17 May

Precise Reasoning vs. Evil

Ghia Nodia

I do not know why, but against the backdrop of the 17 May events, when an aggressive mob violently attacked a peaceful rally against homophobia, and the discussions that followed, an expression of the renowned Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili has haunted me: "The devil manipulates us when we think imprecisely."

On that day, devils donned priestly vestments and declared their desire to become masters of our country, hoping that no one would stop them. In this situation, the key question is: who and what can stop them?
Finding the answer to this question requires precise thinking. I do not claim that I have the answer, or that it will prove to be precise, though I want to give a try.

Indignation and Reasoning

The first reaction of those people I respect was indignation about the attack and condemnation of the culprits; first and foremost of those religious servants involved. This in itself is the adequate and correct response. A clear moral stance against savagery and wanton violence is the foundation on which civilization rests. A critical majority of society holding such a position would provide almost the complete answer to the above question. However, today such a majority is missing in Georgia. On 17 May, the offenders acted the way they did because they expected moral support from society and were led by representatives of the most trusted institution in the country.

Calling such savagery by its name and not turning a priest brandishing a stool into a hero is, at this stage, almost tantamount to bravery. For this very reason, those people who still retain normal moral instincts felt that they had come under a common threat and thus developed a sense of solidarity. They do not want to argue with one another: the key now is to maintain unity around the elementary truths that have been questioned.

That is natural. However, gathering in small groups and simply repeating over and over again how bad this evil is only gives rise to narcissist distress: we are not many; there is no hope; the only consolation is that we, at least, are good.

During those days I read one blog that suggested that any explanation of the appalling events means justifying them. While I can understand such a position emotionally, this is essentially a form of intellectual capitulation. It is based on fear: when one mulls over evil with a form of cold reasoning, the intensity of indignation abates and you can no longer fight against it as energetically as before. However, one should at least analyze how he/she came to find him/herself in a situation whereby something that they consider to be an obvious evil is applauded by the majority.

I am writing this article a month after 17 May and prefer to treat the event in a rational and analytical manner. The moral assessment of the event is crystal clear for me: it was a day of shame for Georgia and particularly for the historically dominant Church. The key for me is what to discuss after this assessment has been made.


That the 17 May events were appalling and outrageous does not mean that we should not be surprised by them. They were conditioned by several factors, some of which I will briefly talk about.
Homophobia and civilization. Fear of strangers, which easily degrades into hatred, is an inborn syndrome of every society. Being of a different sexual orientation (especially when this fact is not concealed) is often an especially intolerable case of "being strange". Do not ask me why – this is how it is in reality.

For saying that, I will be attacked by Rousseauist leftists who believe that humans are fundamentally good and non-violent by nature, and only get spoilt by bad governments or social institutions. When you tell people with such attitudes that something is "natural," they instantly think that you want to justify something because they themselves were raised on the cult of "spontaneity" characteristic of the ideology of the 1960s.

In reality, xenophobia and its particular form, homophobia, can never be completely overcome. However, homophobia, like other human impulses, may be restrained and contained so it lies within relatively harmless limits. The force which does that is called civilization: a civilized society can rein in the elementary impulses of humans – aggression, first and foremost. The experiences of the most liberal and, consequently, civilized societies have proved that. Our problem is not an excess of homophobia, but a lack of civilization.

Violence as a mechanism of social control. This is manifested, inter alia, by our society considering violence as a legitimate weapon of social control. People of a certain type (including, of course, the so-called sexual "perverts") must be beaten and that is normal. Those who think in such a manner are not evil at all: they simply reason within the paradigm of their society. Violence is a weapon of pre-civilized democracy; with it society establishes and defends the moral consensus.

Modernization (Westernization) as a form of cultural violence. Statements made by the ideologues of the 17 May events made it clear that the representatives of the United National Movement (UNM) and the "perverts" are almost one and the same for them. They sincerely believe that. Why? Do they have any evidence showing that the share of sexual minorities in that political party is larger than in the population in general? Or, when in power, did the UNM grant special privileges to LGBT groups? Quite the opposite, before the 17 May rally, LGBT representatives believed that real, European-style democracy had arrived in the wake of the UNM government's defeat – that's why they dared to do what, at the end of the day, it was proved they were not allowed to do. As far as official acknowledgments go, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili made more correct statements, in terms of liberal values, concerning 17 May than did President Mikheil Saakashvili. In words, the leaders of the Georgian Dream appeared to be more ardent defenders of the "perverts" than the leaders of the UNM.

A civilized society can rein in the elementary impulses of humans – aggression, first and foremost. The experiences of the most liberal and, consequently, civilized societies have proved that. Our problem is not an excess of homophobia, but a lack of civilization.

However, in the eyes of the 17 May aggressors, the UNM is the force that introduced Western values and civilization – actions which they perceive as a form of cultural violence towards them. The cornerstone of such civilizations is a state based on the rule of law, one that declares a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and thus outlaws "popular" violence as a mechanism of social control. The offenders of the 17 May events are indignant about the "violent state," not because it beats people, but because it deprives the agents of society (for example, "tough guys") the right of legitimized violence. They draw an absolutely correct conclusion: if the use of violence is the prerogative of the state alone, then that means that we can no longer beat up the "perverts." If we cannot beat up the "perverts," then that must mean we are "perverts".

