All Violence Begins As An Idea Dressed In Words.
Earlier in the week I wrote about the ways in which we are training ourselves to dehumanise people in the way we discuss terrorism. There is a coarseness in our public discourse that isn’t just tacky. The problem isn’t just that fancy apprenticing Christian ethicists like myself find such outbursts distasteful. The problem is deep. When we uncritically consume media reports that present other human beings as anything less than as wonderfully complex as we are, we are allowing seeds of dreadful violence to be planted in our imagination.
So when there were riots in the cities of England a few summers ago, people talked blithely about having to sort out the “vermin”. Someone I vaguely know from my college days keeps a project going on social media that is hugely popular called “scumbag watch” where people surreptitiously photograph people who they think are too egregiously working class. And after every act of terrorism, we have the line trotted out that “these people” are fanatics, deluded, irrational and nihilistic.
The shared effect in all of this is that our speech creates the deluded and irrational conviction that we hold less in common with “these people” than with other human beings. We make “these people” into Others and before long, we can forget that “these people” are people too.
Very often, we find that the same day that we lament how Grand Theft Auto V is introducing a new level of violence into our culture (even though many of the people who have opinions on such things are like me and have never even gotten around to actually using an XBox 360) we deploy these profane terms to describe other people who for some reason are not like us. There is no coincidence there. The use of this language is a true cause of coarseness. It sets an “us” up that is the centre of civilization. Whosoever we mark outside of “us” is fair game.
Preachers recognise this on the individual level as self righteousness. We preach articulately and passionately that only grace can liberate us. Allow me to plead similarly that when we imagine (in a genuine delusion) that there are no reasoning processes at work behind terrorist atrocities (and I am not for a moment suggesting they are anything less than atrocities), we are engaged in a cultural self righteousness. On an individual level, self righteousness creates a hardness to forgiveness (both giving it and receiving it) and it slowly corrodes relationship. On a societal level, self righteousness leads to war and death and torture. If we are to be medics of our collective soul, the words we use are symptoms we need to monitor.
It Is Values That Bring Other Universes Into Being
I haven’t begun my PhD yet but I was doing a cheeky bit of preliminary reading during the week. It was a paper by the London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber. He studies, among other things, debt. He argued in this paper that human societies are shaped by things that human beings value. In late capitalism, we value money and our society is created to encourage the pursuit, accumulation and exploitation of capital. We delude ourselves into thinking that this is the only way to build a society because money has become a totalised value. Almost in spite of ourselves, we represent other goods in economic terms. Marriage is good for health and health is a shared cost. Art is good because galleries attract tourists. Tourists are good not because of an exchange of culture, but an exchange of currency.
But other societies have and continue to construct different value systems. And as a result, the universe that a person from another value system inhabits is bound to be different. Every social world is a consequence of the things that we value and every human being has their understanding of their existence defined and boundaried by the social worlds they inhabit.
Now think about the social world occupied by a Somalian who is “radicalised”. (“X was radicalised” is an interesting turn of phrase. It is a classic example of how the terms that we use shape our imagination so that the world we construct has a semblance of coherency. This passive process of radicalisation is something that happens to poor unfortunate Billy McSomalian. His agency is discounted. His rationality has already been written out of the system. We accept this way of thinking and the rest of the dehumanising speech is bound to pass unopposed.) Now I know nothing about Somalian society but you and I both know that there are a certain number of factors at work in the shared memory of someone born in that part of the world.
- We know that the nation state is a weaker concept.
- We know that the historical legacy is one of colonialism.
- We know that Islam is a stronger bind for communities than any of the concepts we put value in (such as autonomy and liberty).
- We know that the world’s largest desert surrounds him.
- We know that his people have found a way to fight a living out of that terrain for a very long time.
Even with these facts that we know about Somalia, we can already imagine that there are social conventions and cultural forces at work that would make the life of a “Jihadist” (another term we use without sensitivity to the way we are limiting what can be said and imagined) seem viable. If nothing else, you must confess that in the face of Black Hawks and unmanned drones, there is a drama and a dignity in fighting such military superiority with nothing but an AK-47 and a zeal for the one God. Transpose that story into a summer sci-fi movie where Will Smith fights off a horde of aliens with nothing but some pluck and a belief in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness and you have Independence Day.
It Is Values That Brings Our Universe Into Being
Instead of trying to make the cultures from whence this irrational terrorist threat came less alien, let us think about it another way and consider how strange our society might look if we stumbled upon it. I now live in a place called the United Kingdom but the monarch lives down the road from me, nestled away in the mountains. She has no power and no one really knows how she unites the Kingdom. When you inquire of natives about this strange arrangement they use language that bears the hallmarks of many things, but rationality is not one of them.
And yet, everyone in this society values rationality. They think they are a people of proof and reason and logic and evidence. They point to symbols when asked to justify this belief. CAT scanners and motorways, wind turbines and server farms are enough to substantiate this fundamental belief.
This society is prosperous beyond anything ever recorded in all of human history. And yet at worship services they collect food to give to the hungry. The city I live in is surrounded by arable land full of cattle and sheep and poly-tunnels full of verdant fruit and vegetables. It is bordered by a vast sea which they have equipped with a shipping fleet. And yet people here still suffer hunger.
Like all the other human societies you can visit, this one too hosts time of festival. They have a mid-winter festival that is an opportunity to spend money and eat fowl. They have a spring festival where they spend money and eat chocolate. They have mini festivals during the summer where they get a single day off work and spend money and drink alcohol. At the start of winter they wear red plastic poppies to remember their heroes who have fallen in battle. In even the smallest village, the very space people live within is marked by obelisks that mark these sacrifices and bring them to mind as people trade and rest and worship.
Although peaceable on the surface, if you scratch anywhere in this society, battle will be found. The poor are recruited into their armed ranks from offices on the main thoroughfares of the towns and enticed with expensively produced television advertisements promising excitement and camaraderie. The armies run (there are at least three different entire armies) large bases near practically every population centre. They have volunteer depots in every large town. At any given time, many of the citizenry work maintaining this fighting readiness and large amounts of the nation’s coffers are dedicated to updating submarines that run on split atoms and flying jets that go faster than sound.
They have no enemies but they have been fighting wars for the last 12 years without stopping.
When we declare a whole chunk of people to be scum or vermin, irrational or deluded, we are not just telling lies about them. We are telling lies about us. We are denying the aspects of our society, our universes of value, that we despise by projecting them on to others.
We decry the religious delusion of these Semitic terrorists. And in so doing, we literally scapegoat them (Leviticus 16). The irony is almost demonic. The consequences will be hellish.
The differences between human cultures are real. They are important. There is no justification for the violence being waged by Islamic terrorists. But there is a reasoning behind it. There is no justification behind the violence being waged constantly by the western societies. But we have our reasons. Our reasons are one of the many things that hold us in common, in community, as human beings. Our cultures are different. Our universes of value are different. Our reasons are different. But we all have all of them.
The beginning of ethics is to understand where the other is coming from. Jesus, the definitive Semitic religious zealot himself was fond of that principle.
Your Correspondent, The inside of his head is like an Escher drawing