"The Problem With Language"

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The work of an overstimulated mind in an exhausted body.

Submitted: February 19, 2015

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Submitted: February 19, 2015



The Problem With Language



Is Mandela a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Because through books, films, newspapers, heard radio and TV, etc, we have an entire history of exposure to a wide variety of representations about these words, though they might appear to be only descriptive of one aspect of behaviour, the surrounding “system of statements” define the objects under discussion. The outcome of this all being to give us two different accounts of “reality”.

Such a simple point and such an easy one to accept in principle. Yet the implications are far-reaching and renders us all equally guilty.

At the risk of turning this discussion into a biography, during my law student days I wrote an essay about the merit of judicial intervention in the context of the British government's response to terrorism. Having written my essay I contacted a Director of a Department at my former university with some expertise on the topic and asked him to give me his opinion on my thesis. Perhaps inevitably my view of the government’s “security” response to terrorism was a critical one. In light of the increasingly draconian legislative response to the July 7 bombings, I argued that it turned the state itself into a terrorist. The Director of the Department in question scalded me for making such an allegation, arguing that it was a “very strong claim to make” and labelled it “over the top”.

A great deal of human rights law and jurisprudence has been directed to answering the question of whether measures such as interment without charge, control orders and house arrest (measures normally associated with Burma and Zimbabwe) are justifiable so it is not my intention to be bogged down by them (although interestingly, the police power of which I was most critical, section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows stops without suspicion, was curtailed in May 2009). An alternate means of demonstrating how value laden our usage of terms like “terrorist” have become is the example provided by Noam Chomsky in his book A New Generation Draws the Line.

Chomsky writes: ‘It took considerable discipline at the NATO anniversary for participants and commentators “not to notice” that some of the worst ethnic cleansing of the 1990s was taking place within NATO itself, in south-eastern Turkey; and furthermore, that these massive atrocities relied on a huge flow of arms from the West, overwhelmingly from the United States, which provided about 80% of Turkey’s arms as atrocities peaked by the mid-1990s.’ With tens of thousands of Kurds killed, 2-3 million refugees and 3,500 villages destroyed, the State Department in 2000 released its “latest annual report describing the administration’s efforts to combat terrorism” in which Turkey was singled out for praise for its “positive experiences” in showing how “tough counter-terrorism measures plus political dialogue with non-terrorist opposition groups” can overcome the plague of violence and atrocities.

Why then, in light of the complicity of the West in the atrocities in Turkey, Colombia, Palestine and beyond, would a head of a university department devoted to the study of terrorism and security find it so “over the top” to label the state a terrorist? It will be recalled that in an earlier chapter we established that terrorism is no more than a social construct. Note the enlightening definition provided by Brian Jenkins in “International Terrorism: A New Mode of Conflict” (1975): “terrorism can mean just what those using the term…want it to mean”.

When Sam Harris commences his book “The End of Faith” by asking a simple question; to guess the religion of a young man who boards a bus wearing a bomb beneath his overcoat, he misses the point. Even if we know that the Western state aligned with our geopolitical interests is culpable of terrorist activity (“The plan was to injure these people severely without killing them” and so leave them as future warnings of Israeli violence (Sprinzak 1993)), we do not call the state a terrorist - as my clash with the university academic showed.

Harris is without doubt a very clever man but his retort to Chomsky’s allegation that the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant perpetrated by the Clinton administration makes September 11 pale in comparison - that he neglects to ask the question: did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? - is guilty of two fundamental errors.

Firstly as Harris himself acknowledges laws, policies and military actions have intended as well as unintended consequences. We have an ethical duty to weigh the impact of the intended as well as the unintended effects of our military actions around the world against the need to take it. If this were not true, then coalition forces would not have bothered to take any care to avoid harming civilians during the Iraq invasion (although in fact, Human Rights Watch in 2003 did claim that the bomb targeting bordered on indiscriminate and that the substantial civilian casualties as a result of cluster munitions were predictable). However, does not his subsequent analysis fall into the same trap as that of Freud’s “borrowed kettle” joke as evoked by Zizek?

Those familiar with Zizek’s work will know that the joke goes: (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. Zizek asserts that “such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments, of course, confirms by negation what it endeavours to deny - that I returned your kettle broken….” The same inconsistency characterises the way that Harris deals with these unintended consequences (what he calls “collateral damage”): (1) our goal was not to kill anyone at all; (2) what about the lives we saved by doing so?; (3) would the Iraqis themselves have spared us?

