Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Templars and the Saracens

In a piece which appears in The Salmon of Doubt (I don't know whether it was published in the author's lifetime), Douglas Adams writes:
There's always a moment when you fall out of love, whether it's with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it's one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: "These scientists, eh? They're so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they're meant to be indestructible? It's always the thing that doesn't get smashed? So why don't they make the planes out of the same stuff?"

The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn't really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they'd be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? ... There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behavior, you should try living with it) that didn't rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.
De mortuis, but I tend to think the (self-)criticism was apt. A lot of Hitchhiker is less like a novel - or radio series - than a student revue (a very good student revue, admittedly): take the paper-thin characterisations, the dialogue built around gag lines or - more importantly for the current argument - the evocation of weird and counter-intuitive areas of science and philosophy, undercut by a common-sensical English ordinariness. This is amplified by the Pythonesque dogged persistence which won't let go of an idea until it's been pushed to its logical limit, taken over the limit, fined for exceeding the limit and embroiled in a lengthy but inconclusive case in the Court of Over-Extended Metaphors. Stylistically, this gives us Arthur's exchange with Prosser over the planning notice ("...behind a door marked Beware of the Tiger") or most of Marvin's lines ("The second million years, they were the worst too.") - great lines all, but very unlike anything anyone would actually say. Put it together with the common-sensical idea-juggling and you get, for example, the argument for atheism derived (all too logically) from the Babel Fish. What's most striking about this argument is that it's got nothing in common with the arguments of actual proponents of "intelligent design" - which are no less ridiculous, but turn on the idea that the wondrous complexity of the universe does provide evidence of the handiwork of a Designer. There's a lack of engagement with the Creationist mindset here, which ironically makes that mindset harder to combat. If you assume that everyone starts from the same set of common-sense precepts, genuinely alien world-views will only be explicable on the grounds that the people holding them are irrational or stupid - which isn't the best way to open an argument, even (or especially) an intransigently critical argument.

The mindset that this kind of writing seems to represent (and affirm) is that of someone who's learnt a lot of valuable stuff in a short time, and who now doesn't see the need to learn very much more. There is stuff out there that you could learn, but most of it's not really worth the effort - at best it's inessential, at worst it's a pile of pretentious verbiage. If you demonstrably know a lot more than the average person about genuinely important topics, the chances are that you know enough - enough to see through the people who tell you there's more to be known, anyway. It speaks to the inner second-year science student, in short. (One of the benefits of doing an arts degree is that you never forget that there's lots of important stuff out there that you genuinely don't understand. You never forget this if you have any contact with second-year science students, anyway.)

Terry Pratchett has a lighter hand with the dogged persistence than Douglas Adams, but in most other respects he's a far better writer (he's much better at people, for a start). That said, some of his jokes suggest the same kind of self-enclosed common sense, evoking the alien without engaging with it. (Does Pseuds' Corner take nominations from blogs?) One example is the (admittedly funny) dwarfish war-cry "This is a good day for someone else to die!" Some years ago, the KliLakota original of this slogan ("This is a good day to die!") was discussed on the alt.fan.pratchett newsfroup. The tone of the discussion was cheerful and uncomprehending. I wouldn't say that anyone jeered at the KlinLakota, but very few people showed much sign of understanding the slogan, as distinct from Pratchett's common-sensical inversion of it). One's own death is, after all, an eventuality to be postponed as long as possible, not to be embraced. One poster even suggested that the slogan had begun as a deliberately-tempting-Fate insurance policy, akin to "break a leg".

Fortunately one poster - the wonderfully-named 'Catherine Denial' - pointed out that death in battle was an honourable fate for KlingLakotadammit warriors, so that the slogan could actually be taken literally ('death in battle'='good death', 'today'='day of battle', therefore...). And I'm not sure even this goes far enough. The point is, surely, that the function of soldiers (contemporary, dwarfish or KlingoLakota) is to kill and risk being killed - and that unwillingness to do the latter makes them less effective in doing the former. The tone is very different, but in terms of the underlying worldview "This is a good day to die!" isn't so far from the Royal Navy saying "If you can't take a joke you shouldn't have joined." Meaning, in the words of a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks,
When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined.
You risk death - and, if so instructed, take actions which you know will increase your risk of death - because that's what you do: that's what being in the armed forces is all about. (Not that you'll find it in the recruitment literature.) In its more aggressive form - getting back to the Native Americans - this outlook also makes for a more formidable opponent: an enemy who wants to save his own skin first and kill you second is a lot easier to deter than one who just wants to kill you.