By the ritual beating of "perverts", the 17 May offenders demonstratively regained the right to violence. The state failed to counteract that move and, even more so, bluntly stated that it would not have been correct to have counteracted it. A new balance of power has thus been established: the UNM's cause has really suffered defeat – society has gained the upper hand over the state.
Stalinist Orthodox Christianity. The "tough guys" would not have dared to go into conflict with the state had the Church not given them legitimization (the blessing to do so) or directly led them. Why did the Church act like that?

In almost every country that has them, dominant Orthodox churches are at the head of anti-Western and anti-liberal forces. The fight against sexual minorities or gay-prides, as being a fight against a symbol of Western liberalism, is merely the premise in this case. One of reasons for this might be the fact that the Orthodox Christian world has not yet forgiven the Crusaders for the destruction of Constantinople in 1204 (let me add that it is my belief that the Crusaders acted very badly indeed back then). For us, however, a more topical reason is perhaps that the modern Georgian Orthodox Church, as a hierarchical organization, is the result of Stalin's reconciliation with the Church in 1943, when he decided to support it within certain limits, but on the condition that it would fall under his personal control.

Perhaps Stalin decided to revive the Orthodox churches because he faced a need of having yet another tool of ideological subversive activity in the setting of more intensive relations then being conducted with the West: the new Christian Orthodoxy would be a handy ally in the fight against Western civilization. If that is true, this legacy is still alive today.

But let's go back to the question initially raised: what can stop this coalition of Stalinist Orthodoxy and the "tough guys"? I will now briefly describe two typical mistakes, concepts which are characteristic of our advanced society, but which are directly linked to the problem.

Mistake number one: education will save us

This is a very popular idea: "All of this is a result of ignorance. Education is needed to avoid such shameful episodes in the future."

In general, I have no doubt that an educated society is better than uneducated one and that the chance of violence in an educated society is much lower. However, let us not be haunted by illusions of the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment. Education is necessary, but is not sufficient.

After Diderot and Voltaire, mankind continued to amass certain experiences: the terror of the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, and Nazis were all led by educated people and, in practice, were justified by seemingly rational theories. The Islamic fundamentalism of today comes from the educated middle classes, not the illiterate masses.

It is not at all necessary for an educated person to cherish liberal values. It depends on the type of education received. The Soviet society was quite educated: that was rightly considered an achievement of the communist system. But the system disintegrated and, having emerged from its ruins, people attacked one another under rather primitive slogans and the leadership of the "intelligentsia."

It thus depends on who is educating and what is taught. Do you think that our school teachers and "intelligentsia" cherish those ideas which would rule out a repetition of the events of 17 May? I do not think so. However, even if we had an optimistic answer to this question, it takes too long for the education system to change society. What shall we do until then? The correct answer is that the state must perform its elementary functions.

Mistake number two: "We condemn any violence, no matter who commits it"

This very popular phrase is especially beloved by the so-called "neutralists" who, not supporting either main political party, entertain ambitions of being the moral preachers of society. "No matter who commits it," in fact, means that the violence used by the state on 7 November 2007 and 26 May 2011, which in both instances occurred to break up opposition rallies, should be condemned in an equal fashion as the violence of 17 May 2013. Political balance is also observed – no one will accuse these "neutralists" of siding with the UNM.

This equalization is a clear manifestation of the confusion which exists in the heads of the "neutralists." Regardless of how one evaluates the activities of the state and the police in the above cited episodes, the "condemnation" of those incidents by a large segment of society helped pave the way for the triumph of savagery on 17 May. The same holds true for the stance of several of our respected intellectuals who, in 2004, distanced themselves from what they regarded as a punitive action undertaken against a religious terrorist of earlier times – Basil Mkalavishvili.

If we deem violence from any group attempting to impose social control as unacceptable (i.e. what happened on 17 May), then such violence must be prevented or stopped by someone. That someone is solely the state. The state has a myriad of functions, but one of the most fundamental of these is protecting law-abiding representatives of society from violence. To this end, however, the use of force is sometimes necessary. The shock of 17 May got the "neutralists" to start talking like UNM representatives: "where is the state? Why does it not stop these people?" They, however, forgot that not so long ago they themselves discredited the legitimate use of force by the state by deeming it equivalent to "any violence."

The same approach is adopted by representatives of the new government, especially those western-educated ones who have ambitions of becoming intellectual leaders. However, that is deliberate political demagogy on their part in order to justify their inability and inactivity – first on 8 February, when a mob of Georgian Dream supporters roughed up UNM leaders that came to listen to the president's speech at the public library, and then on 17 May: "did you expect us taking after the former government and using force against people?" Sorry, but why do you have that force, if not for stopping aggressive and non-law-abiding "people" from attacking law-abiding citizens?

True, when the state uses force it should do so proportionally and within the limits of the law. In this regard, we had much to argue about with the former government. But the point is that we must not confuse this absolutely legitimate debate with pseudo-humanist demagogy, which a priori condemns any legitimate use of force by the state as a "policy of force" and fails to see the moral distance between this and the actions of a frenzied mob. Before we learn to make such a distinction, we will see many more events like that of 17 May.


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