Tad Tietze – Language, violence and politics
Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage cannot be understood abstracted from the social and political conjuncture in which it emerged: The rise in far Right, racist and Islamophobic commentary, websites and organisations; the increasing insertion of such themes into mainstream debates; and government policies centred around endless war, national security, border control, and the policing of minority communities.
It is important to deconstruct the arguments being mustered in the mainstream as to how to respond to this context. Here I critique approaches that have emerged to the problem of violence associated with political language — so as to outline an alternative based in treating both Breivik and the mainstreamed hard Right politically.
The dominant response to Breivik by conventional and right-wing commentators has been to call him insane — acting because of pathology rather than political conviction. This has been buttressed by a court psychiatric report diagnosing Breivik with ‘Paranoid Schizophrenia’. A storm of controversy has erupted in the report’s wake, driven by its sloppy application of psychiatric categories and ignorance of far Right subcultures and ideologies that shaped Breivik’s beliefs.
Yet, even in the unlikely event that Breivik is psychotic, the focus on madness has served a political purpose for those not wanting to deal with the growing influence of the far Right. Behind this ‘insanity defence’ lies the idea that politics is inherently a zone of rationality where, however inflammatory the discourse, the actions that such ideas engender will remain safely within acceptable limits. Thus, those who take action based on open discussion of ‘wars’ with defined ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’, of the need to use ‘force’ to protect against ‘existential threats’ posed by multiculturalism, Muslim immigration, and the loss of national and ethnic sovereignty, have clearly stepped outside the bounds of reason, and must be disowned accordingly.
One is tempted to say, then, that the argument is paradoxical. Because if the hard Right of the mainstream has proposed a militant, life and death struggle against Muslims, multiculturalists and Marxists, then when someone like Breivik takes their words literally they dismiss him by claiming, ‘Look how mad this man is, he actually took us seriously! How could we possibly be blamed for that?’
A second response has come from a pseudo-movement practiced in retailing crude versions of Enlightenment themes, what British writer Dan Hind has called the ‘Folk Enlightenment’. Its progenitors share a rabid commitment to narrowly defined standards of rational inquiry, carried out on the assumption that the status quo of technologically-centred market capitalism is the height of human achievement, its liberating effects merely being held back by backward superstition. One example is the UK-based libertarian website Spiked, which sees the collapse of old binaries of Left and Right as driving the turn to reactionary tropes of the pre-Enlightenment era.
Brendan O’Neill and his Spiked collaborators focus on demands for absolute rights of free speech, arguing that even instances of ‘incitement’ are not enough reason to limit those rights. Such an extreme view must be underpinned by a complete philosophical separation between ideas and actions:
So long as we don’t physically attack someone or something, we should be free to hate it as much as we like and to tell people that we hate it. Hatred might not always be big and clever … but it’s a thing that lies in the realm of thought and speech, and the authorities have no business there.
To maintain consistency, Spiked has been obsessed with denying any link between the rise in Islamophobic ideas coming out of politicians’ and pundits’ mouths with the incidence of discrimination or violence. For instance, they have selectively used UK police and court statistics to ‘prove’ there has been no rise of Islamophobia-in-practice, as if these even begin to describe the experience of British Muslims since 9/11.
The contortions required to explain Breivik’s atrocity were worthy of a gold medal. Reducing the massacre to another of ‘today’s various terror tantrums’ O’Neill dismissed links between the killer’s ideology and the growing noise of right-wing extremist discourse and instead claimed that ‘his outlook, like that of the 7/7 attackers, seems to have been moulded by the estrangement-inducing politics of multiculturalism’:
Breivik’s alleged hatred of multiculturalism actually seems to be driven by a belief that it does not sufficiently respect his cultural identity; his violent act can be seen as a crazy, barbaric attempt to expand the remit of the politics of multiculturalism.
In case we might get the wrong idea from this, O’Neill parenthetically added, ‘This is not to argue, by the way, that the EDL or anti-immigration thinkers bear any responsibility for Breivik’s violence. They do not.’ Spiked’s logic is stupidly self-contradictory: Words don’t lead to actions, except that the discourse of multiculturalism leads to fanatical struggles for identity on all sides, except that it doesn’t.
But does this mean that there is a case for somehow limiting ‘hate speech’ because of its potential for violence? This question was posed after the shooting of Arizona Democrat congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner in early 2011. Loughner, although probably seriously mentally ill, had apparently been influenced by inflammatory right-wing rhetoric against Giffords, and fingers were soon pointed at advertisements being run by Sarah Palin targeting Democrats (including Giffords) in cartoon crosshairs. In response to the shooting, Barack Obama argued,
And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.
Similarly, just six months later, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told his people that he would not be pushed into fighting fire with fire when it came to the anti-multicultural Right:
The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation. … We have to be very clear to distinguish between extreme views, opinions that it’s completely legal, legitimate to have. What is not legitimate is to try to implement those extreme views by using violence.
But what can be done about these developments except to decry them and call for greater civility? The responses of far Right ideologues in the wake of Utøya suggests they are deaf to such calls. Writing in Newsweek, Asne Seierstad put the question to the founder of a far Right Norwegian website:
[Hans] Rustad, for his part, is dismayed by official Norway’s reaction to the attacks. ‘Meeting terror with roses and love …’ he says, bitingly. ‘Crown Prince Haakon announced that the streets of Oslo were filled with love. What is this? Woodstock? Flower Power? Feel my pain! We go through the same pile of victims’ stories over and over again. How many memorial ceremonies can we handle?’ He knocks his glass of water onto the table, when I mention the debate over what has been described as covert Islamization. ‘It is not even covert!’
