Alienation & violence
I’m going to start this post by stating the obvious: no act of violence can be committed without there being some disconnect between the perpetrator and the victim. The offender always feels alienated from the victim in some way.
Remember this quote: “They hate us for our freedom”?
That was George W. Bush’s explanation as to why the United States was being targeted by Islamic terrorists. At the time he was widely mocked by liberals and political comedians – one of the best being Bill Maher.
His HBO political/comedy panel chat show Real Time with Bill Maher has been one of my favourites since the 2008 U.S election cycle (he kept me sane, along with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). Unlike the Daily Show or the Colbert Report though, Real Time is not merely a comedic program. The show often has an interesting array of guests drawn from politics, government, science and journalism, in addition to the obligatory entertainers. The audience is annoying (they seem to applaud everything) but Bill is a well-read, furiously irreverent, often offensive, passionate and entertaining commentator. And really fucking funny.
But, as is so often the case with those who’s strength is intellect and irreverence, not empathy or wisdom, his understanding of the psychological and emotional influences on issues always seems… lacking.
This was evident in a conversation I recall him having on the show back in 2009, about the arrest of several young sleeper cells, one of whom was a naturalized U.S citizen living a fairly quiet life. Bill asked the panelists what they thought was going on inside these men’s heads.
His hypothesis? That these would be terrorists wanted to perpetrate these acts of violence against their fellow citizens because they felt guilty about liking America.
In his words, “it’s not that they hate America, it’s that they love America I think, so during the day they’re eating at Chilli’s and going to the tittie bar… and then they get on the internet at night and they want to atone for the guilt they feel for embracing the West.”
For a man who so frequently bashed Bush about his simplistic assertions on the origins of terrorism (such as the aforementioned “they hate us for our freedom”, which Bill responded to by saying “No, they hate us for our airstrikes”), his ‘they love America and feel guilty about it’ theory seemed equally obtuse. Actor/leftist activist Janeane Garofalo, a panelist on the show, countered his position by saying it was not guilt but foreign policy fuelling anti-American terrorism by Islamic extremists. Predictably, Richard Dawkins, another guest on the show, claimed it was neither foreign policy nor guilt, but religion, that singularly drives the violence.
Thomas Friedman then brought some much needed balance to the conversation, pointing out the fact that a lot of the terrorism, the suicide bombing, occurring in Iraq at that time was being perpetrated by one group of Muslims against another, which seemingly counters the whole “it’s all about foreign policy” argument (although foreign policy – and politics – is certainly in the mix, as is religion). But it was Marcy Kaptur, a Representative for Toledo, Ohio, a community that elected the first Arab American mayor in the United States, who offered the most constructive and, I think, wisest comment.
“I think something each American can do is not to let any American feel isolated…not to demonise any community but to take people for who they are.”
She went on to speculate about the psyche of would-be terrorists:
“I think part of the rage – and some of those that were arrested had only recently come to the United States and had not been citizens for a long time – many feel the isolation, they feel the separation, and some of the rage comes from that. It’s very personal, we can look at France – there’s a situation there that is very tender. So I would just say that yes, inside these communities, the people who are the leaders, who are the long-term residents, are very conscious of new arrivals. They have to be integrated, they have to be brought into the broader community.”
She was going to say more, but was cut off by Bill, who retorted that these men were already in the broader community, but that it was the “religious nonsense” in their heads that was making them contemplate acts of violence. Fair point perhaps, but Bill missed the deeper point I think Marcy was trying to make: that ALIENATION is a potent ingredient in these acts, and (I believe) all acts of violence.
Religion, political ideologies, ethnic identity movements, etc. – all of these are dangerous when:
a) They demands blind faith/adherence and discourage critical and individual, free thinking;
b) They advocate violence against others or even ones self; and
c) They ALIENATE the believers/adherents from others – so that the believer/adherent ceases to see those outside their religion or political grouping (or any other kind of grouping) as equals, and instead view them with suspicion, as enemies, tainted infidels, antagonists. Or even just view them with extreme indifference, as sub-humans. Essentially, the others are not like them.
That is when the mind can justify committing or tolerating an act of violence. In the mind of the alienated, the act of violence is justified because the would-be victim is less than, guilty in some way, or possesses something the aggressor covets or needs. Whatever it is, whether it be religion, ethnic identity, political ideology… as long as it alienates the person from the other, the idea of committing, or even just condoning, an act of violence against that other isn’t a great leap.
Not that everyone who is alienated is going to be violent or even sympathetic to violence – of course not. But people who feel alienated in the extreme can be drawn to extremist thought and groups. This is because those groups can arm them with meaning, with a story, a mission – a powerful justification for what they want to do. An explanation for everything that is wrong with their world. Heroes and villains are defined and they are the favoured – and the bringers of justice.
We all have such “stories” whether consciously or unconsciously. It seems to be a fundamental part of human nature. Whether those stories are good or bad can be ascertained by the actions they produce in the real world. Good stories civillise; bad stories lead to personal and cultural decay. If in your story you are permitted to harm anyone who does not agree with you or wrongs you in some way… it’s probably not a good story. (Which is why I have such an interest in Story and the media… as I have written about in previous posts).
So… knowing the link between alienation and social unrest and/or violence, the question is: how do we prevent that alienation?
Marcy Kaptur pointed to community integration and inclusion.
I suggested in my last post that media diversity fostering social inclusion could help.
But, ultimately, it does all comes down to what is in peoples heads. Somehow, we need to foster an awareness of the sameness of people, a higher consciousness, that inoculates people from being indoctrinated/alienated with dogma of any kind. Which means combating all the conditions that can cause people to be drawn to extremism in the first place.
Still trying to figure out practical ways we can do that…..
Forgive me, this is another rushed post – but I have a massive backlog of writing to do and didn’t want to leave a big gap between blog posts! Someday I will learn how to manage my time more effectively.