Suffering for herself
What use is MP Jenny Tonge's 'empathy' to the Palestinians?
Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge’s empathetic comments about Palestinian suicide bombers got her the sack. They also got her two prime-time broadcasts on Radio Four’s Today programme on 16 and 17 February, portraying her talking to both sides of the conflict in the Middle East (1).
In themselves, Tonge’s comments back in January were pretty unremarkable. Referring to Palestinian suicide bombers, she said: ‘Many, many people say it is just another form of terrorism, but I can understand and I am a fairly emotional person and I am a mother and a grandmother. I think that if I had to live in that situation and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself.’ (2)
Despite the subsequent furore in the press, Tonge’s comments chimed with current political sensibilities, in an age that makes a virtue out of the ability to empathise with victims. Left-wing Jewish comedian Jeremy Hardy described Tonge as a ‘very caring person who had been moved by what she saw when she had visited the Palestinian territories and she was expressing that’. By contrast, Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was cast as unfeeling, ‘unwilling to even recognise the plight of the Palestinians’ (3).
It is this climate that explains her promotion from the anonymity of the Lib Dem spokesman on children to the spotlight of media celebrity. And what the Tonge affair shows is that the people of the Middle East would be better off without friends like these.
Take Tonge’s emphasis on ‘empathy’. ‘Trying to understand why people do terrible things is called empathy’, she wrote in an article (4). ‘I have to give you lessons in empathy’, she lectured Radio Four reporter James Reynolds, who accompanied her to the West Bank. Tonge wasn’t supporting suicide bombers’ actions or their aims – nor was she criticising them – she was just saying that she understands. She was putting herself in somebody else’s shoes for just long enough to say that she could empathise with their situation.
This is something that we see everywhere in political life today, from ex-US President Bill Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’ catchphrase to Tony Blair’s insistence that he ‘understands’ people’s anger about the war. This emotional empathy keeps other people at arm’s length – there is no opinion on whether they are right or wrong, no engagement with their aims and reasons. Instead, it’s merely an acknowledgement of their suffering. In relation to the Middle East conflict, few people in Britain would speak out in favour of suicide bombers, or, these days, Israeli army raids on Palestinian homes, but everybody can empathise with the pain of both sides.
These kinds of statements are actually about the speaker showing off their capacity to feel, rather than the subject of their feeling. The whole focus of the Today programme reports was on Tonge, on whether she could really ‘feel’ what they were going through, whether she would really consider doing it herself. ‘What if that was you?’, reporter James Reynolds asked Tonge in his 16 February broadcast, as they looked at the farewell statement of a young suicide bomber. ‘Can you really see yourself carrying a Kalashnikov?’
There was no letting up on this theme: in the 17 February broadcast, Reynolds asked ‘Can you really imagine yourself putting on explosives, getting to this corner here, and then detonating the explosives?’. Tonge said that while she personally was probably not brave enough, ‘I can still understand, and put myself in the position of people who do it’. This is the journalism of attachment, where reporting becomes more about the commentator’s own sense of moral importance than the subject of their report.
Even worse than the narcissism of these exercises, is the idea that empathy could solve the Palestinian conflict: if both sides would only feel each other’s pain, goes the view, there would be no war. Lib Dem deputy chairman Donnachadh McCarthy has said: ‘Jenny made a brave attempt to try to bring attention to the fact that if the appalling suicide bombings are to stop, then we need to understand and address the desperation and political alienation that leads to such awful acts of violence.’ (5)
By these accounts, mediators such as Tonge can explain the two sides to each other, and show them the way through. In the Radio Four broadcast, Tonge visited the families of both Palestinian and Israeli victims of the conflict, pointing out that the teenage victims were the same age as each other.
This touchy-feeling approach to the Middle East conflict removes any trace of politics or political choice. It casts the conflict as inevitable cycles of suffering, created by the lack of empathy between the sides.
The background to this is the depoliticisation of the conflict in recent years, with both Arab Nationalism and Zionism losing their direction. The Western-supervised peace process has taken the conflict out of the hands of Palestinian and Israeli leaders, and put it in the hands of mediators such as the USA – who weigh up the claims of the parties, and judge exactly how much of this concession or that concession is needed. Indeed, the increasing use of suicide bombings by the Palestinians is a sign of political tensions spilling over as nihilistic, individual frustration.
But however depoliticised, the conflict is about much more than the two sides’ lack of empathy. It is underlain by real tensions – between an occupying Israeli state, Palestinians seeking land and rights, and the agendas of international mediators.
And however degraded suicide bombers’ actions, there is still an element of choice involved. Tonge casts the suicide bombers as driven by sheer desperation, like lemmings jumping off a cliff, rather than as individuals who made a decision to die. This model cannot explain why every young Palestinian doesn’t become a bomber. Nor can it explain the pride and defiance of those who do.
Jenny Tonge’s comments are emblematic of the growing desire to feel the pain of the Palestinians. The Middle East conflict could use a bit more thinking from Western bystanders, and a little less ‘understanding’.
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