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Radical as a questionable focus of empathy?


Coming Out as a Radical -- or Coming In? (Part #4)


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What emotional or cognitive engagement is it appropriate to experience for those in situations which engender a terrorist response? For Brad Evans: If you continually bomb a people, invade a land, appropriate its resources, torture its children, imprison and humiliate its fathers, and tear apart the fabric of the social order, there is direct responsibility for the radicalization to follow (Another War, Another Evil, Truthout, 26 September 2014). The dilemmas are highlighted by the formula: One man's terrorist is the other man's freedom fighter, for which Uri Avnery claims paternity (The Reign of Absurdiocy, London Progressive Journal, 28 November 2015).

Whilst it is accepted as normal to experience empathy and compassion for those subject to the forms of violent repression which are upheld as justifying violent humanitarian intervention by outsiders (irrespective of the suffering caused), any initiative from amongst those experiencing that violence (from their own perspective) is framed as unjustified -- to the point of being "pure evil". Little effort is made to distinguish between the unpublicized multiple "beheadings" resulting from humanitarian intervention (as regrettable "collateral damage") and that publicized as the actions of evildoers reacting to violence and represssion (as they interpret it).

The possibility of empathy and compassion is further complicated by the manner in which its expression is immediately deprecated as indicative of sympathy for terrorist violence -- simplistic conflation which precludes more complex considerations. A prime example is the widespread condemnation of a single tweet by Joyce Carol Oates, as reviewed by Daniel Victornov (Joyce Carol Oates on Twitter: Is Nothing 'Joyous' in ISIS? The New York Times, 30 November 2015). Oates tweeted: All we hear of ISIS is puritanical and punitive; is there nothing celebratory and joyous? Or is query naive? 22 November 2015). As indicated by Victoronov: It appeared to many Twitter users as a callous question, apparently searching for the positive in a group known for brutal rape, beheadings, terrorist attacks and other atrocities. Presumably such comments attach no significance to actions by the international coalition -- as a "force of light" composed of "angels of mercy" (?) -- whose questionable outcomes are discounted (as noted above)

In a study on The Epistemological Crisis of Counterterrorism (Critical Studies on Terrorism, 2015), Richard Jackson argues that:

... many of the bizarre counterterrorist practices regularly observed in many Western countries, as well as costly and counterproductive counterterrorist practices such as preemptive war, targeted killings, mass surveillance, torture, control orders and de-radicalisation programmes, among others, are neither anomalous nor irrational in the context of the new paradigm. Rather, they flow logically and directly from the particular paranoid logic, which is constitutive of the epistemological crisis.

He concludes with a discussion about how and why critical scholars can and should attempt to resist and deconstruct it. Separately Jackson remarks controversially:

I confess that I am a terrorist sympathiser. Of course, it is a profanity,a kind of blasphemy, to admit to such a thing, perhaps the greatest blasphemy in our society at the present time. Some may also consider that this is not the right time to make this confession and all that it entails. It will be said that in the immediate aftermath of an attack, condemnation and standing united against the enemies of freedom is the only ethically-defensible stance. But, for reasons I hope will become clear, I believe that this is exactly the right time to claim the ignominious label of terrorist sympathiser, and that sympathy for the terrorist is what is most needed right now if we are to break the current international cycle of violence and find more ethical and peaceful ways of responding to the challenge of contemporary political violence. (Confessions of a Terrorist Sympathiser, Transcend Media Service, 7 December 2015)

Jackson then clarifies his position:

This is not an argument for a kind of deterministic structuralism; I am not denying the role of individual agency or responsibility. Nevertheless, in the absence of an honest examination of the conditions which construct human subjectivity at this moment in history, we can never hope to understand the roots of contemporary political violence or the possibilities for peaceful alternatives....

