Righteous indifference and how to fight it.

29 September 2013

Last week I wrote in the Observer about Qatar’s treatment of the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers, who will build the stadiums and hotels for the 2022 World Cup. They were dying at a rate of one day. They had to cope with inhuman conditions and labour laws that treated them as serfs by giving employers the power to break contracts and stop them leaving the country if they complained. The absolute Qatari monarchy ran a kind of apartheid system, I said. It denied rights it granted the natives to poor workers from Nepal and India. If the image of the old South Africa did not appeal, I offered Sparta as an alternative – ‘but instead of a warrior elite living off the labour of helots, we have plutocrats and sybarites sustained by faceless armies of disposable migrants’.

After publication, a couple of people contacted me to say that the Open Democracy website had published a ‘reasoned’ critique of my article.

Maybe I had got my facts wrong, I thought. I did not seem to be wide of the mark. The next day Robert Booth of the Guardian ran a tough and well-sourced piece on how Qatar’s World Cup building programme would cost 4000 lives by 2022. The International Trade Union Confederation denounced Fifa’s culpability in the scandal, and the International Labour Organisation said that Qatar was refusing to follow basic standards.

But the misnamed “Open Democracy” was more interested in making excuses for a closed and absolute monarchy than the vulgar business of ascertaining how many corpses were piling were up in morgues. If one must talk about the bodies, it said as it began its reproof, one must abjure vulgar emotion and adopt a polite tone. I had ‘overstepped some lines’, and forgotten that ‘the way one words a critical piece about Qatar affects the way it is perceived’.  (Not perceived by the 1.7 million migrants in Qatar, of course, but by the 225,000-strong group of natives above them.)

Open Democracy believes that reform is coming – although a little late for the maimed and dead, it concedes. We should put our faith in the ‘young emir’ – in much the same way that credulous Russian peasants once hoped that young Tsars would ease their burdens. Outsiders, however, must bite their tongues and mind their p’s and q’s as they wait. My critic, a British ex-pat, who teaches in a local university, said that even liberals in the Qatari elite would respond to my piece by saying:

Who are you Westerner, who built your power on the extermination of locals across the globe and the exploitation of human beings for centuries, to lecture us on how to treat people?

You criticise us but are more than happy to take our money when you need it for everything from paying off your debt, to your shops, to your skyscrapers, and your football teams.

When your western construction companies come into Qatar they are the first ones to hire teams of cheap Asian labourers to do the job. Look at yourselves first before criticising us.”


The writer was all for this notion that Western outsiders were too compromised to complain. But notice how he packages his justification: indifference to the suffering of exploited workers is what you would expect to hear from a PR man in a global corporation. But here it is dressed up in the clothes of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism – of righteousness, in short. Righteous indifference is still indifference, but it makes doing or saying nothing sound like the liberal course to follow.

As Open Democracy raised the question of tone, I should say I loathe its tone of voice more than any other. It is the note you hear when you are told to forget about secularism or women’s rights (especially women’s rights) as religious conservatives march. It is the throat-clearing used to justify tyranny and excuse the barbarism of radical Islam. It is that sing-song, world-weary note that makes shrugging your shoulders and turning away appear virtuous.

Let me take what is wrong with it from the top.

1. “You’re a hypocrite” is not an argument

Suppose a property developer in Qatar were to condemn the treatment of migrant workers. If a man in the audience were to reveal that the developer on stage worked his labourers 12-hours a day and left them to suffer heart attacks in hot, unventilated barracks at night, he would prove that the speaker was a shameful hypocrite. But he would not prove that it was right to leave work labourers 12-hours a day and leave them to suffer heart attacks in hot, unventilated barracks.

2. You are responsible for your actions – no one else’s

As it happens the international trade union movement is not developing stadiums and hotels for the World Cup. Nor am I.  We do not support the crimes of the British Empire either. Indeed, there no longer is a British Empire for us to support.  Yet large numbers of Westerners still believe that they must atone for the crimes of their ancestors, real and imaginary, by keeping silent and pulling their punches. If you are one of them, you ought to read Pascal Bruckner’s discussion of the difference between repentance and remorse in his Tyranny of Guilt.

