Moral relativism:
Optimistic cyclist couple meets bitter end

Couple dedicated to liberal views on cycling trip through Muslim countries eliminated by ISIS. Whose philosophy informed their faith?

Mordechai Sones,

Sunset over cyclist couple
Sunset over cyclist couple
iStock

Conservative YouTube star Paul Joseph Watson told the story of Western-minded left-wing partners who left their jobs for a cycling trip around the world and were eliminated by ISIS at the end of last month.

The couple, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, cycled through Africa to Europe, and from there to the Middle East. They documented the journey on their blog and explained their philosophy there, which holds that human beings are basically good, that evil does not exist, and that there is no qualitative advantage of one culture over another.

They were murdered in Tajikistan by ISIS operatives who deliberately crushed them with a car along with other cyclists, and then stabbed them to death.

Watson perused the couple's blog and discovered that throughout their cycling journey, the two had encountered brutality at the hand of the locals. In many cases they were accosted because they did not want to buy what people wanted to sell them, or because they did not want a selfie photo with them. The couple was pushed, knocked off their bicycle, and more.

Watson argued the couple's innocent faith was similar to the belief of leftists in Western countries encouraging uncontrolled immigration from hostile cultures into their countries.

One blog post by the couple read: "Evil is a make-believe concept we've invented to deal with the complexities of fellow human beings holding beliefs and perspectives different from our own."

The philosophy seems to mirror work by Miami University (Ohio) Professor Hillel Gray who espouses a "critical-empathetic approach" to "oppositional religious groups" and "a reduction of violence vs enemies".

"Part of my work is to question Us vs Them binaries, get folks to see the world in complex terms, to critically & empathetically understand Them," Gray writes. "It's one thing to make moral distinctions, it's another to label a group of humans as The Enemy."

Did the cyclist couple's faith in a critical-empathetic perception of their enemies kill them?

Arutz Sheva asked Dr. Gray this question and he replied, "Critical thinking and ethnographic work does not imply ignorance of danger. When I interact with groups like Neturei Karta, Zehut, or Westboro Baptist Church, I am assessing the risks," says Gray, not elaborating on his unclear juxtaposition of Moshe Feiglin's political movement, Zehut, that threatened Israel's ruling Likud, and the other two organizations he mentioned that are widely considered fringe groups.

"The WBC, for instance, rigorously uses (physically) nonviolent methods. So I am more at risk from those who want to hurt WBC than from this anti-Jewish group itself.

"Second, ISIS and similar militants do clearly exemplify the kind of oppositional religious groups that starkly see the cosmos in terms of Us/Good vs Them/Evil. From what I can tell, ISIS dehumanizes everybody outside their group, considers them Enemies, and is thereby willing to brutalize and harm them. While I myself study groups that I see as personally not dangerous, I know scholars who take somewhat greater risks in the field, such as studying criminal gangs or the KKK. A courageous example is sociologist James Aho, who has studied white nationalist anti-Semites.

"So, while it's important to better understand all sorts of radical religious groups, by using our best cognitive and emotional empathy skills, it's sometimes wise to do so from a distance!

"Third, you don't need to do daf yomi [be a talmudic scholar] to make the distinction between 'evil does not exist' (if that's what the murdered couple thought) and 'not all [Jews] [Muslims] [immigrants] [Republicans] [etc.] are evil'.

"My role as a critical-empathetic scholar does mean that I approach people without judging them, theologically or morally. But I am not against moral evaluation per se. Yes, I do think it is unhelpful to simply characterize those outside your group as The Enemy. Why? Partly because that couple (if reported correctly) was wrong -- some outside your group will act kindly, some will act hurtfully. The world is more complex than seeing all Arabs as The Enemy or seeing all Jews as evil incarnate, etc."

Was the couple then in error? What philosophical self-preservation mechanism was put to sleep within them that erased the distinction between evil's true measure in this world and its very non-existence?

"In my work, I try to build on actual discourse and observable behaviors, aka evidence. I would think that "Evil" and "Good" are not observable as the intrinsic nature of a human person, but rather as (ethical) evaluations of a human statement or action. Perhaps the couple erred in assuming everybody is kind in their actions? Certainly they seem to have erred in assessing the danger of some people. When I first went to visit Westboro Baptist Church, I did consult with security experts to assure myself about the risks. I didn't start bringing students there until ~7 years after I'd started my research about them."

And does keeping a safe distance necessarily imply a concession to the us/them binary? If one really wants to jettison it doesn't he have to put his money where his mouth is, like that couple?

"No, keeping a safe distance is completely consistent with my critical-empathetic approach. I want to listen, in a friendly and nonjudgmental way, to religious people that many people dislike (such as Neturei Karta or Westboro Baptist Church). I'm hoping to build relationships based on trust and respect, seeking (constrained) 'bridging conversations' that can serve as a bridge to richer relationships and dialogue. How can this be done if you're in danger?"








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