Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Western Crusaders and Noble Violence. . .

Defining complex social phenomena is always a convoluted problem. Of course in the 'post-modern' era, where language games and linguistic subtitles are the life-blood of philosophy, definitions themselves become problematical. The very best work of modern philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, and Richard Rorty is really all about the problems of definition. But I digress.

Years ago I was at a pub with a friend who was a PhD student in sociology and who was writing his dissertation on the subject of cults in Britain. Being intellectually mischievous, I claimed that any distinctions between religions and cults were really just arbitrary and a matter of convenience. This led to considerable anger on his part because his entire PhD career hinged, in a sense, on his ability to make this distinction. But after a long conversion my friend had not, in my opinion, done anything to convince me that such distinctions are not, ultimately, driven by some underlying ideological purpose. In the final analysis, distinguishing between a cult and a religion is an exercise in arbitrariness. But these are the kinds of issues that you will very seldom see discussed in any kind of mainstream media. The failure on the part of the MSM is, in part, due to a fairly simple lack of intellectual capacity on the part of both the mainstream writers and broadcasters, and the North American audience. On the other hand, in Europe, and most particularly in France, you will see in-depth, philosophically sophisticated arguments in popular, widely circulated newspapers. Frighteningly, in Canada Rex Murphy seems to qualify as an intellectual.

I bring this up, of course, because of recent events in Halifax where the police allegedly thwarted a plot to commit a mass-shooting. The hapless Justice Minister Peter MacKay was at pains to clarify the meaning of this alleged conspiracy and told us this - "The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism." This statement offers an interesting change in the definition of 'terrorism' that is commonly used in our popular culture, particularly by the rightwing. By shifting the idea of terrorism away from 'political motivations' to 'cultural motivations,' the Harper government seems to be attempting to bolster their election strategy of being seen as religious crusaders and it contributes to the creation of fear amongst Canadians for 'the other.' By attempting to guide the public discourse away from political aspects of so-called 'terrorism' (as well as the political aspect of Harper's war as an election ploy), the HarperCons can tap into a much deeper and darker aspect of public fear, a fear that those in power have been exploiting since the time of the Crusades.

But there is a bit of cognitive dissonance here because for a very long time the popular definition of 'terrorism' has been overtly tired to politics. In fact, this morning on CBC they had an interview with some sort of 'expert' on the subject (I missed his name and qualifications) of terrorism, and he defined terrorism this way - 'the use of violence by political extremists.' And since the alleged plot in Halifax involved people who have been referred to as 'Neo-Nazis,' these events would be very clearly tied to a common notion of terrorism.

But what is interesting to me here is the degree to which a definition of terrorism can shift according to the political/ideological goals of the speaker, and the way that people are compelled to shift their definition so that they can continually brand others as terrorist while distancing their own efforts from being associated with such a notion. The Harper regime wants to associate terrorism with religious and cultural issues because it feeds their narrative of Canada being at war with a foreign group of religious fanatics. And if we associate a group of Nova Scotian Neo-Nazis with terrorism, that narrative is threatened because it politicizes the discourse. The same kind of problem recently arose in the U.S. where a man killed a three Muslims but was not branded by representatives of the State as a terrorist. It is vitally important for Western Governments to brand violent actions by non-white 'extremists' as terrorism, while avoiding that epithet being used in relation to Western caucasians engaged in the same kinds of violent acts. This is because the 'terrorist' must always be 'the other' in order for the notion to have the power to sway people with fear and make them support a political program of war.

But all of this shifting conceptual ground makes one wonder how do we keep a handle on the uses of the notion of 'terrorism' and of how those uses can influence political discourses and outcomes. Well I think it is actually pretty easy most of the time if we just remember that it is almost always a question of the perceived legitimacy of violence. Terrorism is almost always a label used by people to refer to acts of violence that they believe are illegitimate. A great example from contemporary events is the West's response to the coop in Ukraine. A year ago large numbers of Ukrainians, some of them armed and many of them with ties of fascists and ultra-nationalists, began occupying government buildings and calling for the overthrow of an elected president. Our leaders not only didn't refer to these insurgence as 'terrorists,' but they embraced them as legitimate political activists. However, if large numbers of Canadians, some of them armed, occupied the buildings on Parliament Hill and called for the overthrow of Harper they would be roundly referred to as terrorists and treated accordingly by our government. The Israeli government, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, has been stealing Palestinian land for over half a century, bulldozing Palestinian homes, killing and imprisoning Palestinian people. But no Western leader has ever referred to the Israelis as terrorists for such acts. On the other hand, any act of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israel or other Western nations is continually referred to as terrorism. The distinction is solely one of perceived legitimacy. Terrorism is not really a thing in the world, rather it is a conceptual political tool used by leaders and political commentators to de-legitimize certain acts, and by association to legitimize other acts. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was not defensive and resulted in the deaths of around 500 thousand innocent civilians will never be referred to as an act of terrorism by Western leaders.