‘All modern thought,’ he says with a little hyperbole, ‘can be reduced to a mechanical denunciation of the West, emphasising [its] hypocrisy, violence and abomination. The duty to repent forbids the Western bloc, which is eternally guilty, to judge or combat other systems, other states, other religions. Our past crimes command us to keep our mouths closed.’

But keeping your mouth closed is not an act of true repentance. When you repent, you resolve to find absolution by doing better. Western thought is not dominated by an urge to repent for past crimes, which would mean standing up against exploitation, oppression and religious fanaticism, but by remorse, which the Catholic Church rightly identifies as a sin because it is so easy and unproductive. Remorseful Westerners are meant to wallow in perpetual penitence and do nothing beyond asking what right we have to judge any ‘other’ when Western culture has sinned so grievously.

3. Identity politics is always reactionary

As soon as you start accepting categories like “the West”, “the Muslims” etc. you fall into a trap. To stay with the 2022 World Cup, there are people who support the exploitation of labour and people who oppose it. You can find them in all countries and cultures. What unites supporters and opponents of workers’ rights is more important than what divides them. Accept that no one but an Arab from the Gulf can criticise the rulers of the Gulf, and you play into the hands of the remarkably greedy Qatari royal family and its equally rapacious developers and gang masters. They must be delighted that supposed liberals are supplying them with arguments they can use against their subjugated workers. Delighted – and I suspect astonished.

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  • Kennybhoy

    Maister Cohen wrote:

    “… which the Catholic Church rightly identifies as a sin because it is so easy and unproductive.”

    How did you come across this Maister C?

    • David Lindsay

      He’s right. But it has a technical meaning. Still, he is right.

      • Kennybhoy

        My question was semi-rhetorical Young Maister. I am genuinely curious as to what motivated such a notorious atheist, nay Catholic baiter, to cite the teachings of HMC in support of his argument…

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Instead of spoiling for a big fight scenario..somebody really clever could view this position of “righteous indifference” as a golden opportunity to affect a very positive change. One that treats all stakeholders, especially the weakest respectfully with dignity and kindness.

  • Jeremy Fox

    Pretty-well everything you say about Open Democracy (OD) is not just flat wrong, it’s also misleading and nasty. Unlike The Spectator with its lickspittle devotion to the Tories no matter what they do and say, OD has no party line, no political stance other than democracy itself. Had you offered this piece to OD, it would have been published. Polemic – the hammering out of different views – is fundamental to OD’s ethos. When you complain that Open Democracy is misnamed, perhaps it is because you have become so wedded to the habitual biases of the British press (biases that are largely right-wing) that you no longer recognize true openness when it confronts you. Democracy is, of course, uncomfortable for those who interpret the world in Manichean terms.
    This is not the only example of fanciful nonsense in this piece. Your characterization of the West as paralyzed by guilt is so laughably wide of the mark that one wonders if you are being entirely serious. Over the last few decades, western governments have been as assiduous as ever in meddling in other countries “for their own good as well as ours…”. Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia, Venezuela, Honduras, Libya, etc., etc. etc, etc etc…….. “Remorseful westerners doing nothing…?” What planet are you living on?

  • andagain

    They had to cope with inhuman conditions and labour laws that treated
    them as serfs by giving employers the power to break contracts and stop
    them leaving the country if they complained.

    Indentured labourers would seem to be a more accurate analogy. It is an important distinction, because people choose to be migrant workers of indentured labourers, which suggests that this option was better than the others open to them. People certainly did not choose to be serfs or helots.

    The Open Democracy article, on the other hand, seems to think that Nick’s piece is perfectly accurate and true, but ought to go unsaid. As Voltaire so nearly remarked, “I may agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to stop you from saying it…”

  • johnmeredith

    Amen to this. I remember when a certain Bashir Assad was the liberating ‘young emir’ of another place.

