We have a guest blog post today from my good friend John Brisker in Europe. I know John to be a marked bibliophile with knowledge ranging on topics from historical theology and philosophy to NBA folklore and Western literature. I had to have him on the blog–his erudition always shines through. This article especially highlights the discrepancies haunting today’s political discourse. Enjoy, and as always leave a comment below! -JM
One of the main problems in today’s writing and public discourses is the failure to define the terms we use. Failing to do this is very crucial and basically leads to misunderstandings in talking about current affairs and problems—not to mention when we try to understand what today’s authors are trying to say. This in turn leads to an even wider gap in understanding and we drift further away from each other, even though at the outset most authors and speakers have the intention of drawing each other closer to one another through their discourse and writing in order to create better understanding.
This could be a result of many of the educated among the masses disregarding traditional logic and philosophical studies. These humanities have been largely neglected in recent times and replaced by dedication to the natural sciences which seem to have occupied, in many people’s minds, the answer to all of the big questions, even as they fail to see the limited scope of questions it can deal with. Metaphysics gets marginalized and the scientific method strong-arms pure rational reasoning, which no longer gets to step into the ring when the heavyweight fight of modern thought and ideology is under way.
Many times the fault lies with the audience when they are not critical enough to demand definitions from their speakers and/or authors. Assuming that another person has the same definition of a certain concept in mind as you is a gross mistake and an example of short-sightedness.
Other times, the fault lies with the speaker and/or author who assumes their audience has the same frames of reference that they do and thus find it unnecessary to define their terms in their public discourses. Obviously, we all have personal frames of reference uniquely shaped by our particular environment, world view and personal experiences. This leads to each person defining and understanding each undefined term according to their own personal frames of reference which, in turn, leads many audience members/readers to understand the message in a way that was entirely unintended.
The result of this often is, instead of a message bringing unity through mutual understanding, the creation of further division after people interpret a message according to their own individual whims.
What are we talking about?
This obviously becomes an even bigger problem when dealing with terms such as terrorism and terrorists, since these words are emotionally loaded and, more often than not, force people to choose sides. This choosing of sides sometimes becomes a problem in itself, as often times the discourse is polarized in such a way that you have to choose either x or y with no in-between. This polarization can lead to even more extremism since the middle ground is often off-limits to choose as your position. The outcome is fraught with irony: talking about issues such as terrorism should be done in order to arrive at a common understanding and avoid extreme positions, since these extreme positions themselves are sometimes the very root of terrorism!
It it well-known that there is no agreed-upon definition of terrorism. This is understandable since different peoples have different understandings about many things, so the same holds true for something like terrorism which is far from monolithic and can take on many different permutations.
This also opens the door for perpetrators of terror to exclude themselves from the ranks of the terrorists by claiming not to agree with their opponents’ definitions, allowing them to choose a definition that better suits them. This is not the case with groups that actually see themselves as terrorists since their aim is to claim responsibility for such acts and generate fear amongst the public and influence the public discourse.
So agreeing on a definition is too far-fetched and unrealistic in this scenario, but I’m not necessarily arguing that that needs to be done, either. Rather, that each participant of the discourse should define the terms himself in order for the audience to understand exactly what he is talking about and what falls under the rubric of terrorism when the participant uses the term. If there is an opponent in the discussion, that person is free to choose his own definition and should make it clear if he disagrees with the other participants’ definitions. Once this is done, each party can get their point across to their audience with less misunderstanding and limit those personal interpretations which might misguide them in truly understanding what the speaker/writer is actually trying to get across.
Let’s look at two definitions from two of our most respected dictionaries:
From Oxford: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
And from Merriam-Webster: “The use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”
While keeping these two definitions in mind and at the same time thinking about today’s discourse in the media regarding terrorism, we can see that there is a major imbalance. Typically, the mass media presents terrorism as being exclusively a religious phenomenon. The two definitions quoted above, however, don’t mention anything about religious motives.
If we look at all of the mass shootings in the U.S.A. during 2015, and there was close to 400 of them (more than one per day on average!), we can see when researching them that many were stimulated by political and ideological aims and that the targets were in most cases civilians in order to generate fear amongst the population. Interestingly enough, many of these attacks were never catogorized as terrorist attacks–a likely reason is that it would distort the (wrongful) picture of terror that the media wants to hammer into our minds. The term terrorist would occasionally be used if there were political or religious undertones, but only in a way that fit the media’s prescribed narratives.
What are we talking about?
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in our lifetimes have been perpetrated by secular groups with no religious motivations whatsoever. Many times it has also been encouraged by the very forces that today are screaming that we have to fight a war against terror, not noticing the fallacy of personificaton in the statement. Anyone familiar with Mahmood Mamdani’s work doesn’t have be a genius to see beneath the surface of the propaganda in the mainstream news in order to decipher the deeper reasons as to why things happen, who the actual actors are and what they stand to gain from it. Mamdani has shown that the methods used in modern-day terrorism has its roots in the political agenda of the same powers that today claim they are fighting terror, and he also shows how they actively encouraged this type of warfare in order to promote ther own political aims.