Interestingly, a number of scholars have noted how the trope of the "evil" terrorist, as well as some aspects of contemporary counterterrorism, shares features with the medieval witch craze and European conceptions of "the devil". Certainly, the similarities between the inquisition, the language of "evildoers", and the tortuous, confessional interrogational practices seen in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay are disturbingly obvious. In fact, the term "religious terrorism" and the attempt to lay the blame for terrorist violence at the feet of "violent extremism" or the mysterious process of "radicalisation" is part and parcel of this broader framework in which terrorism is expelled from the realm of the material-political world and instead relegated to the metaphysical, spiritual world.

An earlier argument for a form of empathy was expressed by Tarak Barkawi (On the Pedagogy of "Small Wars", International Affairs, 80, 2004, 1, pp. 19-37) who claimed that:

We need to find the requisite empathy to understand why men dedicated to the betterment of their peoples and willing to sacrifice their lives, found it necessary to fly jet aircraft into buildings or to blow themselves up in the compounds of humanitarian organizations. After all, we do not find it so perplexing that we ourselves resorted to the obliteration and atomic bombing of civilian populations in the Second World War. If we can make this difficult leap of imagination into our enemy's minds, we will be able to fight them far more effectively. We might also learn an even more invaluable lesson: how to live in peace with people different from ourselves, people who may not choose to live as we do or to organize their societies along western lines, but who are nonetheless fully human and deserving of respect and dignity.

The views of Barkawi and Jackson have been variously and vigorously condemned by David Martin Jones and M. L. R. Smith (Carry On Empathizing: the ISIS crisis and Western political thought, War on the Rocks, 11 September 2014; The commentariat and discourse failure: language and atrocity in Cool Britannia', International Affairs, 82, 6, 2006, pp. 1077-1100) who argued subsequently that:

The problem, however, is that while much of the commentariat conceives the problem as tactical, the Islamist's conception, by contrast, is total. This wilful misreading of Islamism's ultimate purpose produces both discourse failure and a discourse of denial. Expert media entrepreneurs of Muslim disaffection like Ziauddin Sardar, Tariq Ali and Barkawi exploit this misdiagnosis. Barkawi maintains that Many in the West consider Al-Qaeda and its affiliates a fanatical strain of religious fundamentalism, rather than a hybrid form of colonial resistance. President George W. Bush refers simply to the 'terrorist threat to civilization', and Barkawi considers such language serves only to vilify the enemy and may mobilize support in the West, but it does not aid understanding.... Barkawi's call for empathy subsequently became the default position of Critical Studies on Terrorism. (Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age, 2014, p. 72)

Those contrasting views are the subject of detailed commentary by those involved (Responses, International Affairs, 2007).

There is a great degree of irony to this academic "slanging match" to the extent that it effectively mirrors the problematic relations between contrasting views which give rise to conflicts similar to those they purport to analyze -- but without in anyway being able to transcend that pattern in a fruitful manner. The contrasts are further noted in a useful compilation by Ioannis Tellidis and Harmonie Toros (Researching Terrorism, Peace and Conflict Studies: interaction, synthesis and opposition, 2015). Might any such emergent transcendent perspective itself be termed "radical" -- and deprecated accordingly?

Other threads in the curiously unmapped debate include:

Missing consideration of subtle complexity? The quality of the insights of general relativity (to which reference was made above) could prove of relevance to clarifying the communication challenges of "discourse failure" whereby there is massive focus on simplicity. "We" as "normal" are necessarily "right"; "they" as "abnormal" are necessarily "wrong". This is confirmed unquestionably by reference to singular incidents of beheadings and rape which lend themselves to media coverage aided and abetted by interested parties -- but completely ignoring the historical context and the complicity of those passing judgment. Everyone who agrees with "us" is talking sense; those who disagree are talking nonsense -- possibly dangerous nonsense, most probably with evil intent.

