Posted by on November 02, 2011 in Blog

I’ve written a more elaborate piece on the problem with Bill Maher’s conception of the Arab and Muslim worlds before, but his latest comments on the video of Gaddafi’s violent capture merit another reaction. Commenting specifically on the video of rebels sodomizing Gaddafi with an object before he was killed, Maher said: “don’t these people have issues?… I feel like [committing this act] says something about you as a culture.”

There is no denying that the abuse and brutality that Gaddafi met at the hands of the rebels upon his capture was utterly unacceptable, regardless of how awful his crimes had been (and doubtless they were pretty awful). But whatever abuses take place in the midst of armed conflict tell us less about the culture of the perpetrators and more about the culture of war, especially when we see these very same abuses replicated in other conflicts across the world. When American soldiers are documented to have committed acts of sexual humiliation against Iraqi prisoners in Abu-Ghraib, no sensible thinker would take that as a reflection of American culture. It’s a reflection of an environment of violence, dehumanization, and unaccountability.

The truth is that war takes a part of our humanity away. People cease to operate by healthy moral mindsets when they are plunged into a situation where they have to kill or be killed. While that much may seem obvious to most of us, people like Bill Maher are so eager to support their preconceived (indeed, ill-conceived) notions about the culture of “these people” (he’s always loose on who he’s talking about exactly) that he’s willing to grab any piece of plausible evidence and force-connect it to his thesis when in reality there were no dots to connect at all.

To their credit, people on the panel with Bill Maher challenged his comments, with Newsweek’s Michelle Goldberg noting that the treatment of Mussolini’s corpse could not be taken to reflect Italian culture, and Cornell West adding that sexual abuse had taken place by rogue officers within American police forces. As for Bill Maher himself, he seemed noticeably reluctant to defend his point, as though he wasn’t certain his interpretation was defensible. To his credit, he is an honest thinker who has repeatedly shown the capacity to evolve his views when confronted with new facts, which makes calling him out when he gets something really wrong all the more worthwhile.

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