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Giles Fraser’s sentimentality

This is a guest post by Sarka

“Sentimentality is the expression of emotion without judgment. Perhaps it is worse than that: it is the expression of emotion without an acknowledgement that judgment should enter into how we should react to what we see and hear.”

Theodore Dalrymple wrote that in a context quite other than Israel/Palestine, but I couldn’t help remembering it as I read or listened to various outpourings of emotion about the sufferings of the innocents of Gaza, notably Jon Snow’s. And even more so this morning as I read Giles Fraser’s CIF piece in which he describes at length how entirely overcome with emotion he is over Gaza.

“Well, I admit it: I have been losing my cool. During the week, I decided that it didn’t make sense for me to write about Gaza any more. I was no longer interested in sitting calmly at my desk turning out more apparently ordered sentences, purporting to run smoothly from one solid proposition to another. At times, I feel shut down by the sheer horror of it all, encased in some bitter despondency, unable properly to process the frustration.”

Well, as Tom Lehrer said, “if people can’t communicate, then the least they can do is shut up!”  But it is not the least of Giles’ many unconscious dishonesties that he has no intention of doing so. In fact he goes on to suggest that the intensity of his emotion, which renders him indifferent to serious debate on the politics of the situation, is somehow the guarantee of the truth of his views.

“I know, I know: this sort of emotion is not going to solve anything. But in the midst of unimaginable suffering, the idea of calm objectivity feels like a desperate attempt to maintain some thin veneer of civilisation protecting us from the total futility of it all. And when Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, comes on the radio, intoning that false, calm sympathy straight out of the PR handbook, I want to scream. And the double frustration is that screaming is generally understood to be what you do when you have lost the argument. Whereas I can’t shake the feeling that, in these circumstances, screaming is the most rational thing to do.”

Giles expects us to agree, and wishes us to recognize that if we do not agree then we are either clinging to the illusion of civilization (perhaps he has been reading Brian Eno’s recent diatribe entitled “Gaza and the Loss of Civilisation”)  or in league with hard-hearted baby-killers like Regev. Emotion is truth, emotion is morality, emotion minus the effort of judgment is for that very reason all the more true and moral…

I would not accuse Giles of lying about his emotions. Probably he has spent a lot of time in a state of horrified outrage, obsessively trying to imagine the “unimaginable”” suffering in Gaza. But, unfortunately, that emotions are felt is no guarantee of what might be termed their validity, their authenticity or their propriety.

Propriety? Giles refers at one point to the UNRWA director who broke down in tears in an interview recently, slipping in that this man is his friend. Now, while I might disagree with the UNRWA director’s analysis of the rights and wrongs of the situation, I would never, ever question his right to his grief and misery. He is in the midst of a terrible experience. He is owed my sympathy. But I owe no sympathy to Giles (who seems, bizarrely, to be requiring it for himself on account of his awful need to scream, poor man, and the agonies he suffers when watching Regev talk on TV). Giles is no more in the middle of the wreckage and fear of Gaza than I am! So to me there is something improper about the extremity of his emoting over the sufferings of Gazans; their suffering is theirs, not his, and there is something odious about overdone identification. Compare e.g. “Did you know that John has terminal cancer? It’s just so frightful, so ghastly. What he must be going through, so unimaginable! I keep thinking about it all the time, I just can’t cope with it. It’s just beyond words. I’m so sensitive that way…I didn’t eat anything all day just imagining what he must be feeling, etc etc..I’m really not the sort of person who can stay cool about that sort of thing…” Unless John is your partner or child, or best friend, then this sounds more like posturing self-indulgence than concern for John…

But here I must make a confession of my own. I am capable of being moved by the many reports of suffering and death that I have read or watched in my several decades of adulthood, capable of feeling shocked, angry or depressed as a response. But despite the fact that these days you get   direct shocking footage of bloody conflicts and disasters piped straight onto your screen, I would be lying if I over-egged how much it moved me. I am distanced from it – if after breakfast I went out and found my cat had been run over by a lorry, I would be feeling grief and shedding tears in a way that I certainly didn’t at breakfast, while reading about x hundred or thousand killed in Syria, or Gaza, or Rwanda, or Yugoslavia or wherever. It seems to me that that is normal, and not a mark of psychopathy. Nor does it mean I am merely indifferent – in fact my urge to understand what is going on in any relatively distant bloody conflict or calamity – an exercise of judgment not of pure emoting, is precisely the mark of my concern – which would otherwise in my view be pure voyeurism or worse.

Why waste so many words on Giles? He is not a wicked man, and of course it is cruel and hard-hearted to break a butterfly on a wheel. The problem is that his self-righteous and highly selective substitution of pure sentiment for reason and judgment is all too common on the lib/left now although, paradoxically, the theorisation of the superior claims of sentiment over reason and judgment has traditionally been the province of the far right.  Giles might also want to take note of another of Dalrymple’s observations.  “Moral indignation is, of course, a pleasure in itself, one of the few that costs nothing, and likewise one of the few that never lets you down”.

“…I know, I know: this sort of emotion is not going to solve anything. But in the midst of unimaginable suffering, the idea of calm objectivity feels like a desperate attempt to maintain some thin veneer of civilisation protecting us from the total futility of it all. And when Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, comes on the radio, intoning that false, calm sympathy straight out of the PR handbook, I want to scream. And the double frustration is that screaming is generally understood to be what you do when you have lost the argument. Whereas I can’t shake the feeling that, in these circumstances, screaming is the most rational thing to do.”