The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

For the powers-that-be, scapegoating individuals serves as a smokescreen to deflect attention from unjust power structures. When the individuals targeted are far down in the social hierarchy, this serves the added benefit of deflecting attention from the people at the top, the ones who give the orders and who create the structures of injustice and oppression that we live under. In the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal, we see this pattern playing out, with the rhetoric about a “few bad apples” and the focus on a handful of Army reservists.

Progressives are right to focus instead on institutional change and on accountability for those at the top. They are right to oppose these efforts to cover up the systematic nature of torture in American gulags around the world. Unfortunately, in doing so, many are on the verge of degenerating into a denial of individual moral agency.

Human beings are capable of choice and morally accountable for their actions. Circumstances can alter culpability– people in certain kinds of institutions and situations are more likely to commit morally reprehensible actions. But to deny their ability of choice and their role as moral subjects and not just objects is to deny their humanity. Individual moral agency is at the core of one’s right to an equal standing before one’s community. That is not a right that can or should be sacrificed at the altar of institutional responsibility.

One striking example comes from Code Pink, a marvelous group with a history of creative actions, which describes itself as “women for peace.” Yet, while rightly pointing to the responsibility of higher-ups, Code Pink argues that we shouldn’t “let 21-year-old girls be the only people held responsible.”

We don’t need to juvenilize Lynndie England as a “girl,” invoking both age and gender as a way to diminish her agency, in order to hold Rumsfeld and Bush accountable. If Codepink are “women” for peace then Lynndie England is a “woman” torturer. It’s disdainful to describe a 21 year old adult as a girl; she is a woman of equal standing and equal right to moral agency, and therefore culpability, as Code Pink “women” — and the rest of us. We would all loudly protest if she was denied any basic right or privilege because of her youth, all the while being addressed as a “girl.” The irony is especially profound because many Code Pink women are themselves living embodiments of individual moral agency in restrictive political conditions.

A few years ago, I encountered this drive towards individual absolution in a peculiar setting. I had been in on vacation in Istanbul, about a hundred miles from my childhood hometown when a massive earthquake leveled it. I cancelled my return and rushed back to help with the rescue efforts, spending two weeks in the open-air mass grave my hometown had become. It was hard stuff: we dug, buried, consoled survivors, dug, listened for sounds of life under tons of twisted steel and concrete, and dug more. Although the ordeal was not easy, I felt relatively okay upon my return — except the stench of death and destruction just wouldn’t leave me. Literally. I was having olfactory hallucinations. If I saw a picture of a dead body on TV, or even thought about death, I smelled it. My doctor recommended I see a post-trauma specialist.

The therapist was a kind, patient woman who made me tell the whole story many times. She then told me that it was not my fault.

Excuse me? Of course it wasn’t my fault. I had never said or thought that it was.

Actually, I thought I had done relatively well given the conditions. I had helped direct a rescue team, composed of a genuinely brave American men and women from Fairfax, Virginia, to a region which had been skipped over because it was a very poor neighborhood next to a burning refinery that authorities and other rescue teams feared might explode. We joked that it made our work easier since we could use the light from its fire to work through night without needing generators — and worked on, practically non-stop, through very strong aftershocks. Witnessing the heroism, and the aching, impossible solidarity common to scenes of disaster, I didn’t think of myself as a hero but I still felt pretty okay about my role. Certainly not at fault.

But my therapist wouldn’t let up. She kept repeating herself:

“It’s not your fault.”

“I know it’s not my fault.”

“No, really, it’s not your fault.”

“I know.”

“No, I mean it.”

“I mean it too: I’m well aware it’s not my fault.”

“Really, you should accept it’s not your fault because it is not.”

After many rounds of this puzzling behavior, thinking this was some quirky school of psychotherapy that I had never heard about, I started inquiring about her and her work.

She worked mostly with Vietnam veterans.

She told me that, thirty years after the war, some of her patients were having nightmares, crying fits and many were crushed with guilt.

They came to her with souls in the kind of deep wrenching pain that would not go away.

She kept telling them it wasn’t their fault.

From there on, the subject changed.

I pointed out that people who are truly not at fault often know that and do not need to hear it 30 years later. If a man is having crying fits and nightmares three decades after a war, there is a possibility that something really was his fault and that the last thing he needs to hear is “it’s not your fault.” Maybe he needs to say he was indeed at fault, that he was guilty. Is there a way to redemption without acknowledgement of guilt?

