Saturday, February 11, 2012

Thoughts: Violence/Non-Violence/Terrorism/Revolution

I started writing this years ago, lost what I was writing, and then started again a few months ago based on something I heard on the news. I then left it sitting for a while and picked it up again today to try to wrap it up. That ended up being literally impossible as I just asked myself more questions than I could even answer and realised that I could just go on forever asking the same questions. So I just closed it out with a "To be continued..." and will continue on my musings, probably after I have finished Mark Kurlansky's Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, as this may give me further ideas to discuss.

Every day you switch on your television, phone, computer or radio and you hear the word “terrorist” in all types of news flashes. It will be used in connection with any act of violence committed against a government or a country, or on a group of people by another group of people. We hear about demonstrations and protests and tear gas and violence and non-violence and rebellion and oppressing governments and public uprisings. We hear about sit-ins in public squares, of students being arrested and of protestors being shot at. We hear about air strikes in other countries, about dictatorships being brought down from the inside and from the outside, about dictatorships being pandered to and blind eyes being turned. Public uprisings become acts of terrorism and lawful mass murder gets swept under the carpet. Acts of terrorism are stopped in their tracks while others are successful. Successful democratic elections are held in war-torn countries while at the same time in others women are still not allowed to leave the house without a male companion. One day you will hear about the Palestinian terrorist who blew himself up on the bus on the way to Tel Aviv, but the people who in return pounded Gaza with an airstrike are called soldiers. Gaddafi called the rebels seeking to bring him down terrorists, but to the rest of the world they were portrayed as saviours, and were given the help they needed to fight for and win their cause. Where can you even start discussing this topic? Words are open to a different interpretation by each individual. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; one man’s popular uprising is another man’s violent revolution. The main keyword here is “violence”.
Oxford Dictionary definitions:
- Terrorism: the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
- Terrorist: a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims. (Origin: late 18th century: from French terroriste, from Latin terror (see terror). The word was originally applied to supporters of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated repression and violence in pursuit of the principles of democracy and equality).
- Freedom Fighter: a person who takes part in a violent struggle to achieve a political goal, especially in order to overthrow their government.
- Demonstrator: a person who takes part in a public protest meeting or march.
- Protestor: a person who publicly demonstrates strong objection to something; a demonstrator
- Violence: behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something; the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.
- Non-violence: the use of peaceful means, not force , to bring about political or social change.
I remember having these thoughts going over and over in my brain years ago, through many an occasion. In the past, or more my past, so the late 70’s and the 80’s, even maybe the early 90’s too, it seems that the media had a specific group of terrorists that it had pointed out and referred to: Palestinian (or more specifically, Hamas or Hezbollah), IRA, Libyan. Nobody (in the general public) cared or really knew about anything else – these were the organized groups that blew people up (including themselves in some cases) and spread fear across countries. Small to large acts of violence that were sure to make it to the newsreels as soon as they happened. I’m not saying that this really was all that there was, but this is what we were fed by the media. IRA bad, Palestinians bad, Libyans bad (or were they always bad – I know that the US government supported Gaddafi at some point in time, but then turned around at another point, but that is a little off-topic for now). “Good” was what was called “Democracy” and “Freedom”; “Bad” was anything that we couldn’t fit into the definitions of “Democracy” and “Freedom”. This didn’t always match with the real definitions of these words, but yet again, semantics are the main tool in politics: words take on meaning in the way you choose to interpret them. Social uprisings against totalitarian governments are applauded, and aided in some cases. People fighting for freedom are called rebels, and rebels are considered revolutionaries. But of course revolutionaries can be good or bad, depending on how it is portrayed to you in the media and how you interpret it. If I had stood on CNN or BBC and tell you in a deeply emotional speech how good Saddam Hussein was for Iraq and how much he had done for the US, instead of hearing the words “weapons of mass destruction” and “nuclear war” thrown about, the public opinion on the man himself may have been different. It’s all about what you see and what you read about. Seeing as most people get their news from the most popular channels on television and maybe a newspaper or two, you can only expect most people to believe what they read and see. Not that our media is always wrong, but it’s not always right either. In the end it is just a form of communication, and also a form of propaganda, because communication via the media is the best way to get a message/thought/intent across to the general public. So, in the end, it is up to us to make our own opinions up, and to research alternative viewpoints and ideas.
I myself define freedom as the right to live in the way I want to, within the boundaries of society – meaning that I, as a person, respect the lives and lifestyles of others, and expect the same in return. Freedom means the right to free speech and education, the right to worship any god I want to (or don’t want to) without persecution. Freedom also means the equality of all human beings, no matter where they come from and where they end up. Freedom means that I can portray my thoughts and opinions without worrying about being persecuted. Freedom does not mean that I can kill another human being and/or many human beings because I do not agree with what he/she or they believe in, or just because I don’t like them. But I do rebel against the society I live in, in a non-violent fashion. I disagree with many of the politics of the country I live in, I pretty much always have, no matter what country I have been in. There is always something I will disagree with and want to fight against. But I have mainly lived in countries where I can open my mouth and protest about something that I think is wrong – I don’t know what I would have done if I had grown up in a country where I was openly oppressed and where I could not speak my mind. How would I have rebelled against this? Would I have just tried to live my life within the boundaries set for me or would I have tried to break away and change things, by any means possible?
During WW2 the French Resistance and the Russian partisans blew up buildings and strategic areas that would damage the German advances and army (trains, ammunition dumps, prisons etc), killed traitors who worked with the Germans and basically did anything they could to revolt against the German occupation. I feel that I would have done the same. These days with the technology that we have it would probably be a lot more difficult to actually rebel/revolt in the same fashion and stay in hiding, so if this type of war were ever to occur again, how would the people stand up and fight? How would one fight against an occupation? This al comes back to the same topic I started off with in the beginning… What can be considered an occupation, a revolution, an act of terrorism and an act of rebellion? In the end, where violence is used the result will always be the death of one or multiple people, innocent or guilty, and that is something that those committing acts of violence, those living through them, and those dealing with the aftermath will always have to deal with. Terrorism is always going to hurt the “innocent” first, because the “innocent” are the ones targeted and the ones who will be damaged. While typing this another thought comes to mind… If a group of people planning to blow up a subway station in NYC are considered a group of terrorists then why aren’t a group of government army fighters in Sudan considered terrorists when they destroy a village and kill all of the inhabitants by locking them in a house and setting it on fire? I feel that once I started writing this piece it just opened a bottomless can of worms, as one idea comes up, followed by several contradicting ideas, and more images and questions that anyone can really answer. Words are simple, but once they are used to determine a specific group of people or a specific act become complex. As I have said before… It all comes down to your own interpretation, and how you are then going to portray this interpretation to others.
To be continued…


