Sunday, 29 November 2015

ISIS, The West, and Chronological Snobbery

In the wake of the Paris bombing the west is looking for a suitable response to such despicable violence.  The USA, France, and now Russia are engaged in bombing raids in Syria,  Australia and Canada have withdrawn, and the UK is moving towards a vote on whether to join in with such action. Several British politicians seem to be adopting an all too familiar stance when addressing issues to do with Islamic extremist; that of chronological snobbery. 

Essentially the view is that we in the west have developed in our culture to a point beyond that of Muslim majority nations. We, it seems, are civilised. We have become more cultured and now, through our democracies, have brought freedom to millions.

Now, whilst I both fully support democracy (at least the representative version we tend to have) and am always ready to criticise any system of belief that limits an individual's freedom, I am not completely convinced that we are as civilised as we would hope to believe.

The popular view is that the 'other' is uncivilised because they use different abattoir techniques or they dispense punishment in ways that we find objectionable or limit the freedoms of some sections of society because of gender, race, or sexuality. I wonder whether there is another way of looking at this.

It could be said that, rather than the West being free from violence, cruelty, and the mistreatment of animals, we have simply outsourced such endeavours. In English speaking countries we have linguistic ways of creating this distance between us and activities that we might find uncomfortable. 

An animal may be called a pig in the field, but by the time it reaches our plates it has been advertised as pork. In a similar way the cow becomes beef and the lovable 'Bambi' becomes venison. 

We have done similar linguistic gymnastics with the outsourcing of our warfare. Civilian children killed in war become 'collateral damage', and we distance our armed forces personnel from direct warfare by employing drones to kill our enemies in a style not dissimilar from the average computer game.

In light of this perhaps we are fooling ourselves by suggesting that we are more civilised than other nations. The USA might be rightly appalled at the sight of a 'criminal' being beheaded by a middle-eastern nation, but is this any less of a violent act than injecting a convict with a lethal mixture of drugs. Some would suggest that the former is likely to be quicker, and therefore more humane, than the latter.

Now, I am against all forms of capital punishment but I think the point is made that every tribe tends to describe its own activities in ways that appear more palatable, whilst using more pejorative terms for the actions of the 'other'.

There has been a long history of such methods. After the second world war the allies rightly took Nazi Germany to task for what were considered to be war crime.s. A particular focus was made upon the atrocities that took place in the concentration camps. What is not often mentioned is that some of these camps were remarkably similar to methods used by the British in South Africa during the nineteenth century.

Hence we see that the idea of being 'civilised' is something of a social construct that allows us to feel revulsion at the actions of others whilst minimising the horror that we may have inflicted.

So when we come to look at ISIS we can rightly denounce their activities as shameful acts of violence. If, however, we fail to see that some of our own 'outsourced' acts of aggression could equally be seen as shameful, we fool ourselves in to a false sense of security. 

Evil and violence are not the marks of any single nation. They are the worst representations of human behaviour and unfortunately they happen everywhere on this planet. 

Alan Molineaux's book 'Sea and Islands' is available by emailing

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