Nick Cohen has no time for what aboutery, for “how can you from the West talk about that instead of talking about the West,” for righteous indifference. He wrote that piece last week about the way Qatar treats immigrant labor, and got some whataboutery in response.
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.)
How does the author of the Open Democracy piece, Michael Stephens, put it?
Simply put, the way one words a critical piece about Qatar affects the way it is perceived. Most Qataris know there are serious problems with labour rights in the country, they are not cold unfeeling monsters. Yes, there can be racial divides and negative stereotypes which reflect badly on the local population. But the vast majority of Qataris know reform must come, and that the clock is ticking down towards 2022, a time in which the country will come under the spotlight of the world’s gaze. If the laws stay as they are, that gaze will be not be a favourable one.
Covering important issues such as the issue of Gulf workers and the Kafala (sponsorship) system needs the input of the locals themselves, and to actually get them to engage with the issue. Nowhere in Cohen’s piece is there actually a view of a Qatari expressed. We’re not even made aware if the locals have an opinion on this issue or not, or the Emir, or the Ministries.
The idea seems to be that one mustn’t just criticize from outside, although it’s not really spelled out why. Let’s assume the why is “because only insiders can fix the problem and they won’t do that unless you consult them.” But that’s not true. Often it is external pressure that pushes vicious systems into reform. In any case, as Nick points out, the 1.7 million migrants are insiders too, so why shouldn’t Nick address them rather than the 225,000 locals who exploit 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.
A pox on whataboutery.