At the time of writing the point is usefully emphasized by the manner in which allegations of sex abuse by UN peacekeepers have been characterized by a pattern of cover up (UN releases report on sex abuse by peacekeepers, Aljazeera, 16 June 2015). This echoes other patterns of cover-up, notably the sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The fact that "we" are, and continue to be, complicit in equally abhorrent actions is too complex for consideration and is readily set aside, as reviewed by Joe Clifford (If This is Not "Newsworthy", What Is? Information Clearing House, 9 December 2015):

You mean you never heard about any of these things from our great "news" stations? If an individual went into a hospital and murdered doctors, nurses, children patients, and staff workers, we would all cry terrorism, but when such an act is committed by our own government you are not even allowed to hear about it. Isn't killing doctors, nurses, child patients, in a hospital an act of very brutal "terrorism"? Isn't such an illegal and barbaric act worthy of "news" coverage..

It is therefore interesting that authorities -- especially those in ivory towers and information silos -- are so evidently playing "catch-up" in their effort to understand those who are willing to die in the promotion of their beliefs.

A striking example is provided by the tragedy of the Holocaust organized within a culture esteemed for its sophistication in Western terms. Continuing reference to it as being a "detail of history" is made, presumably readily to be forgotten by many, if not most -- as recalled by Martin Schulz: There are in this parliament people considering, Auschwitz, as an unimportant detail of history (Speech by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, 23 January 2013). Although the attitude is severely deprecated, it raises questions as to which earlier "massacres" (as noted by Wikipedia) are now similarly considered as a "detail of history", especially within the societies responsible for them: Amritsar, Bloody Sunday, Zong, etc (List of events named massacres). Noteworthy in that respect is the frequent failure of those responsible to apologize for the action, even long after it occurred (Collective Mea Culpa? You Must be Joking ! Them is to blame, Not us ! 2015).

Also noteworthy is the lack of comparison between those massacres which have invited totally disproportionate consideration, especially in the light of the current political and media focus on the strategic implications of the recent Paris attacks (November 2015) with 130 fatalities, for example: My Lai 1968 (504), Paris massacre of independents 1961 (100 fatalities), Sharpeville massacre 1960 (72-90), Lydda massacre 1948 (250-426). Does the lack of comparable consideration suggests that there is some form of "half-life" of evil as collectively perceived? Have the many earlier massacres in France all become details of history, however numerous the fatalities? How, for example, to assess the current righteous abhorrence of "terrorism" within France, given the manner by which the French republic emerged from a process during which from 16,000 to 40,000 civilians were beheaded by revolutionary tribunals during the Reign of Terror?

The extreme example is of course offered by the Colosseum games so vital to the distraction of the citizens of Rome (Keith Hopkins, Murderous Games: gladiatorial contests in Ancient Rome, History Today 1983). Is it simply a case that it is unquestionably evil when done by "them" then, but appropriate (if a regrettable necessity) when undertaken by "us", whether now or then?

Otherness as "evil"? The fundamental issue would appear to be the profound intellectual (and emotional) difficulty in handling perspectives which are fundamentally different -- without reframing them in their simplest possible terms, irrespective of whether this may denature them completely. This oversimplification may indeed reduce them to the status of a negligible "detail". Politicians are necessarily a key to this process through the need to articulate their respective positions with the greatest simplicity -- preferably through sound bites -- such as to attract and mobilize followers.

There is then a striking contrast between the doublespeak of politicians desperately playing catch-up and the critical questions increasingly asked within the wider population weary of such game-playing. This is exemplified by the astoundingly disruptive popular appeal of the radical right -- Donald Trump and Mariane Le Pen -- and the reflective debate these factors are engendering outside the mainstream media.

As noted above, crowdsourcing as a valuable innovation, inspired by the potential of swarm intelligence, would seem to be matched by recourse to the collective intelligence of a lynch-mob.

Radically new environment? As a form of poorly articulated subtle complexity, these trends are accompanied by an emerging sense of a radically new environment in which people are now required to navigate for their survival -- one which is fearful in many respects unrelated to any obvious focus on terrorism (especially by those who comment on it).