In the face of such intransigence, should the Left go further and demand some kind of state action against the Right?
In Australia the rise in right-wing rhetoric has come at the same time as the Murdoch press has campaigned hysterically against the left-wing Greens party. Its flagship broadsheet declared it wants the Greens ‘destroyed at the ballot box’ and has run opinion pieces suggesting the party has an agenda akin to fascism or Stalinism. In response, Greens leader Bob Brown has called for tough media regulation, in part to curb such rhetorical excesses and partisan bias.
However, one doesn’t have to be a Spiked-style libertarian to see how such calls can play into a culture of greater state regulation that could easily be turned against the Left and social movements.
Such a problem emerged in the Northern autumn of 2011 when some anti-racist campaigners called for a government ban on the English Defence League marching through the multiethnic London borough of Tower Hamlets. Clearly the near-unanimous desire to stop the EDL was a healthy one, and yet how this was to be achieved led some to (inadvertently) invite restrictions on the Left also. Not only did they get a ban but the minister also banned all street marches for a period of 30 days, including the planned anti-fascist counter protest. Luckily anti-racists were able to mobilise a significant protest in contravention of the ban, despite the arguments of some that the campaign had achieved its aims and so should stay at home.
How, then, can the problems inherent in these various responses be overcome?
Any workable Left strategy must reject the simplistic notion that there is no link between right-wing ideology and violence, but also the idea that there is a simple and direct causal chain connecting them. The fact Breivik was impressed by the policies of former Australian conservative Prime Minister John Howard doesn’t mean that Howard was directly responsible for the massacres in Norway.
To understand what connections there may be between the two, it is worth reflecting on the ‘media effects’ debate. In the second edition of their authoritative account of the controversy, Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, Martin Barker and Julian Petley argue that studies purporting to show an measurable link between media representations of violence and violent offending invariably start with the wrong question. By focusing on the chosen commonality between the two — the presence of ‘violence’ (usually imprecisely defined) — they reduce both sides of the problem to a single factor. This approach presupposes what it seeks to answer.
It is in the complexities of context and meaning, of how consumers of media actively interpret its form and content, and of how particular circumstances (personal and historical) come together to shape this dynamic process that any understanding of the links can start to be teased out.
The same is true of ‘hate speech’, and of the militant ideologies disseminated by the anti-multicultural Right. Not everyone who hears or reads their words will interpret them identically, and not everyone will be moved to taking action as a result. The coded anti-Muslim words and actions of mainstream politicians may provide legitimacy for more extreme ideas, but they are not the same as far Right calls for eliminationist policies or fascist arguments to organise street violence. Each has to be understood concretely in its connection with social circumstances.
Such ideas are more likely to outgrow their fringe position in circumstances of economic and political crisis, when ‘normal’ institutional supports start to hollow out and fragment, and sections of the middle class and ruling elite develop worldviews around reinstating national unity on the basis of exclusion and elimination of contaminants, whether ethnic, religious or political.
The hard Right is not just engaging in a polite back and forth but seeking to build its own strength through a mixture of cohering the confidence of its supporters and intimidating opponents via invective and extreme assertions, a natural complement to the physical force used by groups like the EDL. Engaging in a ‘civil’ debate with the far Right only gives such ideas respectability. This is not to say that debating anyone who holds racist or nationalist ideas is futile, but that the hardened ideologues of the Right have no interest in settling matters through polite discussion. The Left should ruthlessly expose the true nature of the Right and its authoritarian project. The far Right must be confronted and isolated, robbed of its respectability and legitimacy, its confidence and coherence broken.
For some such an approach will seem anti-democratic, but the opposite is true. The far Right and fascists have a project explicitly aimed at undermining the democratic rights of the social groups they target. The defence of democracy relies on the marginalisation of reactionary forces that seek to bully their opponents into submission.
Standing up to real social power relations and structures means confronting not just the far Right but the role of the state in perpetuating hierarchies, inequalities, injustices and discrimination. The problem of the far Right is not that it is too ‘extreme’ — as if some notional middle ground is always best — but that it wants to intensify already existing oppressions. Thus it is dangerous for the Left to seek an alliance with forces responsible for those oppressions. It is the state that turns asylum seekers away at its borders, the state that carpet bombs Muslim countries and the state that restricts ordinary people’s legal and political freedoms.
To refuse the far Right or fascists a platform thus requires a radically different agency, one that seeks to unite ordinary people to rob the reactionaries of space to organise. It is a policy that must be enacted by people themselves, as real democracy depends on ordinary people putting their minds and bodies on the line. At times that will expose the Left to claims that it is being ‘extreme’ or that the Left are just as bad as the fascists. At times the police, as they have done so many times in the past, will intervene to defend right-wing thugs’ democratic ‘rights’, in stark contrast to their treatment of left-wing protests.
But any serious strategy to deal with the far Right must be based on breaking the nexus between their theory and practice, of isolating their words to the margins and making it impossible for them to be organised into violent actions. Only through a strategy of refusing to appease the Right, exposing it for its reactionary, anti-democratic nature, and mobilising ordinary people to confront it can those links be broken.
This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in the recent e-book On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism, and Europe.
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