The second fundamental error that Harris makes is his complete failure to understand the operation of authority (whether moral, intellectual or military). Harris alludes to the higher moral standards of the US who seek to minimise civilian casualties in war as compared to those of the Muslim world in which their leaders would seek to wreak as much devastation as possible. But what is the real reason why the US did not just aim to wipe the Middle East of the face of the planet as so many neo-con Americans urged their nation to do?

Let us consider what authority means in a parental context. The father who has real authority over his child is the father who has only to raise his voice to strike fear into his son. He always maintains control, perhaps threatening to beat him if his son misbehaves but never actually doing it. The authority of the father is therefore symbolic or what we might describe as virtual authority. If the father does actually lose his temper and beat the child, this is no more than a vulgar display of power and of course the child might feel physical pain but there is this unspoken feeling that his father now seems impotent, lacking control and mastery of his emotions like a puppet. The authority on display here is self-destructive and the child loses respect for his father for beating him. This is not real authority. So we begin to see that for authority to be real, it has to remain symbolic - it has to be a type of virtual authority.

This translates into our political lives too. If Bush and Blair in waging their “War On Terror” had actually sought to defeat and destroy the whole of the Muslim world as the victors of any war should do and as many of the most virulent critics of Islam would encourage them to do, the West would undermine its authority like our drunken father. The West would seem too obviously like the extremists.

Therefore when Harris tells us the US seeks to minimise human casualties is because of its higher moral standards than the Muslim world and its humanitarian concerns, again he misses a trick. The real reason why the US does this is in order to defend itself from allegations of extremism and terrorist activity, to maintain its virtual authority over the rest of the world it seeks to dominate.

The political pluralism essential to a democratic society must rest on a foundation of cultural pluralism. Free elections must to an extent rest on a plural structure of political parties, and if these do not rest on differences of ideas, they will be differentiated only by opportunism. What we have seen since the turn of the last century in Europe and much of the Western hemisphere is the break down of the “two party” system of government facilitated by a drift to political centrism (inevitably to the right of the centre). In the same way that the cultural critic, philosopher and intellectual titan Slavoj Zizek alleges that this era has been characterised by the erection of walls everywhere, between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, on the US-Mexico border, this process has been at least accompanied by if not facilitated by the emergence of “idelogical walls” between the feeble and redundant liberalism of the marginalized and the populist New Right. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 therefore signalled not only the downfall of the capitalist/communist divide but the emergence of the new wall between the subject position (that is, the place or character an individual can construct for themselves using discourses and particular recognized positions) of the liberal-democratic West and the object excluded from it.

It seems strange that Michael R. LeGault in a book (Think) that laments the intellectual decline of America and espouses the idea of thinking critically as opposed to making snap judgments, would argue that the “nation needs to have diplomats who can anticipate the standard anti-American propaganda and debate on their feet”. What exactly does LeGault mean by the use of the term “standard” to designate anti-American propaganda? Is the implication that all anti-American propaganda is predictable, generic and unworthy of being merited for individual insight? Or does he just mean standard in the sense of typical (the type of propaganda that America has come to expect)?

Even pushing aside the ideological function of such semantic priming, LeGault, who it must be stated has many good things to say about the intellectual shortcomings of political correctness, is informed by what Zizek defines as the purest form of ideology - the unknown knowns; that is the things you don’t know that you know. This unconscious ideological slant explains why although LeGault asserts (ironically enough) in an earlier chapter that the path to critical thinking lies in avoiding bias and ideology, “to be completely indifferent”, he later presses for a quick way to silence those who are worried about “American world dominance”. Is LeGault seriously proposing that his judgment of the importance of having diplomats capable of doing so is not motivated by any bias or ideology? Did he ever entertain the possibility whilst writing a book entitled “Think” that those critics might actually be right? Even if we accept for argument’s sake that there is no possible way that the Saudi Arabian woman who asserted during a meeting with Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes that “America had become a right-wing country in which criticism of the government was suppressed (his example, not mine) could be right, surely the diplomat in question would have a duty to think critically and without bias about the allegation before deciding whether or not to refute it rather than just reeling off a rehearsed set of justifications and refutations in defence of America. He devotes an entire book to propounding intellectual standards which he himself is incapable of conforming to on the matters of most importance.