  • edwarmi

    If the website is called Open Democracy isn’t it supposed to be open to different points of view, or am I missing something?

  • mightymark

    Brilliant piece Nick – and capable of far wider application than Qatar.

  • David van Dusen

    Bravo, Nick. & apropos of faux-Leftist, postcolonial discourse & “remorse”: it is time for the Left to acknowledge that its postcolonial discourse is itself profoundly Eurocentric. The Arab slave-trade vastly overshadows the European slave-trade, in space & in time: & this — the situation in Qatar — is a survival of that.

  • AdamRamsay

    It’s fair to criticise the piece, but open democracy is a website which publishes numerous, often opposing opinions. To say it takes ‘a position’ or has ‘a tone’ on a question like this is simply inaccurate – it would be like saying the Spectator supports everything you say in its pages, Nick, or someone who doesn’t like your tone saying they loathe “The Spectator’s tone”.

  • Fasdunkle

    I wouldn’t worry too much about “Open Democracy”, the site is a joke

  • Angry Harry

    I notice that Nick mentioned women’s rights, but he failed to mention the word “men” anywhere in his piece.

    How strange; given that I feel sure that nearly all of the “hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers, who will build the stadiums and hotels for the 2022 World Cup” will, in fact, be men.

    So, here we have a piece about thousands of seriously exploited labourers – many of whom will die – but the fact that they are overwhelmingly men is not even mentioned once.

    Of course, if they were mostly women, Nick would have pointed this out very emphatically. And, no doubt, hordes of other columnists would be writing pieces about the horrors taking place in Qatar.

    But, because they are mostly men, no-one really gives a toss.

    And this, Dear Nick, is why “… the misnamed “Open Democracy” was more interested in making excuses for a closed and absolute monarchy than the vulgar business of ascertaining how many corpses were piling up in morgues.”

    Of course, had these unfortunate labourers mostly been women, then Open Democracy’s attitude would have been very different.

    • Tim Reed

      Excellent comment. It’s the one glaring omission from the article and an all too common blind spot.

      “Of course, had these unfortunate labourers mostly been women, then Open Democracy’s attitude would have been very different.”

      Not just this group. I suspect there would by now have been international condemnation, worldwide mass protests, and demands for boycotts unless the death and exploitation was ended immediately.

    • Dan Grover

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re arguing about – “because they are mostly men, no-one really gives a toss.” You’re saying that on an article by someone who clearly gives a toss and is using his platform to extol the injustices occuring. He hasn’t mentioned “men” because the fact they’re men is an irrelevancy, as is their hair colour, religion and sexual preference. They’re humans who deserve better. You say that if they were all women, this would have been pointed out emphatically – do you really have any reason to think this? Lots of employees in sweat shops in Asia are female, but when you read another story decrying their use, or the levels of suicide in Foxconn factories, I’ve never seen reference to the gender of the staff (but it’s not hard to find information explaining that a good chunk of them are women).

      This simply isn’t a gender issue. The sole reference in the whole piece to gender was relating to the tone adopted and using a specifically DIFFERENT issue as a comparison.

  • jameshogg

    People have merely SUSPECTED Nick of being a hypocrite simply because he went two seconds without criticising the past crimes of the West and raised an issue that is *gasp* different and unrelated. Well guess what? Even if he WAS being a hypocrite, he would still by definition be correct half of the time. I have demolished this kind of babbling rhetoric in my sleep now.

    These empty people have shown that they contribute absolutely nothing to the serious philosophical and moral questions civilisation faces.

    Just move on and ignore them. Do what you can to help the Qatari working class.

    • alabenn

      They are not Qatari working class, no one outside of Europe grants itinerant workers citizenship.
      If the gassing of Syrians is not worth our intervention why would anyone intervene on behalf of subjugated workers in a country that happens to have lots of money and gas that the West wants, maybe Miliband can answer that.

    • Icebow

      ‘Qatari working class’. Conjures up this image of someone with a flat cap and scarf hacking up phlegm.

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