Monthly Archives: November 2015

Language and its Power

terrorism and language

Language certainly has the power to direct you towards pre-selected portions of reality. It makes it possible for false comparisons and confusion over categories of meaning. For example, there is a common statement that circulates in the public that is not only a facile generality but dangerous. If you actually believe this statement, if you are ensnared by its rhetorical trickery and literally accept the two propositions as being equal, then it reveals you as a less than rigorous thinker who cannot recognize or make important distinctions. If you accept the equivalence of the two propositions you are likely to put yourself and others in danger by being paralyzed with an inability to act and justify definitional clarity that allows for clear decision-making. The dangerous cliché I’m talking about is:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If you believe this then Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the same as what might be considered a defensible national liberation movement. The semantic foundation of the cliché implies that nothing matters except perspective. It’s a cliché championed by terrorists because they want to present their own causes as positive and justified. And the logical extension of this thinking is that no violent act can be too odious because it is all in the service of national liberation. Terrorists love this phrase because it blurs the distinction between goals and the means to achieve the goals, when in fact no political movement can serve as a justification for terrorism.

This issue has emerged again given the events in Paris. And interestingly, ISIS is so extreme there has been very little political justification for their violence.
This cliché cannot stand and we need more political leaders and public intellectuals to condemn it. There needs to be public discussion and argument. Freedom fighters who are truly struggling against oppression do not kill innocent people and sow panic and confusion – murderers do. Why would the democracies and liberal political regimes around the world allow the word “freedom” to be used in this way? ISIS does not bring freedom they carry fear and oppression. The best reading on this is by Boaz Ganor and can be found here. It is crucial to make the distinction between terrorism and national liberation.
Let’s try to be a little clearer about terrorism. As Ganor describes, terror is (1) violent. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are not terrorism. Terrorism is (2) political. Violence without politics is simply criminal behavior. And (3) terrorism is against civilians with the goal of creating fear and confusion. It mixes with the media to produce anxiety. So what is not terrorism? Terrorism is not accidental collateral damage when the original target is military. Using citizens as shields places the onus of responsibility on those manipulating the citizenry, not those who initiated the attack if it was against a military target. It is also important to recognize those situations where targets of violence are clearly military and uniformed soldiers. Using guerrilla tactics does not necessarily mean terrorism.
It is important, too, that motives be taken into consideration. The real thorny problem is the idea that any form of national liberation – believed sincerely by a presumably oppressed group – justifies violence that is not considered terrorism. This perpetuates the dangerous relativism of the cliché. The hard mental work of distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence is important if we are going to pass legislation to protect the public, have effective international cooperation, and assist those states struggling with terrorism.
If enough people genuinely accept this relativist cliché then all bets are off. Any sort of violence can be justified and the international community will have a collective shrug of its shoulders essentially saying, “who cares” because someone considers the violent group “freedom fighters” wrapped in vacuous rhetoric designed to justify violence. As difficult as it is to fashion a precise definition of terrorism, it is equally as difficult to imagine accepting ISIS and jihadist attacks against the French as the work of “freedom fighters.”

Note: This post was first published December 23, 2013

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ISIS Burns Paris and Commits Genocide Against the Yazidis?

A man holds a placard reading "Yazidi children want to live" and sporting the Yazidi flag next to others holding placards during a demonstration mainly by Yazidi refugees in support of their community in Iraq, on August 20, 2014 in Angers, western France. Yazidi refugees living in France's Maine-et-Loire department, whom arrived in the region in the last 10 years, demonstrated along with Kurdish speakers on August 20 in Angers in support of Yazidis persecuted in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS). AFP PHOTO / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

A man holds a placard reading “Yazidi children want to live” and sporting the Yazidi flag next to others holding placards during a demonstration mainly by Yazidi refugees in support of their community in Iraq, on August 20, 2014 in Angers, western France. Yazidi refugees living in France’s Maine-et-Loire department, whom arrived in the region in the last 10 years, demonstrated along with Kurdish speakers on August 20 in Angers in support of Yazidis persecuted in Iraq by the Islamic State (IS). AFP PHOTO / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER (Photo credit should read JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

How long do you stand on the sidelines? How long do you wait? France has declared war finally and the US still isn’t doing enough against ISIS. The Kurds are brave and powerful allies who are the tip of the sword in the fight against ISIS. They need more support and our relationship with Turkey be damned.

The US Holocaust Museum has called the Islamic state’s treatment of the Yazidis genocide. It is unfortunate that terms such as “genocide” get tossed about too often and therefore drained of their power. When people claim genocide for rhetorical purposes only the term becomes weakened and then, like the little boy who cried wolf too often, no one believes him when the wolf is actually at the door. And as much as we want to avoid foreign entanglements and stay out of the business of others, how long do you stand on the sidelines watching one group of people being destroyed by another. I’m careful about Holocaust comparisons and invoking the Nazis as the epitome of evil because it also drains the reality of its power. Moreover, anti-Semitism and the Jewish Holocaust are particularistic enough such that comparisons fail.

But below is the United Nations definition of genocide and it is pretty clear. Every one of the five conditions certainly applies to the Jewish Holocaust and the first three are quite descriptive of the Islamic state’s treatment of the Yazidis.

General Assembly Resolution 260A (III) Article 2. In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

But still, there are similarities and it’s important to find consistencies and defensible comparisons of genocide in one case so that we can recognize it in another.