It is not my intention here to embarrass LeGault for the book which apparently “delivers a bracing wake-up call for saving American civilization” but surely he will not fail to see the irony of writing a whole book about how to avoid the danger of the closing of the American mind and then completely discarding the possibility of an American diplomat agreeing with a critic of US foreign policy (which however hard he tries to counter-argue is the premise implicit in encouraging them to defeat the anti-Americans by “debating on their feet”). Perhaps this book tells us more about the sorry state of intellectual affairs in the USA than Michael R LeGault intended it to.

Conrad Russell in his excellent book Academic Freedom reminds us that it is part of the definition of research that you do not know what you are going to find out. Abidance by this principle is also the hallmark of good journalism. Over the course of the past ten years journalistic (and intellectual) standards in the UK have taken a massive dip as our mode of journalistic inquiry has drifted closer towards the American model. Programmes like Dispatches and Panorama with their “Undercover Mosque” specials purport to be journalistic inquiry into the nature of the problem of Islamic terrorism in the UK and abroad. Yet the reality is that the programme makers know perfectly well what they want the “investigation” to find and seek out the evidence which supports the finding.

We do not need to look very far to gain an idea about how damaging a lack of autonomy can be in academic inquiry or investigation. Most economists now agree that one of the main causes of the credit crunch that has crippled Western liberal capitalism was at heart a basic conflict of interest issue. Credit rating agencies being hired by banks to provide a “credit estimate” of a complex financial product based upon a number of criteria in what was supposed to constitute a form of risk management. The conflict for a credit rating agency was: do we issue this product with a Triple A rating in order to get paid for more and more products to be evaluated and make huge profits or do we use adequate data and do our job properly? We all know which option the agencies opted for and we will be living with the consequences for many years to come.

Russell proposes that “ Because contract research gives rise to temptation, it is essential that it should be done in an intellectual climate dominated by the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake” precisely because when the party undertaking the research has a vested (commercial) interest in producing findings which the employer wants to hear, we cannot trust these findings. Time and time again the US government has breached this basic principle of academic freedom; conducting its own inquiries as opposed to allowing independent ones subsequent to its military conquests, providing its own estimates of civilian casualties in Iraq (which claimed the death toll was 200 000 as opposed to the figure of 1 million provided by UNICEF) and opting to try its war criminals in its own military courts as opposed to the International Criminal Court.

At a time when we most desperately need to be able to make good judgments about what is happening in the world, this is the reason why the walls are going up. But what about how? In order to fully answer this question, it is necessary to fall back to psychology. A discourse analysis of the content of the discourses of “terrorist” and “freedom-fighter” would look systematically at instances of talk or text that used these terms in order to establish how they are constructed in relation to each other and other objects of social, political, cultural and personal life. So the first question that demands consideration is: how do I create an identity for myself?

If want to construct myself as a good mother I will have to draw on the dominant cultural discourse of traditional motherhood - positioning mothers as loving, nurturing, and self-sacrificing to their children. But what if, as a woman working full-time, I am not constantly available to my children, and I have not sacrificed my career or economic independence to be with them full time? Perhaps I can resist seeing my involvement in paid work as selfish by drawing on a more recent discourse of motherhood, which includes in the notion of good mothering ensuring that one’s children are provided for materially.

This act of creating an identity for myself as a good mother in relation to these different discourses is called the creation of  a subject position. When Anudhati Roy writes of the US, “Its technique is to position itself as the well-intentioned giant whose good deeds are confounded in strange countries by their scheming natives, whose markets it’s trying to free, whose societies it’s trying to modernize, whose women it’s trying to liberate, whose souls it’s trying to save”, we are again dealing with the creation of subject position.

Next we have to consider how we make judgments about social behaviour. The model of the individual as scientist trying to find causal explanations of behaviour is implausible as it disregards the issue of when people might look for the causes of social behaviour. Clearly we do not do it for every episode of social behaviour (this would be impractical if not impossible as it would take up so much time and attention). However one might argue that we do tend to do it when we need an explanation for that behaviour. Most likely when things go wrong in a particular situation in order to attribute responsibility or social accountability for a particular action: why did that Polish guy bump into me? Why did that British Pakistani girl strap a bomb to herself and blow the bus up?

