Polswatch

Outlining a Progressive Future

Could We All Be A Terrorist?

I was once told a story about a lecturer at the ANU who I considered to be one of the best. The lecturer had a number of students walk out of her class in protest because she dared to suggest that if put under similar circumstances any person could be pushed the a level where they participate in acts of terror. In doing so the lecturer challenged the idea that there is something fundamentally different about people who participate in terrorism that could and would not be replicated in other people. The students walked out because they couldn’t see that there could be any discussion around providing a reason for terrorism and simply that it is due to something fundamentally more ‘evil’ about terrorists and it is this evilness that has made them participate in these horrible acts. Essentially, they were ‘othering’ the terrorists; something that is not an unusual or somewhat surprising reaction.

What do I mean by othering?

Simply stated, ‘othering’ is the creation of a mindset where one puts them as fundamentally and inherently different to an ‘other’. These differences are generally considered to be something that are natural, rather than being something that may be due to circumstance and provide no logical reasons for differences (it is therefore important to note the difference between those who acknowledge differences between people and those who ‘other’ people). Othering normally occurs with severe negative connotations (as this generally occurs in negative situations and one generally sees themselves as better than others) and therefore is an extremely dangerous political tool. Othering occurs as a way to provide reasons to negative activities that are based wholly around the nature of a person and not through any logical discussions of the situations that may lead to someone to participate in particular actions. This is extremely dangerous because:

  1. It breeds nationalistic racism: By discussing the ‘evilness’ of the Muslim terrorist or the ‘evilness’ of the Somali pirate we add seriously to the problem of racism. The idea of ‘othering’ is that it discusses fundamental differences between one group of people and another. As this othering usually occurs in a racial context (i.e. Muslims, Somalis, Africans) and with extremely negative connotations the use of othering adds severely to racism in the contemporary world.
  2. It doesn’t help the problem: The second issue with this is that it simply doesn’t help the problem at all. Whilst discussing the use of the ‘other’ may be good politically it does absolutely nothing to help solve the problems that are leading people to participate in such actions as terrorism. This is simply not useful in any way as just leads to the continuation of the activities, which in the end causes more harm.

Using the ‘other’ as a political tool

However, even with such problems the use of the ‘other’ as a political tool is still extremely prevalent in today’s society. Whether discussing terrorists from the Middle East or pirates from Somalia it is still extremely common to see politicians, political commentators and members of the public still discuss these issues without any talk about why people participate in such actions and what the background is behind these problems. This occurs as the discussion of the other in this way allows for the continuation of nationalistic ideals, which continue to ensure the strength of the modern state. This argument requires quite a bit more discussion and will require me to write another post on nationalism later on, but I will just take one look at how discussing the other enhances nationalism.

One only needs to look at the Presidency of George W. Bush to see how discussing the other enhances nationalistic ideals.  After the attacks of the 11th of September 2001, ‘othering’ those who participating in terrorism became one the trademarks of the Bush Presidency. Whether discussing the ‘axis of evil’ or talking about Bin Laden Bush was very good at drawing a distinction between the ‘evil’ terrorists and the ‘good’ Americans. In doing so he therefore stoked the flames of American nationalism through promoting The United States as better than other nations around the world. Unfortunately for the large Islamic population in the country Bush’s promotion of The United States came at the expense of the Islamic people who continue to suffer from serious racism due to the way Bush ‘othered’ terrorists.

If you want to see more examples all you need to look at is the way John Howard ‘othered’ asylum seekers and especially those in the ‘Children Overboard’ scandal as a way to enhance support for him as a Prime Minister. Othering is now also a common factor in the discussion of Somali Pirates, where we are completely ignoring the reasons people enter into piracy and simply assuming that it is just because they are ‘evil’ or ‘bad’.  

How should we change this?

There is only one way to defeat the problems that come with this and that is to turn the discussion about problems such as terrorism and piracy away from the discussion of the inherently evil other and onto a discussion about what causes such problems. Actions never occur without reason and unless we accept and discuss that fact we are never going to be able to solve the problems that lead to actions like terrorism. For example, there is quite clear evidence that the majority of piracy of the coast of Somalia occurs due to severe pollution in the waters that has destroyed fish stocks and therefore people’s livelihoods. Most of this pollution has occurred due to the dumping of a range of pollutants from ships in the waters. In this situation it is not too difficult to make a jump as to why you might start to see piracy in this region. If we therefore began a discussion around why so much pollution occurs in this area, who is responsible for it and how it can be stopped we would have a much better chance and ending the practice in the future than if we were to just talk about piracy as an action that occurs due a natural ‘evilness’ of those who participate in it.

The question then must be asked; doesn’t this just allow for the justification of bad acts? There is definitely something to this; if we discuss these issues in a way that provides logical reasons for why negative actions occur it could be seen to be justifying why people did them and therefore ‘normalising’ particular crimes to a certain extent. However, I seriously do not believe that this is a major problem. I do so with the understanding that our justice system should have two main goals: (1) to reduce crime and (2) to ‘rehabilitate’ those who have participated in crimes so they can become active members in society once again (more on this in another blog). I believe that as long as we continue to describe those who participate in such crimes as ‘inherently different’ to us and refuse to acknowledge the reasons behind their crimes than we will never achieve these two goals. If ‘normalising’ a crime to a certain extent is a consequence of this than I am happy to live with that.

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May 3, 2009 - Posted by | Analysing the Right, Security, War and Violence | , , ,

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