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Making a point in a democratic society

Gruesome but Necessary: Global governance in the 21st Century? (Part #5)

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It is most curious that violence may be understood as undertaken in order to "make a point". As noted by Jamie Doward (Anders Behring Breivik: motives of a mass murderer, The Guardian, 23 July 2011), citing David Wilson (A History of British Serial Killing, 2011): "This man was making a point that was very clearly thought through".

As an abstraction, it is unclear as to what significance is to be attached to this. Within what "space" or "geometry" is a metaphorical "point" being made? In endeavouring to communicate the worldview of Breivik to the media, his lawyer indicated his frustration that people "Don't understand his point of view". As noted above, given that it was his failure to "make a point" by non-violent means, this curious abstraction merits careful attention.

Discounting point-making by the insane? The argument, cited above, of Simon Jenkins (The last thing Norway needs is illiberal Britain's patronising, The Guardian, 26 July 2011), with respect to wider learnings from the incident, as indicated by the title of the print copy version of that same article ("Breivik is of interest to brain scientists, but not to politics") should therefore be set aside. It is as foolish as the execution of Saddam Hussein, from whom much might possibly have been learned. This would be consistent with the old strategic adage: "Know thy enemy" -- and to which it might be added "Do not assume that you do". Jenkins however asserts:

The Norwegian tragedy is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so. A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics. We can sympathise with the bereaved, and with their country in its collective sense of loss. But the tragedy does not signify. No, Anders Breivik does not tell us anything about Norway. No, he does not tell us anything about "the state of modern society".

It could well be argued that this "insanity" bears comparison with the indulgence in many of the forms of violence cited above.

Commentary critical of Jenkins argument subsequently included (Letters, The Guardian, 28 July 2011):

  • Tørbjorn Skinnemoen Ottersen (Oslo): Anders Behring Breivik's actions were political through and through and, for someone not averse to mass violence, a more or less "rational" outcome of the arguments of all too many in this country.
  • Brendan Kelly (Dublin): I don't agree that someone who "can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood" is "insane". Conflating insanity with badness stigmatises the mentally ill and dilutes individual responsibility. Involving insanity when we are confronted by particularly offensive behaviour is often a defence against an unpalatable truth: sane people sometimes do very, very bad things.

Clearly Simon Jenkins was somewhat unsuccessful in "making his point"! However, for Seumas Milne (In his rage against Muslims, Norway's killer was no loner, The Guardian, 28 July 2011):

The Norwegian mass killer's own lawyer has branded him "insane". It has the advantage of meaning no wider conclusions need to be drawn about the social context of the atrocity... In fact, however deranged the bombing and shooting might seem, studies of those identified as terrorists have shown they rarely have mental illness or psychiatric abnormalities.... the continuum between the poisonous nonsense commonplace in the mainstream media in recent years, the street slogans of groups like the EDL and Breivik's outpourings is unmistakable.

Milne concludes:

For those who failed to deliver decent jobs, wages and housing, and encouraged employers to profit from low-wage migrant labour, how much easier to scapegoat minority Muslim communities than deal with the banks and corporate free-for-all that triggered the crisis? The attempt to pathologise last Friday's slaughter [in Norway] and separate it from the swamp that spawned it can only ratchet up the danger to all of us.

In this light it is not Breivik that is of any interest but rather the collective mindset by which his worldview has been engendered -- and which has not disappeared as a result of his actions.