The problem with this is that in terms of looking at who is accountable or responsible for these actions, we may be looking at our own actions not just the actions of others. In such a situation we will have interests to protect as well as goals and aims to pursue. We may well want to find out if there are actions we could take that would make the situations develop better for us. The discursive psychology perspective argues further that attribution takes place in the circumstances outlined above because speakers need to be able to construct an account, to create a subject position within their interpretive repertoire, which enables them to manage the responsibility or accountability in ways that are best for them.

In order to demonstrate how this might work in practice, Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter (1992) re-examined some of the data from a published study (Burleson 1986) that had used traditional attribution theory from the cognitive perspective to investigate the discussion about a failing student between two junior teaching assistants in an American college. The student is in the class of one of the teaching assistants (Don), and has just failed a test. She has also failed other tests that she was given on this course. In the box below is part of the transcript of interview material that Burleson used to illustrate how attribution information would be sought, by applying principles like consistency and consensus.


Transcript of interview material (Burleson, 1986)


Don: She has - I gave quizzes which, you know, cover the material. So she’s got copies of the quizzes which led up to the midterm, and some of the questions on that midterm are just lifted off the quizzes. Just exactly the same as those quizzes.


Bob: and you did go over those quizzes, right?


Don: oh yes, yes I did. And she was still missin’ those that are exact copies of the ones on quizzes that she’s got copies of.


Don: (Pause) I just don’t see that I can do anything for her. I just have - I know the day has passed for dropping the course, but I gotta -


Bob: - Does she know she failed it?


Don: No.


Bob: Oh….I don’t envy you man. What are you going to say to her?


Don: I’m just gonna say ‘you failed it again. This is the last straw. I’m gonna get you out of this class’. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it.


Traditional attribution theory would interpret the exchange as evidence that Bob and Don are weighing and considering information relating to the cause of the student’s failure. Bob is looking for evidence of consistency and asks Don whether the student still fails the tests when she has been given quizzes that cover the material to be tested (quizzes with questions exactly the same as those in the test). Evidence of consensus is that this student has failed, but the others in the class have passed. But Edwards and Potter propose that in this exchange what seems to preoccupy these teaching assistants is not causal inference about the reasons for the student’s failure, but their own accountability for it.

As university teaching assistants they would be held responsible for a variety of duties in teaching students and with providing adequate support for students to pass their tests. Their work will be under scrutiny on these grounds, not only by their students but also by their university supervisors. So this conversation takes place in the context of being in a teaching post in which students’ pass results are important both to positive evaluation from colleagues and superiors, and to permission to continue in the post. The effect of this conversation is to create two subject positions through the use of particular interpretative repertoires (that is, the sum of different discourses, and the way that they can be combined or mixed together, which the individual has at their disposal to construct subject positions).

Don is located firmly within the discourse of “responsible teacher”, and the student within the discourse of “inadequate student”. Therefore the entire exchange could be described as the creation of subject positions that will serve to justify Don in expelling her from his group. This working of the account by Don in creating these subject positions is where the play of power comes in. Specifically he achieves a representation of the world that best serves his interests by placing responsibility for the situation with the student.

In essence this is the way we should view the messages that we are hearing from our politicians; that is the language as a resource used by them to construct objects in the world and take action in it. When we hear statements such as: “We should not waste time searching old white ladies. It is going to be disproportionate. It is going to be young men, not exclusively, but it may be disproportionate when it comes to ethnic groups.” by the British Transport Police Chief Constable (Ian Johnston - 31 July 2005) about terrorism prevention processes, we have to bear in mind the constructive function of language. It cannot be assumed that such statements transparently represent cognitive processes in psychological research that uses verbal report.

But what is the upshot of all this? A right-of-centre populist reaction would be to ask whether the British Transport Police Chief Constable should have pledged to stop old, white ladies in the wake of the July 7 bombings just to ensure that his statement is not merely serving his best interests even it if means a waste of valuable resources or worse. The allegation is reducible to saying: this is all sounds like a political correctness taken too far.

