I’ve always loved “Lord of the Rings.” I first read “The Hobbit” in elementary school, and have since read the trilogy several times. There are many qualities of the books that draw me to them — the grand adventure, the detailed mythology — but the most attractive aspect of Middle Earth is that it makes sense. There is very little moral greyness in the world of Tolkien; Frodo and company have to take the MacGuffin to Mount Doom in order to defeat a terrifying and unambiguous evil. If they kill some Orcs along the way, then so be it — Orcs are inherently wicked and deserve to die.
Echoes of LOTR can be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the recent coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Supporters of both sides have been framing the war in black and white terms, casting their team as the sympathetic Frodos and relegating the opposition to the role of merciless, unknowable Orcs. Film stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz did this in their open letter earlier this week, in which they depict Gazans as innocent victims of Israeli attempts at “genocide” — that is, the deliberate and systematic murder of a group of people. Some Israeli supporters have claimed much the same thing about Gazan motives:
The attitudes expressed by both the letter and the cartoon are extremely troubling. We are the true victims here! We only want peace. It is the opposition — those merciless, evil, genocidal people determined to kill us all — that keep this conflict going.
The truth is that there are no Orcs in the real world. Chances are, your enemy is motivated bysomething more than inborn wickedness and a thirst for blood. Philosopher Eliezer Yudkowsky writes about this eloquently on his blog, Less Wrong:
“Realistically, most people don’t construct their life stories with themselves as the villains. Everyone is the hero of their own story. The Enemy’s story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad. If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you’ll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy’s mind.”
Bardem is wrong to accuse Israel of aspiring to genocide. Israel has accepted several ceasefire agreements, including one brokered by Egypt over a month ago and an unconditional proposal more recently, that Hamas has rejected. A nation that repeatedly attempts to end a conflict can hardly be said to have genocidal motives. Similarly absurd is the notion that Palestinians only want to kill Jews. Gaza has been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel for many years, with devastating effects on Gazan quality of life. Hamas has demanded that Israel lift this blockade — an idea supported by former president Jimmy Carter.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a murky affair, with neither side able to claim a true moral high ground. Between Hamas firing rockets at Israeli civilian regions and the IDF’s casualty-heavy bombing campaign (which John Kerry sarcastically referred to as a “hell of a pinpoint operation”), it is clear that this is a war without a Frodo. Why, then, have commentators framed it as if it were?
Many people faced with a conflict choose to see their enemies as “evil mutants” (another Yudkowsky term) rather than trying to empathize with them. While this is a very natural instinct, it is also a dangerous one. When people start thinking of their opponents as anything other than recognizably human, the divide between enemy and enemy becomes unbridgeable. Psychologists call this process of denying the humanity of others “dehumanization.”
The Stanford Prison Experiment is perhaps the most famous example of how quickly and easily dehumanization can occur. In the study, 24 Stanford students were each assigned the role of “guard” or “prisoner.” Despite the fact that the situation was entirely make-believe, within days the guards were abusing the prisoners in very real ways. The guards forced their captives to sleep on concrete, verbally harassed them and put them in solitary confinement. Tellingly, the guards insisted on referring to the prisoners by number rather than name. Philip Zimbardo, the creator of the study, was so affected by the experiment that he considers dehumanization to be the primary basis for all evil.
I don’t mean to say that every action is understandable and every motive is coherent. There are actually crazy, wicked people to be found who, in the words of a Cockney butler, “just want to watch the world burn.” What I am saying is that we should resist the urge to immediately frame every conflict in a black and white, Tolkien-esque fashion. The next time you encounter a dispute, don’t look for Orcs and hobbits — there likely aren’t any to be found.
Contact Joel Gottsegen at joeligy@Stanford.edu.