17 July 2015

Universal, meet particular

"Politics is sometimes hard. You are right in front of me." The German Chancellor's viral encounter with a young Palestinian woman likely to be is a disturbing, pregnant piece of telly. I've been trying to work out why it has been preying on my mind today. 

Angela Merkel has been criticised for being cold in her response to the young lady's gut-wrenchingly sad question about the precariousness of life in Germany as a refugee without leave to remain. I don't think this is fair. Merkel is no Bill Clinton. She doesn't have the former U.S. president's extrovert powers to project sympathy to an audience. She is direct, categorical, sympathetic -- but unyielding. And it is this sympathy, I think, which makes the encounter so uncomfortable. The allegation of coldness actually obscures what makes the exchange difficult to watch.

If Merkel had been stern, and glacial, and had rebuffed the child's cry of distress unmoved, we might think of her as inhumane.  But to be empathetic to the individual, and yet immoveable on the rules which will destroy their lives - that's one of the most unsettling characteristics of a legalistic, rule-bound way of viewing the world. 

It is a problem of universals and particulars. We meet this in law all the time, and in teaching too. The likeable student who screws up their final degree exams. The charismatic individual who finds themselves on the duff end of the law, whose sufferings you feel for. I've often suspected that being strung up by a sour, hanging judge is in some sense less disturbing than by the quiet, polite, compassionate jurist who doesn't want you to die but diligently does their duty. They feel twinges of mercy, but set it aside.

Mhairi Black's recent Commons début offers another stinging example of the clash of universals and particulars. What seems reasonable in the abstract in a Whitehall Work and Pensions office, drafting sanctions rules, becomes heartbreaking and unendurable when you encounter the frail, broken individual who suffers unjustly under their effects.  You are right in front of me.

George Orwell gave another memorable example, in Looking Back on the Spanish War. He thought the vignette inconsequential. I'm not so sure. Those warring impulses, between universal justice and mercy to the individual, right in front of you -- they run right through our politics and society, like blood through our veins. 

Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca. Their line and ours here lay three hundred yards apart, at which range our aged rifles would not shoot accurately, but by sneaking out to a spot about a hundred yards from the Fascist trench you might, if you were lucky, get a shot at someone through a gap in the parapet. 
Unfortunately the ground between was a flat beet field with no cover except a few ditches, and it was necessary to go out while it was still-dark and return soon after dawn, before the light became too good. This time no Fascists appeared, and we stayed too long and were caught by the dawn. We were in a ditch, but behind us were two hundred yards of flat ground with hardly enough cover for a rabbit. We were still trying to nerve ourselves to make a dash for it when there was an uproar and a blowing of whistles in the Fascist trench. Some of our aeroplanes were coming over. 
At this moment, a man presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. 
Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a ‘Fascist’, he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at him. What does this incident demonstrate? Nothing very much, because it is the kind of thing that happens all the time in all wars.


  1. I must admit to being one of the exceptions who didn't think Merkel was cold. I thought she found being faced with the personal and sympathetic face of her policies tremendously wrenching. And it's not like she asked for there to be this huge wave of refugees. Maybe Germany is handling it the best they can; maybe not. I'm in no position to judge but the whole thing was heartbreaking.

  2. Andrew: 'Merkel is no Bill Clinton. She doesn't have the former U.S. president's extrovert powers to project sympathy to an audience. '

    Well Merkel does seem sincere whereas Clinton is just very good at imitating sympathy - he could go in the space of a few seconds of expressing apparent deep sympathy to someone in trouble, to in almost the same breath, propositioning a woman.

    Duncan Smith did a very good of empathising in Easterhouse and we saw how long that lasted. Or the nazi saluter Edward VIII with his 'something must be done'

    Anyone involved in social work or the law or charity will have been in comparable situations to Merkel's - the good person who is in a bad place but can only be helped by bending or breaking the law.

    1. Quite -- the very Clintonian horror of that. They seem a pretty odious pair, despite being given a free pass by almost every squishy British leftie you can imagine.

  3. And of course the opposite applies. Most Job Centre operatives who sanction people it seems don't have to do it to their faces. The claimant instead gets a brown envelope in the mail, or more often rings up when they find their bank account empty instead of occupied by a measly pittance. So the sanctions regime relies on the person being shafted not being 'under the eyes' of the person doing the sanctioning. I'm not sure it would work otherwise..

  4. "Street-level bureaucrats," in Michael Lipsky's well-known phrase, who have to experience the emotional reactions of those they interact with. My studies of the European Court of Human Rights suggests a similar distancing strategy. A cold, impersonal letter is more easily sent.

  5. Your parallel between Merkel and Orwell worries me but I’m struggling to say why. The title Universal, meet particular suggests a binary opposition but surely there are three terms in this equation rather than two – individual, general and universal. In the Merkel case, there is Angela Merkel as an individual, Germany as one collective among others, and a sense of human universality (sympathy for all human suffering and some notion of morality and universal human rights that transcend all local legal systems).

    There is a division in all of us between a private self and a public front we present to the world, and this is a particularly acute issue for politicians and other public figures. Is it a good thing to be able to switch on empathy, or the appearance of empathy, more or less at will? It can be a great help in a political career (see Bill Clinton) and it can ease everyday social interactions. But does it make you a worse person, because insincere or inauthentic?

    In the case of an officeholder like Merkel she can’t react purely as an individual, even a complex role-playing individual: she embodies an office of state and her reactions are enmeshed with German law, even if she has personal doubts about that law. (Obviously she is well placed to change the law but that is a long-term and contingent process.) In short, Merkel is caught in a triple-bind – individual versus state versus universal.

    I read the Orwell case differently. There are personal and universal factors in play but no state involvement, no question of Orwell being constrained by the rules of office. So his mercy is different from that dispensed by a judge.

    Justice can be understood in two ways – as the correct application of positive (general) law or as the application of abstract (universal) principles of fairness to some unique instance. One kind of mercy lies in recognising that these two senses of justice inevitably diverge and therefore mitigating the force of the law in appropriate circumstances. Unfortunately there’s not much agreement on what counts as appropriate.

    1. The association between this and Orwell has, I'm afraid, a more banal explanation. In my final Honours year in Edinburgh, we discussed the tension between justice and mercy at some length -- which I think was how I first came across that Orwell text in this context.

  6. But sympathy is, I'm afraid, not politically very sophisticated. We shouldn't be demanding sympathy from Mrs Merkel; we should be demanding that her state demonstrate the wherewithal to find houses and jobs for all of those people who want to emigrate to Germany.

    Orwell was a good revolutionary chap, but this situation would remind me of some words from another revolutionary, Etienne Lero: "Among all the filthy bourgeois conventions, we despise above all the humanitarian hypocrisy, this stinking emanation of Christian decay. We loathe pity."


    1. "I weep for you," the Walrus said:
      "I deeply sympathize."
      With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
      Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.'

    2. @ Edwin Moore.

      Hats off to you - just the quote!

    3. You are a hard man, tychy. I stand by my bourgeois conventions, and my sympathies.

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