Who was she, I argued, to so persistently deny these men’s claim to their own moral agency? Perhaps, I said, she told them what they appeared to want to hear without listening for what their souls, in the nightmares and the crying fits, were desperately trying to say.

Part of the problem is the schizophrenic attitude progressives have towards the U.S. military and the largely poor, mostly red-state population that its foot-soldiers are drawn from. A typical example comes from Bob Herbert, a persistent critic of the administration, the war, and corporate brutality. In a single op-ed, Herbert both says that the price for the administration’s policies is being paid by “brave and patriotic men and women who deserve so much more from the country they are willing to defend with their lives” and just a few paragraphs later, that “we’ve destroyed countless homes and legitimate businesses and killed or maimed thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including many women and children. That was a lousy strategy for winning hearts and minds in Vietnam and it’s a lousy strategy now.”

But just as millions of Vietnamese did not die of sudden heart attacks, but were killed, just as villages did not burn from forgotten candles at bedtime, but were set alight with Zippo lighters, and just as Agent Orange did not rain from the clouds, but was dropped from planes, those thousands of Iraqis were killed by our policies, and by the people implementing our policies.

The peace movement has been adamant that it supports and respects the men and women in uniform. But what is real support and real respect? Denying moral agency and refusing to push for full individual accountability is not respect; in fact, it’s rather blatant disrespect, especially given the fact that our concern for “our brave men and women in harm’s way” has been a central slogan of the anti-war movement. Concern without accountability is inherently contemptuous — even children are generally held accountable, subject to the limits of their understanding. Furthermore, how can any real accounting of the harm done by war exclude the damage done to the soul of someone who tortures people at his complete mercy or fires at inhabited buildings from a helicopter gunship?

I understand all the reasons and the levels of victimization that result in unsuspecting, poor urban and rural youth signing up for the military or the reserves. I have indeed worked in the kind of hellish schools where the recruiting office does seem like a neat little slice of cleanliness and purpose amidst hopelessness. I understand the “poverty draft,” the lack of opportunities for the structurally poor underclass, and all the things that are wrong with the racial and economic realities in this country, which, not incidentally but as a fundamental moral obligation, we must work to change.

But we still have to respect the humanity of those soldiers. Anything less is indeed the true “soft bigotry of low expectations.” These men and women are not predator drones with arms and legs. We can’t get away with just talking about institutions, orders, poverty draft and the commanders-in-chief.

Perhaps we shy away from this deeper recognition of individual moral agency because it has such far reaching consequences. When we deny another’s moral agency, we help to create the conditions for denying our own. If we start talking about individual responsibility when it comes to soldiers, how long is it before we discover our own individual responsibility when it comes to war, colonialism, disproportionate consumption, racism, ecological damage, global poverty and hunger, millions of dead children who lacked simple drugs

The simple fact is almost all of us, even those who try to consume little and recycle everything, benefit from living in such a wealthy country. As George Orwell wrote, “certain kinds of goods are necessarily held in common. A millionaire cannot, for example, light the streets for himself while darkening them for other people. Nearly all citizens of civilized countries now enjoy the use of good roads, germ-free water, police protection, free libraries and probably free education of a kind.” The fact that one can dial 9-1-1 during a heart attack gives us 10 to 20 years advantage over the life expectancy of most of the rest of world. Even if you swear not to use it, you have the option — and I believe that, being human, you will be weaker in your resolve when your breath almost leaves you.

This is simply repeating a truth that I think most of us know at some level: we all exercise privileges that depend, at least partially, on ill-gained wealth in an unjust world.

When viewed through this lens, it’s difficult not to start questioning the connection between our privileges and the occupation of a country at the center of world’s primary oil producing region along with the maintenance of an imperial military that clearly exceeds any reasonable requirements of self-defense. Let me be clear, I am not defending or proposing that we ignore institutions and structures, quite the opposite. Of course we must primarily concentrate on changing and abolishing unjust institutions; however, in the mean time, let us not lose a basic respect for the people in them by withholding a demand for accountability.

Individual moral agency is a precious component of being human; it is also something that people sometimes try desperately to avoid coming to terms with. It turned out that my therapist was married to a Vietnam vet — she wasn’t just trying to protect her patients, she was protecting herself from the reality of that war. She basically asked me to stop coming. A month later I got a check in the mail refunding my co-payment for those last contentious sessions. There was no note.

ZEYNEP TOUFE has recently launched the blog She can be reached at