Opportunities available for point-making: In considering these it is useful to note how the "point" is received, handled, registered, represented, and possibly discounted and forgotten. The opportunities include:

  • Petition: Typically in the form of a collection of signatures and its submission to an appropriate authority. It is unclear how this largely symbolic gesture is then taken into account. With regard to the recently announced launch of a petition website in the UK -- for those petitions having gathered 100,000 signatures -- the point was made that the current written petition system is little understood and appreciated. Once received, written petitions are "put in a plastic bag behind the chair of the Speaker" of the House of Commons -- a fate that is claimed speaks volumes for the seriousness with which petitions are taken in that exemplar of democratic institutions (Speaker backs launch of e-petition website, The Guardian, 2 August 2011)
  • Demonstration: These may need to be "authorized" and those involved may be marshalled, filmed, registered on a police file and arrested. The "point" may be well-registered in security records and briefly echoed through the media. It is unclear how the "point" is registered by those who might be expected to act on it, even when reinforced by thousands of signatures
  • Media happening: The focus on media amplification of the "point" can be partially ensured by unusually dramatic events for which Greenpeace is renowned. This keeps the issue alive but it remains unclear how the "point" is taken up thereafter.
  • Academic paper: This offers a means of articulating and channelling a "point" through a peer reviewed journal, then to be registered in the libraries and information systems of the world. The quality and bias of the filtration system offered by the peer review process continues to be challenged as reinforcing conventional thinking. It would certainly eliminate any unusual "points"
  • Internet facilities: These include:
    • establishing a website
    • maintaining a blog
    • active use of social networking facilities (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
    • crowdsourcing initiatives, notably with increasing recognition of the potential of collective intelligence
  • Advertising: In media where resources permit, but otherwise by distribution of handouts or use of posters
  • Feedback processes: These may be variously encouraged and elicited and include:
    • "letter writing" as to a periodical or to a duly elected (political) representative, and increasingly via internet
    • "phone in"
    • video submission
  • Formal submission: As may be invited for a "public consultation" process, or as part of other (governmental) consultative procedures
  • Conference activity: These may include:
    • theme and workshop proposals
    • commenting on, and questioning, speakers and panelists
    • submitting a formal resolution
    • subsequent addressing of the resolution to some authority
  • Direct action: This may include activities variously viewed as illegal and attracting wider attention for that reason:
    • graffiti
    • "liberating" animals
    • kidnapping
    • shootings
    • immolation
    • suicide bombing

Curiously the use of "projectiles" in their physical form -- most notably bullets -- offers the most focused method for "making a point", both literally and metaphorically. The design of weapons to deliver bullets to a chosen point for maximum effect merits consideration in this light. Related language is used as in "targetting" those to receive the points -- as in any marketing campaign. Considerable importance is attached to "penetration" (as in market penetration) and "impact" on the target.

There is a degree of irony to the fact that many strategies of government are articulated using a widely-marketed software package to enable point-making, namely Microsoft PowerPoint. The points made with it are readily described as "bullet points" -- from points to bullet points to bullets. This suggests the possibility of exploiting the military metaphor even further (Conversion of Strategic Bullets into Global Accomplishment, 2009; Cognitive Ballistics vs. Derivative Correlation in Memetic Warfare: suicide bombing as a weapon of mass distraction? 2009).

Procedures for discounting points made: As noted in passing, most of the above procedures for making a point have their counterparts in procedures for avoiding or ignoring the points made -- if they are even allowed to be made. In summary these include:

  • discouraging or inhibiting point-making initiatives, as by censorship and cultivating a culture of fear
  • ignoring or discounting points made (possibly by framing it as beyond the scope of the inquiry)
  • enthusiastically inviting them as an exercise of public relations, only to discount them thereafter
  • selection of isolated points to be cited as demonstrating that all points (then to be ignored) are being appropriately taken into consideration
  • indicating that the number of points made is so great that procedures are not available to process them
  • identifying those making the points to ensure that their future point-making is curtailed by some means
  • investment in public relations claiming that account is taken of feedback

Reference to bullets is again useful given that extensive consideration has been given to the technology for protection against bullets and other devices. This may include securely fortified establishments, counter-measures, security personnel and procedures, and body armour -- a deployed in embassy construction (Designing buildings for America's diplomats is getting ever trickier, The Economist, 30 July 2011). Their metaphorical equivalents may also be developed. Of interest is the need for ever more powerful "bullets" to penetrate such defences -- a concern for any marketing campaign.

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