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Chicken & Egg

April 3, 2024

I am not an expert on the Israel / Palestine conflict. So let me do the wise thing and talk about it anyway. Here’s what I understand at a high level:

  1. There are Palestinians who Hate, with a capital H, Israel and the Israeli people.

  2. There are Israelis who Hate the Palestinians.

  3. Both tribes have committed acts of horror against the other.

  4. Both tribes have stories they strongly, genuinely believe in that justify the hate and violence the other tribe receives and deserves.

What became apparent to me in the media aftermath of October 7th was that this conflict is essentially a version of the oldest debate in the book: “Which came first: the chicken or the EGG???“.

As a reminder of how these conversations typically go:

Alice says to Bob “Bob, of course the chicken came first. Only chickens can lay eggs.”

To which Bob responds “My dear Alice, you are forgetting that that chicken of which you speak, as a matter of fact, was once a younger chicken, and before that a little chick, and before THAT an egg! I rest my case.”

To which Alice says “AHA! But THAT egg. What laid that egg? Only an adult chicken could ever possibly lay a chicken egg. THEREFORE it is the chicken that came first. Q.E.D.”

Alice and Bob go back and forth like this for a while before Carlos enters the conversation with a different perspective:

“Alice, Bob, can’t you see the truth? You’re both stuck in a false dichotomy! The chicken and egg are both part of the same life cycle, which evolved subtley over millions of years by natural selection! Neither came first, they’re both equally part of the same thing!!”

Alice and Bob stop and look at Carlos for a moment. Then Bob says angrily “SHUT UP CARLOS, THE EGG CAME FIRST!” at which point Alice and Bob resume their argument for eternity.

This kind of sums up how all conversations about the Israel / Palestine conversation go. It’s a sobering reminder that tribal beliefs are extremely difficult and, perhaps in all practicality, impossible to change. Even someone as patient and reasonable as Carlos is seemingly powerless against it.

However it’s important to remember the chicken and egg people are not completely stupid. They are behaving rationaly from their narrative perspective.

Imagine you are a part of tribe X. Everyone around you Hates tribe Y. You’ve seen the people of tribe Y commit WAR CRIMES and TERRORISM against people you love. You’ve personally witnessed the murder, rape, and torture of your tribe’s women and children. Could anything assuage the Hate you feel against tribe Y? Even if a peace accord was signed that stops the bloodshed, could you ever really forgive tribe Y? For most people, the answer is no. Barring a god-king who can come in and take away tribe X’s and tribe Y’s guns and missles and put everyone in time-out, the cycle of violence will inevitably continue. It’s like the tribes are stuck in some bad trap, a prisonner’s dilemma where you know the other party will always defect and never cooperate.

So how should a neutral observer act in order to increase the likelihood of peace? One answer: stay out of it as much as you can. Alternatively, learn about the problem to the best of your ability while being completely unbiased and support whatever side however you want. It seems like a lot of people already do this one by default.

The truth is there is no good solution to the chicken and egg debate. Carlos can’t force Alice and Bob to cooperate. The only solution is to eliminate everyone that disagrees with your side or else face the consequences your enemey has in store for you. Not an ideal situation.

Being able to classify complicated problems in simple, emotionally neutral terms is good. Maybe it’s a small step forward to a more productive conversation, maybe it can help people think better and avoid such traps. So when someone starts explaining why Israel is justified in the way it attacks Hamas and someone else responds that Hamas is only doing Hamas things because of [insert bad thing Israel did before Oct. 7th] you can come in and say “Aha! We are in a chicken and egg dilemma, and I’m going to walk away now. Au revoir mes amis!”