Also worth keeping in mind is that terrorism as we know it today, where individuals can cause damage far greater than what pre-modern armies could ever have dreamed of, is only possible with modern technology and weaponry, which the secular west pride themselves on innovating. So for some to think that the problem of terror as we know it to be a problem inherent in religion seem to miss the point that it would be impossible for a thing that is new to be inherent in something else that has existed for centuries, or even for millenia in some cases.
Another point that has to be stressed when we think about how the word terrorism is used in the media today is that it is almost exclusively used for individuals and groups operating outside of government-sanctioned power in a vigilante way. What is being ignored is that terrorism can be exercised on the governmental level as well when governments through their foreign policy promote their own political agendas, sometimes by fear-mongering and even targeting civilians. At times these wars are fought while breaking international law as well as the countries’ own constitutions, making it hard to justify that it somehow is an approved form of state-sanctioned warfare. Governments seem to get a pass, at least if they are on the side of the ”good guys” who can seemingly do no wrong.
If we look at non-governmental attacks, something interesting appears. At the University of Maryland the Global Terrorism Database (GTB) tracked terrorist attacks that were commited between 1980 and 2007. The number was roughly 80,000. Where were the majority of these attacks perpetrated? The Middle East? North Africa? Transoxania? The answer is Latin America. Although we sometimes think of violence when thinking of Latin America due to the drug cartels and political instability (not always caused by domestic forces), we rarely think of the word terrorism when Latin America is mentioned. The word seems to instead be in the private possession of certain religious groups.
Looking at statistics from Europe we see something else that should make us question some of our presumptions. The TE-SAT 2007 report by Europol tracked the number of terrorist attacks in 2006 in Europe, both successful ones and failed ones. In 2006, 498 terrorist attacks were executed or planned. Political separatists with no religious motivations at all were behind 439 of these (88%), the perpetrators belonging to Basque and Korsikan political organizations. The pattern repeated itself and showed that 2006 was not an outlier, as there was a total of 583 terrorist attacks in 2007– 517 of these (88%) performed by the aforementioned groups.
What are we talking about?
This is not to say that the problem of terrorism doesn’t have a connection to certain religious groups, since we have many examples of religious groups using terror as a strategy to acheive their political goals. The Ku Klux Klan is a good example of this. The point is that terror and violence is a human problem and not a religious problem, per se. Unfortunately, ‘the powers that be’ use the media to pin this problem on certain religious fanatics and constrict the usage of the term terror to in many cases only being used for religious fanatics.
Other acts, which are also terrorism according to many of the existing definitions, usully gets categorized as acts performed by psychopaths and these psychopaths’ underlying ideological motifs are almost never highlighted. Instead they are made to be looked upon as outliers, even while the statistics above show that the same perpetrators actually make up the bulk of the bell curve in many cases.
This does not catch the attention of the public, one of the reasons being that mouthpieces of the media seldom define their terms. This allows the audience to interpret such loose, grayish terms through the prism of a kind of ’hive-mind’ informed by years of media rhetoric which serves as an aid in achieving private objectives.
And when it comes to tackling the problem of the religious terrorist, the powers that are claiming to have this as their primary objective really should re-think the methods they are using if they are indeed speaking the truth and are in fact totally free of ulterior motives. The methods used thus far have been counter productive and have generated more of the same violence which they are claming to suppress. A new approach needs to be taken and the focus should be on the causes of the problem of terrorism, not on the effects. What is going on now is the equivalent of trying to fight a brain tumor with aspirin: we might temporarily remove the headache but unless the actual cancer is removed, the pain will keep on coming back.
Trying to defeat terrorist groups by bombing them is just like using the aspirin. All the terrorist groups that exist do so for a reason. Unless countries with imperialistic foreign policies take a look in the mirror and realize that what they are doing is counter productive and that new approaches have to be taken, we are only going to see more of the same (some people speculate that this is exactly what the powers that be want, in order to keep their war economies alive and kicking). The cause of the existence of many terrorist groups is the feeling of being oppressed. Putting these same people in an even tougher situation is just going to kickstart the cycle all over again.
And in the case of religious extremists, they will try to justify their way of dealing with their perceived oppression by using religious interpretations which allow them to exercise terror as a response. These types of interpretations are the second cause that needs to be fought in order to defeat this cancer. If that is not done, and the only solution is to bomb whole communities into non-existence, the result will be that as soon as the extremists are gone they will be replaced by new extremist groups in new permutations that will try to deal with their situation in the same way.
The quote “the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result” has been missattributed to more than one man. Regardless of who said it, its truth certainly stands visibly in the light of this discussion.
So tell me…what are we talking about?