Koran Burning, and the Cowardly Shield of Individualism

The news that Koran burners have blood on their hands is getting surprisingly little publicity in the U.S. To those who are not aware, Pastors Wayne Sapp and Terry Jones in Florida burned a Koran in a church on March 20. On April 1, several hundred protesters surrounded the UN headquarters in Afghanistan, and the protest turned deadly. At least 30 people were killed, including seven UN staffers.

To the extent there was any reaction in America, the reaction was no more than some tut-tuts and hand-wringing accompanied with some mutterings about First Amendment rights. In fact, some people took to task that Gen. Petraeus dared to offer condolences to the people who died in the violent episode. Particularly interesting is this post by W.W., an America-based correspondent for the Economist:
General David Petraeus and Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, issued a joint statement condemning the Florida zealot's zealotry and offering "condolences to the families of all those injured and killed in violence which occurred in the wake of the burning of the Holy Qur'an", omitting to note the agency and responsibility of the zealots actually responsible for the deadly mob violence, almost as if zealots in Florida are expected to control themselves while zealots in Afghanistan are not.


But the military occupation of Afghanistan, which is (let's face it) the basis of most anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan, is not Terry Jones' responsibility any more than it is mine, and neither is the behaviour of zealots enraged by his idiotic pyrotechnics. The mob can't pass the buck to Terry Jones any more than Terry Jones can pass the buck to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The buck stops in each zealous breast. It's imprudent to issue official statements that suggest otherwise—that suggest responsibility rests with those who try to incite and not with those who choose to be incited.

The Wall Street Journal concludes its piece on Mr Petraeus' unwelcome new travails with a quotation from a rioting zealot in Kandahar:

"We cannot see the difference between that man in Florida and the American soldiers here," said Karimullah, a 25-year-old religious student who, like many Afghans, goes by one name and took part in Sunday's Kandahar protests. "They are killing our people here while in the U.S. they burn the Holy Quran. America just wants to humiliate the Muslim world."

Like Terry Jones, Mr Karimullah is just full of it. He can see the difference between the American soldiers in Afghanistan and Terry Jones, if he tries. For example, Terry Jones is not part of the military occupation of Mr Karimullah's country. And the innocent civilians Afghan rioters have wantonly killed aren't American soldiers or Terry Jones.
Zealotry and Responsibility [The Economist] (emphasis added)

The Korean thought this was interesting because it clearly shows something about America that drives this American crazy:  the stunning lack of self-awareness at the collective level, and the willingness to hide behind the ignorant and cowardly shield of individualism at every opportunity.

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

This is not to say that the Korean rejects individualism as a whole. To do so would be foolish. There is a great deal of truth in the idea that people deserve to be treated as individuals, and human rights accorded to each individual is one of the greatest achievements by the mankind in modern era. Individualism also contributed toward generating wealth unprecedented in human history. At bottom, the Korean is an individualist -- he is the same guy who blasted creepy Asianophiles for failing to see the individual. It is just that he is not an individualism absolutist.

What the Korean does reject is this: hiding behind individualism at the face of a collective-directed effect. Collective action holds as much truth as individualism. Much of what we do is done as a collective, and such collective action, in most cases, affects another collective wholesale, not tailored to individuals. The clearest illustration of this is from John Howard Griffin, a white journalist who darkened his skin to experience life as a black man in the segregation-era South. After numerous experiences of being unable to find a storekeeper who would let him use the bathroom or a public bathroom open for blacks, Griffin wrote in his book, Black Like Me:
But at the time of the rebuff, even when the rebuff is impersonal, such as holding his bladder until he can find a “Colored” sign, the Negro cannot rationalize. He feels it personally and it burns him. It gives him a view of the white man that the white can never understand; for if the Negro is part of the black mass, the white is always the individual, and he will sincerely deny that he is “like that,” he has always tried to be fair and kind to the Negro. Such men are offended to find Negroes suspicious of them, never realizing the Negro cannot understand how — since as individuals they are decent and “good” to the colored — the white as a group can still contrive to arrange life so that it destroys the Negro’s sense of personal value, degrades his human dignity, deadens the fiber of his being.
This is a classic illustration of the cowardly shield of individualism. In both segregation and Koran-burning, a group is humiliated for its collective characteristics: African Americans because of their skin color, and Muslims because of their religion. This humiliation is administered without regard to any difference among individuals within the group -- even the most peace-loving Muslims are humiliated in a Koran-burning. But when the humiliated group directs its anger to a member of the humiliating group, the shield is self-righteously raised: "I personally feel bad for you, but this is not my fault. See, you got the wrong individual. You should direct your anger at the right person." Under the shield of individualism, an action by the collective to which you belong can never be attributed to you in any way, because there is an infinite number of ways to extricate yourself from the collective. It was the other political party; I personally opposed; I just work here; I was only following orders.