Dylan Popowicz said...

There is too much to say, but a few thoughts:

It is tempting at times to remove the minor differences between the words terrorist/freedom-fighter/soldier, terrorism/war, and replace them all with the simple "x" of violent means. What we are left with then is a simple notion, the physical act for political (I suppose I should include religious and anarchic here) purpose, that is then "coloured" by interpretation.

My Lacanian/Žižekian understanding isn't as rich as it ought to be, but I think if we observe the act of political violence as a simple "x" in this way, then we can come to greater understanding of how the "x" becomes either terror or righteous war. Žižek uses Lacan's term of the "Master-Signifier", a word that "knots" all signifiers in place, ideologically creating a framework of reference. The act of political violence then, achieves its symbolic status based upon the framework of (Žižek argues) an empty word, one that only achieves its meaning retroactively: Democracy, Freedom etc., words that are used more specifically as ideological calling cards. Thus, the Master-Signifier of the American "Freedom" acts as a reference point, the knot that ties "x" to "terrorism" in a certain case, and "freedom fighting" in another. To take from some online essay I just stumbled upon: "the meaning of particular political or ideological terms is not fixed or unchanging but given only through their articulation with other terms". And once we are there, it is very difficult to diverge from the rigid ideology that surrounds us.

But what is really happening, behind all this? Simply "x", a signified act that we cannot really access via language. Something mystical, one could say. The words we choose then, completely shape our perception of reality, and yet reality is the same beneath it all.

The dark underbelly of these ideological mutterings (and yes, this is easy to criticise whilst living in the safety of the U.S., but without criticism, what's the point?) is that, especially in the case of the "democratic" West, we separate "x" qua individual "subjective" violence from "x" qua State/structural violence. Which was my issue in our discussion last year apropos the British riots: we seem to accept structured, organised violence so much more easily than "subjective" violence, which all though might be an act of individuals "not in the know", the impotence behind it speaks the truth of a certain spirit of events (I won't go as far as to accept some Hegelian Geist working in mysterious way, but I do think that such acts of violence do speak of a class sentiment, a non-mystical collective-unconscious (I suppose Jung's terminology makes sense to me, but is denied any concrete ontology).

The task then, is to jumble up our signifiers, allow a little breathing room in meaning . . . although this, in this case, means the opposite of what it might initially (intuitively) seem to imply: we shouldn't convolute and entangle meanings, but simply remove connotations and accept political violence as is, with all other discussions of morality, necessity and acceptance being placed outside of the term itself. From now on, perhaps, we should discuss whether "x" was the right thing to do, or if it spoke of any deeper meaning, instead of giving it the already tied-down terminology of our ideologies.

(In case its not clear, as yet, most of these ideas are from Žižek, with my own understanding incorporated--all credit is due where it is due).

Paradox said...

Makes complete sense to me - usually this type of nearly mathematical analysis would have me screaming with horror, but in this case replacing the similar words (with similar but different meanings) with an "x" actually helps us to take a step away from the semantics and the highly subjective interpretation we can make from words and look at the much larger picture at hand.

I can always count on your to provide an intelligent and thoughtful (as well as thought-provoking) response to something that is going through my head - thank you! <3