ethnic minorities emerges. An ethnic minority within a nation-state putatively defined in terms of an ethnic nationality is a source of cognitive dissonance, like a splinter that festers and irritates. What does one do with a splinter? One removes it. Thus Liulevicius says of this peculiarly modern problem:

“As an expedient to deal with these new situations there was arrived at, by politicians, the notion of something that’s ubiquitously and euphemistically called “population transfer.” This is a case of a trend we will see repeatedly in the course of our lectures of the power of euphemisms, of code words, to cover up harsh human realities. “Population transfer” sounded, and was meant to sound, neat, humane, and efficient. The reality, however, was of a brutal, uprooting process of populations who were now to be moved around involuntarily.”

Liulevicius cites the example of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, which set a precedent for population transfer. He recounts how the uprooting of Greek Christian populations from Turkey and Muslim populations from areas in Greece and the Balkans became a series of horrors, and then remarks:

“…in spite of this bloody record of the Treaty of Lausanne, in spite of the atrocities and violence that accompanied the policy of population transfer, the mark that this procedure left in European intellectual history was quite different. It was truly starkly in contrast to the human reality that historians record. It was hailed by European historians of the time as a successful model of problem solving, of the redrawing of borders, of dealing with the supposed problem of ethnic minorities within new national states, and this hailing of so brutal an expedient, this euphemistic policy of population transfer, was truly to have ominous results…”

Thus Liulevicius clearly sees such “procedures” as atrocities, or at least as often involving atrocities, though he also remarks that few today recall the episode, and that it was viewed as a success in its own time. This atrocity, then, was not only not the focus of an intervention, but was seen as a model to emulate.

Population transfer is treated a little differently in another contemporary source, which calls it “expulsion,” though we can see how the two treatments are related. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Worse Than War (which I previously mentioned in Revolution, Genocide, Terror), distinguishes five levels of what he calls human eliminiationism. Of these five levels, expulsion is the third, coming between repression and prevention of reproduction. Goldhagen characterizes expulsion thus:

“Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerers, have been common.”

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, pp. 15-16

One contemporary example of such euphemized violence that involves small scale brutality is the recent dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Recently the BBC ran a surprisingly soft piece on Robert Mugabe’s “land reform programme,” Zimbabwe’s new farmers defend their gains, in which some of the violence of the evictions is described but not given much attention, as the story focuses on the new farmers who have acquired the lands of those who were evicted. To call the process of evictions in Zimbabwe “land reform” is clearly in the tradition of a policy intended to sound “neat, humane, and efficient” but which in fact has involved widespread suffering. And that suffering is not primarily the suffering of the 4,000 or so white farmers. The primary targets of the violence of the evictions were the native employees of the farms, and the entire population of Zimbabwe has suffered horribly from the botched “land reform” that has meant a catastrophic fall in the country’s agricultural productivity. How are we to take the moral measure of the impoverishment of millions for the benefit of a few well-connected Zimbabweans who prosper because of their relation to the ZANU-PF party?

Is Zimbabwe’s “land reform” an atrocity? We have already seen that the attempt to define an atrocity involves us in a classic philosophical paradox. There are, of course, philosophical responses. An excellent book by Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (a book imbued with the true spirit of philosophical inquiry, I must say, however much I disagree with parts of it), focuses on atrocities. Card writes:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” (p. 3)

Thus Card does not demand that atrocities be defined in terms of mass death, so we avoid the paradox posed by locating an atrocity between the tragedy of one death and the statistic of a million deaths. Further along Card writes:

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil of visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” (p. 9)

While I agree in spirit with much of this, it misses what I have been trying to capture above. The near atrocities of expulsion or population transfer are not uncontroversially evil. As we have seen, such actions are sometimes employed as models of sound policy. Further, because near atrocities are not uncontroversially evil, the core features of evil are not writ large. On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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