While we listen to our political leaders continually refer to acts by foreigners or so-called 'home-grown' religious extremists as terrorism, while referring to our own, often indiscriminate and usually ideologically motivated, acts of mass violence as nobel, just remember the issue of perceived legitimacy and think about the agenda of the speaker.


doconnor said...

So, you are an atheist now?

I would define terrorism as trying to make a political change through violence. There isn't much known about the motivation of these Halifax attackers, but I don't think they where trying to trigger a political change. They where probably just wanted to go out in a blaze of glory and revenge.

They say the man who killed three Muslims did so over a parking dispute. It's very possible that racism contributed to his anger, but that doesn't mean he wanted to promote a political change.

The vast majority of the Ukrainian protests where non violent, therefore not terrorists.

Kirby Evans said...

@doconnor - I believe that you are being far too simplistic. First of all, if terrorism can be defined as simply as you say then countless political leaders are terrorists from George Washington, to George Bush: from Nelson Mandela to Abe Lincoln. And as soon as you attempt to expand that definition to accommodate any of these individuals the whole conceptual order comes tumbling down like a house of cards. As for the motivations of Craig Hicks, we will have to wait and see.

As for the Ukrainian protesters, many more of them were armed than Western Journalists were willing to say (I don't simply take Harper's word for these things). But that was not my point. You can choose to call them terrorists or not. However, my point there was that if tens of thousands of protesters occupied Parliament Hill (including the buildings) and refused to leave until Harper resigned, he and his government would refer to them as terrorists, especially if some of them were armed. And if we are careful readers of history, we would know that they wouldn't have to be armed because Government provocateurs would do that job for them, and they would be dealt with swiftly and with an iron fist.

Owen Gray said...

An excellent analysis, Kirby. Almost always a fight takes on a racial or cultural subtext.

Our leaders reduce their opponents to "the other." And hate becomes easy.

doconnor said...

I guess I should refine by definition to say terrorism is trying to make a political change through fear of violence.

George Washington and Nelson Mandela may well fall under that definition. George Bush and Abe Lincoln used powerful military force to effect political change. Terrorists don't have a powerful military, so they use small attacks and leverage the fear that causes.

Harper may call those protesters terrorists, but I would not agree that they are. I don't disagree that politicians will sometimes twist definitions to suite their needs.

Pamela Mac Neil said...

I really enjoyed reading this article Kirby. When Harper and/or his regime wade into water's requiring philosophical knowledge like defining terrorism, I have to laugh.I agree that an important part of philosophy is developing definitions which in itself is complex and requires indepth conceptual thinking.Harper Who renounced philosophical thinking when he accepted evangelical fundamental christianity and McKay who has for the most part not risen to the conceptual level of thinking attempt to define terrorism they reveal their own self serving purpose in being able to point to whom ever they deem to be terrorists.They do not have to be intellectually accountable. A person or a group is terrorist because they say they are. As a side issue ,I sometimes wonder if Harpers reform/alliance/evangelical party,(I don't think they are conservatives) is really just a cult.

Kirby Evans said...

@doconnor - Ironically, I believe that your second (refined) definition is considerably more problematic than your first. If you think about it carefully, the vast majority of military actions are intended to "to make political change through fear of violence." Thus your definition now de facto includes the majority of acts of military violence (both state-sponsored and not state revolutionary groups) as well as anyone who doesn't actually use violence but just the fear of violence.

However, if you read your reply here carefully you have made a tacit distinction between those who have "powerful military force" and their disposal and those (who you seem to be calling "terrorists") who only "use small attacks and leverage." This is an entirely arbitrary distinction of the kind I was criticizing in the first place. It is arbitrary for a number of reasons. 1) the words "powerful military force" vs "small attacks" is simply one of comparison and cannot be quantified. One person's "small attack" may be another's "powerful military force." And 2) it will mostly rely again on the perceived legitimacy of state violence vs non-state violence since for the most part the largest military forces will belong to the state rather than the non-state actors.

I believe that you are now in a minefield (no pun intended) of definitional vagaries that renders such definitions ultimately impossible. Each time that you attempt a refinement, you will either be pushed toward wider inclusion or toward that simply sees the state as the only legitimate user of violence. Each definition will be forced to infinitely expand to take into consideration exceptions or it will rely on a completely arbitrary or ideological defence of one kind of violence over another.

Kirby Evans said...

@Pamela - Thank you for your comment. They say that truth is the first casualty of war, but complex thought seems to be the universal casualty of politics. If we were able to define a cult, then Harper and his henchmen would surely be one.