Who are the Yazidis?

I’ll let the reader go to Wikipedia or some convenient Internet site for additional information on the Yazidis. But quickly, the Yazidis are a monotheistic religious community that lives in Iraq. They have been discriminated against religiously for centuries because their chief God is equated with a fallen angel in other religions and therefore Satan. In 2014 they were specifically targeted by ISIS in an effort to purify Iraq of non-Islamic influences. This unleashed a wave of rape and murder and calls for the destruction of the Yazidis by ISIS. Reports of Yazidis fleeing the town of Sinjar where they were being killed by ISIS forces in a genocidal manner are common enough. Young Yazidis women who had been raped by ISIS fighters were committing suicide.

The ISIS digital magazine Dabiq has claimed that slavery and the absorption of Yazidis women and children has religious justification. The US Holocaust Museum has identified the attacks on the Yazidis as genocide. This is based on evidence gathered by the Deputy Director of the museum during a visit to Yazidis camps.

There is clear evidence that the Islamic state has committed genocidal war crimes against the Yazidis as well as other religious offshoots. Every person interviewed claimed the violence against the Yazidis was systematic and more vicious than they had ever seen. Secretary Kerry should formally accuse ISIS of committing genocide and begin an international investigation.

Once again we are confronted with an extremist ethnopolitical group whose hate is of hallucinogenic proportions. Whether it be Jews, French citizens in a restaurant or at a concert, or Yazidis the question remains: how long do you wait before you do something?

 

 

The Republicans Are Wimps: How to Have a Deliberative Presidential Candidate Debate

 

10-commandments-of-LogicRemember, quality adversarial debate does not arise spontaneously. It is a public good that must be nurtured.

Is it really too much to ask that the political parties (but essentially the Republicans this year) work harder to turn even the primary debates into something a little more deliberative? These debates are structurally flawed and result in confusion and a cacophony of voices that are incoherent and fail to provide a line of reasoning for citizens to observe and learn from. Any debate structure put in place will have its strengths and weaknesses, but any structure will also be better than what we’ve been witnessing.

Running for president is not for sissies. You have to be able to stand up and respond to criticism and make your case to the public. And when attacked the candidate should, ideally anyway, respond with argumentative detail that demonstrates a full command of the issues. The Republican candidates who complained about “gotcha” questions and thought questions about one’s personal behavior and finances were out of line were more interested in manipulating the debate format into kid-glove treatment rather than vigorous engagement. If it seems like a candidate is going to bend under the pressure of a journalist asking him or her a “mean” question, then the candidate might have problems shouldering the burdens of the world.

The structure of the debates is consistent with the structure of the television medium. These 30 second time limits and response times are responsive to the commercial nature of television and the belief in the audience member’s limited processing capabilities. The debate format is not conducive to the engagement of complex issues such as Iraq, healthcare, gun control, race relations, and the like. Consequently, we get sound bite debates with simplistic images of “good guys” and “bad guys” who stand on the stage waiting for the right moment to insert a pre-prepared statement that is semi-related to the issue at hand and typically doesn’t advance an issue.

The 14 Republican candidates have the nerve to pose problematic and sometimes wild ideas such as deporting 10 million people, building walls to seal off immigrants, cutting a 70,000 page tax code to three pages, and then whimpering when they were challenged on these ideas. If these fringe Republican candidates get their way it will only be Fox News who gets to ask them softball questions.

Outline of a Deliberative Format

The following issues must be addressed in order to increase the communicative value of these debates and come closer to the commission’s goals for informing the public and fostering a truly deliberative environment. Read more about related issues in an article by Collier.

  1. The model of dialogue and reasoned deliberation has always expected the participants to be mutually joined and engaged in the same issue. In other words, they need to be talking about the same thing at the same time. Inserting canned and pre-prepared comments that are designed for nothing but manipulation and desperate attempts to make mini campaign speeches are an anathema to the dialogic and deliberative process.
  2. The Commission on Presidential Debates should first direct its attention away from what it believes to be its role in structuring debate formats and concentrate more on the constitutional right to receive information. This means structure the questions and the format of the debate so that specific controversial issues (gun-control, healthcare, the war in Iraq, fighting ISIS, taxes) receive required attention and time. The current debate structure deprives listeners of this information.
  3. There must be meaningful opportunities for response. As of now, no bad argument goes unpunished. There should be fact checkers working during the actual debate and candidates would be required to respond to discrepancies at a selected period of time at the end of the debate. These fact checkers could also provide additional context for misleading and manipulative quotes taken out of context.
  4. The opportunity to correct mistakes and challenge misleading comments is not trivial because unchallenged and uncorrected comments find a life of their own circulating in media discussion and among citizens. Lies, exaggerations, and out of context information becomes reified and assumes a truth value.
  5. A common strategy for aggressive campaign operatives is to make a false statement or accusation, uphold it for a couple of new cycles, and then disappear. Even if the statement is later shown to be a complete falsehood the damage has already been done to the opposing candidate. This “name-calling” tactic degrades the process and increases the magnitude of falsehoods circulating in the discourse.

I will have more to say on debates and their deliberative structure in future posts. But it would behoove us to keep in mind that citizens prefer to receive information from like-minded others. This causes distorted processing and polarization of the type we see today. It’s imperative that political candidates be exposed to a diversity of opinions in order to improve their own.

 

 

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