At this point, individualism absolutists may object:  "Both Koran-burners and Afghan Muslim protesters fail to account for the individual. Why can't the two denounced equally?" And this is what W.W. essentially does, labeling both Terry Jones and Karimullah as "zealots" who deserve equal contempt. But this is the objection that makes the shield of individualism not only cowardly, but also ignorant. It is ignorant because it ignores the fundamental disparity in individual positions created by the respective groups to which the individuals belong, without regard to any individual characteristic.

Koran-burners are Americans; Muslim protesters in Afghanistan are Afghans. There is a huge difference between being an American and being an Afghan, regardless of what kind of individual one may be in those two respective group. And here, America has all the power, and Afghanistan has none. Treating individual Americans the same as individual Afghanis is to be blind to this difference.

Another post in the Economist, written by a different writer M.S., makes this exact point:
I do think there's a distinction here which has formed one of the main confusions of America's confrontation with the Islamic world over the past decade. Like Terry Jones, Karimullah may be a deeply ignorant and unpleasant guy. But as writers for English-language publications and websites, and as members of the American polity, we are engaged in a community-wide political dialogue with Terry Jones. We are engaged in no such dialogue with Karimullah. Karimullah does not read any of the websites my colleague and I read or write on, and we don't read any of the websites Karimullah reads or writes on, if indeed he is among the lucky 28% of Afghanistan's population who can read. 
So this is the Korean's point: Americans would do well to develop a better sense of collective awareness. This kind of awareness begins by asking ourselves these questions: which social groups do I belong to? What are the unique advantages of those groups? How are those groups perceived by other groups? How are my own actions affecting such perception? If other members of my group are tarnishing the perception of my group, what can I do to stop those members?

These questions are essential not because individuals are unimportant relative to collectives, but because individuals are much more important than collectives. (Remember, the Korean is an individualist.) True individualists must reject the shield of individualism because rare is the case in which an individual belonging to a powerless group can raise that shield. An unmanned drone is not receptive to an Afghani's plea that he is a civilian before getting gunned down. The outrage of millions of peace-loving Muslims around the world does nothing to the Koran-burners. The shield of individualism is a near-exclusive privilege for the powerful. If we are to respect the members of a powerless group as individuals as equal as we, we must be ready to lay down the weapons that are only available to us.

Americans are not good at doing that. As members of the strongest and wealthiest country in the world, Americans can freely peek out of and hide behind the shield whenever they damn well please. M.S. delivers an absolute money shot on this point:
A lot of the more ridiculous and pointless mistakes America has made over the past decade revolved around attempts to "send a message" to groups of people who were not listening to us, did not speak our language, and interpreted and responded to our gestures in ways we had not intended, with disastrous results. Come to think of it, the same could be said of the murderous attempt to "send a message" to America that set this whole nightmarish decade-long farrago into motion. So I disagree with my colleague's certainty that Karimullah can distinguish between Mr Jones and the American soldiers in his country. Plenty of Americans are still today incapable of distinguishing between the September 11th terrorists and the other billion-odd Muslim inhabitants of planet Earth, despite the advantages of literacy and internet access, and I don't think we should expect the average Afghan to do any better.
Americans tend to recoil at the word "collective", and such reaction is justified to a degree -- it reminds one of "collective responsibility" and the hideous tactics of guilt-by-association used by oppressive regimes throughout the history. But the collective self-awareness is fundamentally different from such systems that oppresses and denigrates the individual. Collective self-awareness finally elevates an individual to a fair and equal plane by removing the restrictions imposed upon the individual simply by virtue of the individual's group association. This cannot happen unless we are keenly aware of what groups we belong to, and what advantages we came to possess no thanks to our own effort.

As members of a group that provides the greatest advantage to its members -- United States of America, the strongest and wealthiest nation that the history has ever seen -- it is imperative that Americans develop a better sense of collective awareness and lay down the shield of individualism. To elaborate on the principle articulated by one of the greatest fictional American heroes, this is the kind of great responsibility that comes with great power.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.