I was watching a documentary behind the making of a very fine BBC adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which the director

talked about the characterisation of Tess’s love interest Angel. He described how in spite of Angel quite obviously being a villain in Hardy’s original text - culpable of a moral hypocrisy that renders his code of morality more immoral than that of Alec, Tess’s seducer (and possible rapist) -  in order for the adaptation to work as a love story, in order for the viewer to comprehend Tess’s devotion to Alec, they tried to make the character more sympathetic. If people wish to understand what is implied by being politically correct, I would direct them to this extraordinary admission.

This seemingly benign artistic choice is political correctness. In Zizek’s minor masterpiece Violence, he presents a parallel ethico-political dilemma: the looting in New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina disaster. There were reports of rape and violence yet even if all of these reports are subsequently substantiated, we must accept that the stories circulating about them would still be pathological and “racist” because what motivated the media coverage was not a desire to tell the facts but a racist prejudice - that is the satisfaction from being able to say; “You see, this is what blacks are really like deep down - barbarians hiding behind a thin veneer of civilisation.” This would amount to what Zizek calls: lying in the guise of truth - “even if what I am saying is factually true, the motives that make me say it are false”.

The ethical dilemma is now obvious: “does this mean that, out of political correctness, we are not allowed to tell the simple facts when blacks commit a crime?” Zizek suggests the solution: “the obligation is not to lie, to falsify or ignore facts, on behalf of some higher political truth, but - and this is a much more difficult thing to do - to change one’s subjective position so that telling the factual truth will not involve the lie of the subjective position of enunciation.”

In the same way that I would urge the director of the BBC adaptation of Tess to present Angel as he is presented in the text, to present his hypocrisy and his cruelty, to make the viewer have the moral courage to ask why and how Tess could love Angel in spite of these things rather than patronizing the viewer, and making it easier for them, Zizek is urging us to acknowledge the limitations of political correctness. Let us too have the moral courage to acknowledge that blacks have committed a crime, and then to ask ourselves why - rather than imposing a set of rules with regard to content - a censorship of the type the BBC adaptation imposed.

Although it is not a terrain that Zizek ventures into further in this particular context, this brings us back to psychology - political correctness and its opposite can both be equated with a psychological reluctance to change the subjective position from which we speak. After all it is very easy to agree not to talk about black people committing crime or Muslim people brutalising their wives but this leaves our subjective position untouched - in other words, we can ignore our own prejudices by censoring what we talk about in the first place.

As I have devoted an entire chapter to delivering a message about the virtue of taking on board differing discourses and shifting the subject matter, I should not resist the duty to offer (if tentatively) a rather radical discourse about the future of the West. Since 9/11, there has been a great deal of talk about Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” as a result of the collision of two fundamentally opposed ideologies, mass immigration and so on urging us to wake up and recognize the urgency of the situation we are presented with. Typical of this movement (if I may permit myself to use so crude a term) is the controversial Melanie Phillips book Londonstan, in which the author berates us on our failure to take political action and for our policy wrong turns over the past couple of decades.

I must confess that all of this sensationalism made me think of another sensational event as depicted by director Gus Van Sant. Last Days is a meditative journey through the last days in the life of fictional musician Blake (Michael Pitt), which is patently inspired by the story of Kurt Cobain (the late Nirvana frontman), as he holes himself up in a secluded mansion in the woods and gradually drifts towards suicide. Both alienating and abstruse, the film’s trick is to place the sensational event, the tragedy, in the context of the dulling normality of human life. So the tone is decidedly minimalist, with dialogue sparse and often barely comprehensible. In one scene, we watch the protagonist prepare and eat a bowl of cereal – in real time – as he struggles for something to give meaning to his existence.

By definition all of those critics of the film who asked what the point was missed the point. The film does not attempt a psychological study or fresh insight - the film is a suicide. In the end, there is nothing. It’s just a void. Rather than gild its hero as a poète maudit, Gus Van Sant appears to be asking us: how can we attempt to read this man’s mind, when he has so clearly lost it along the way? His stubborn and singularly bleak vision demystifies his suicide as a haunting act and repositions it as the consummation of a life that had already ceased to be.

What if the downfall of Western society will not be the outcome of some type of Faustian pact - a classic Greek tragedy? What if in the end, like Blake, the West will go out with a whimper and not a bang? What if our end is not one that will be bitterly contested by heroes and martyrs but by people who ultimately have just had enough?




© Copyright 2019 Elliot Borges. All rights reserved.

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