The increasing sense of physical insecurity is evident in terms of vulnerability to street violence, mugging, break-ins, car-jacking, rape, and the like -- especially for the young and the elderly. A similar sense of insecurity is felt with respect to financial transactions -- especially via the internet. A variant is experienced with respect to products acquired which may eventually be proven to have characteristics deleterious to health. Those linked to the internet may well have features designed specifically for forms of exploitation with unknown implications -- in addition to those associated with invasion of privacy. As recently indicated by Edward Snowden: The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing (11 October 2015)

Whether consciously experienced as increasingly threatening or not, the focus of the accessible media may be experienced as a form of continual "grooming" with unknown consequences -- dumbing down, manufacturing consent? The economic environment may well be such that livelihood is subject to insecurity, whether in the shorter or longer term. Such concerns are implicitly linked to uncertain provision of social security and for any future disability. Other challenges to identity arise from sexual preferences as may emerge in nuclear families with pretences to the traditional values of normality.

This sense of insecurity may well be further exacerbated by arrival of migrants and refugees in large numbers -- especially in smaller communities ill-equipped to absorb and assimilate those of other cultures. The condition of such people may indeed be such as to evoke empathy, but under conditions in which that response is readily and increasingly challenged. As exemplified by the increasing number of street beggars, psychic numbing becomes a factor -- presumably reminiscent of the response to public beheadings, flogging, and other authorised punishments, whether of the past or as favoured by some cultures variously allied in response to terrorism.

Understood as a radically new environment -- especially characterized by insecurity and a threat to the normality of the past -- the question is how individuals might be expected to adapt to it without becoming "radicalised" in some way -- possibly quite distinct from that currently deprecated as "radicalisation" by the media, politicians and academics. Should the new environment be understood as radicalising everyone to some degree?

Failure to become "radical", to be "a radical", or to "radicalise" may prove to be a mark of evolutionary ineptitude. "Radical creativity" is seemingly the requirement of a period characterized by the need for "radical change" -- as notably argued by Slavoj Zizek (Trouble in Paradise, 2015). Missing, however, would seem to be any new understanding of "radical" appropriate to the challenge of the times and to the extreme differences of opinion on any issue. A similar case is made with respect to science (Hank Campbell, Get Radical: And Maybe Be A Better Scientist, Science 2.0: joint the revolution, 25 April 2012)

Engaging with otherness: Curiously the primary preoccupation in the "normal" engagement with otherness is framed as reaching some form of consensus through resolution of potential conflicts. There is relatively little interest in the special challenge of engaging with difference without seeking to eliminate it -- and thereby potentially challenging the focus of identity of the other. The challenge to any worldview now has potentially ever more dangerous implications (Us and Them: Relating to Challenging Others, 2009; Guidelines for Critical Dialogue between Worldviews, 2006).

Engagement with otherness of any form is clearly a fundamental challenge in society -- with its extremes of violence and being in love. Whether understood in the form of dialogue or otherwise, that engagement can be explored metaphorically as "intercourse" ("Human Intercourse": "Intercourse with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007).

The challenge is given a particular focus in the engagement with those on the autism continuum, including those with Asperger syndrome or savant syndrome (Steve Silberman. Neurotribes: the legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity, 2015; Barry M. Prizant, Uniquely Human: a different way of seeing autism, 2015). It takes other forms in engagement between those of contrasting gender identity.

Hypothetically the issue can be framed in terms of the engagement with extraterrestrials (as discussed below), possibly requiring comprehension "otherwise" (Encountering Otherness as a Waveform, 2013). More obvious is the challenge of communicating with alienated youth -- exemplified by those at home whose identity may well be carried by music. Failure of such communication is typically justified by framing others as not amenable to rational discourse. The issue is of course evident in parliamentary debate.

In conventional debate the question can be framed otherwise with respect to "hot topics" -- of which any form of radicalism (including the political) offers examples. As a metaphor, the recently developed capacity to handle radioactive materials offers a range of insights (Overpopulation Debate as a Psychosocial Hazard: development of safety guidelines from handling other hazardous materials, 2009; Psychoactive hazards in recognizing and engaging with risk, 2011).

Arguably there is a case for elaborating structures based on failure of mutual comprehension, as discussed separately (Social organization determined by incommunicability of insights, 1995)


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