As you've probably worked out by now, this post isn't really about Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett; it's not even about the Royal Navy or the Lakota (let alone the blasted Klingons). It began life about a month ago - a decade or so in blogtime - in response to this post on Brian Barder's blog and the ensuing comments, this one in particular. Brian writes:
it’s obviously psychotic, isn’t it?, to be unable to perceive the large-scale random murders of wholly innocent people as anything but evil? And when the murders are deliberately and unnecessarily accompanied by the suicides of the murderers, doesn’t that suggest minds that have become completely unhinged? Isn’t it psychotic to suppose that some desirable result can be achieved by killing others and oneself because of ‘grievances’ that have nothing whatever to do with the murder victims, and which can’t possibly have a better chance of being remedied as a result of the murders committed?
...
As long as we persist in seeing [the bombers] as politically and rationally motivated people whose response to their grievances is to go out and kill people, and as long as we strive to ‘understand‘ that behaviour, we shall encourage more of the same. It is insane as well as evil to act in the way that they have done, and while we need to try to hack out the roots of the insanity as well as of the evil and criminality, we need to beware of giving the impression that by trying to understand them and what they did, we regard murder as an understandable (and therefore in some sense defensible) response to a political grievance. Psychiatrists may properly seek to understand the roots of insane and evil behaviour: the rest of us need to be clear that the behaviour is insane and evil and that it can never be condoned.
Brian conflates two arguments which, I think, urgently need to be disentangled. On one hand, I don't believe that it does any good to deny that the bombers acted rationally, let alone to describe them as 'psychotic': their world view was certainly alien to me, but I don't think it was also insane. Apart from anything else, is it necessarily a sign of psychosis to kill innocent people, to carry out attacks which will cost your own life, or to attack people whose death can't in itself advance your cause? Not, I would argue, if you're a soldier - or an irregular combatant (were Orde Wingate's Special Night Squads 'psychotic'? is Hamas?). Similarly, the bombers' actions make sense if we assume that they saw themselves as part of a guerrilla force, fighting in one front of a war with Britain (among other nations), and prepared to use any means - however inhumane - to further their cause.

Obviously this world-view - as well as the acts it inspires - is vile and cannot be condoned: to understand it is not (pace Brian) to see it as in any way defensible. But, as I said above, there are two separate arguments here. Yes, the London bombings were evil and can never be condoned; but no, this does not require us to characterise them as insane. Visualise concentric circles. To demand that Britain withdraw from Iraq is a legitimate political point of view which is widely held (and which is not necessarily counter to British national interests). To demand that 'the West' withdraw from 'Islamic lands' is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I've argued before, it's hardly possible - and may not even be desirable - to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)

This is what I mean by 'understanding' - and I don't see that it involves any 'condoning', any 'in some sense defensible'. What it does involve is visualising those concentric circles - which I think is essential, if we're to have any hope of stopping the flow of recruits from outer circle to inner.

4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Well-written and well-argued. But as someone who regularly uses the word "psychotic" to describe terrorists I obviously disagree with your lambasting of that.

However, our differences are almost certainly semantic. I suspect I have a slightly different - and broader - view of what constitutes a psychosis, and almost certainly label far more people and activities as 'psychotic' than would you.

(This isn't a casual bandying about of the word I hasten to add, just a bleaker outlook on things!)

My flat-mate and long-time creative collaborator recently wrote a piece that describes Tony Blair as suffering "the frighteningly hermetic isolation of individual psyche from collective reality that speaks of schizophrenia's catastrophic split".

And that wasn't meant as (mere) hyperbole. Almost by definition, suicide bombers are rejecting reality as defined by the society they inhabit. One culture's psychotic is another's seer-of-religious-visions. Sanity and it's opposite are cultural constructs, so individual acts need to be placed in a cultural context. The indiscriminate murder of individuals - many of whom may well support your cause, if not your methods - is not a rational act when viewed through the cultural prism of a modern western democracy.

(I also feel, going off on a tangent, that just as an individual can be seen as suffering from a psychosis when they can no longer function within the society they find themselves; so entire societies can be viewed as psychotic when they lose their ability to function sustainably within their physical environment.

Also, I hope it goes without saying that the issue of whether a person is psychotic or not is a separate one to questions of morality.)

17/8/05 17:14  
Blogger Phil said...

our differences are almost certainly semantic. I suspect I have a slightly different - and broader - view of what constitutes a psychosis

Yes. I was conscious of trimming some of the ragged edges of the argument (I do in fact believe that Orde Wingate was a dangerous madman, for example). But this is, in another way, my point: that the bombers are psychotic in similar ways and to similar degrees as many people who are regarded as perfectly functional individuals (Joe Squaddie on the edge of his minefield) or even as praiseworthy examples. Instead of saying that the bombers' mental universe isn't psychotic (on the basis of its common ground with our own), I could have said that the bombers' mental universe is demonstrably psychotic - and glorifies psychotic behaviour - but that (contra Brian B) those features don't make it alien. But that would be rather a difficult and uncomfortable line of thinking.

The indiscriminate murder of individuals - many of whom may well support your cause, if not your methods - is not a rational act when viewed through the cultural prism of a modern western democracy.

Here I think I disagree. With one or two exceptions (Switzerland? Costa Rica?) modern western democracies have an awful lot of skeletons in the cupboard. Historically nations like ours have had armies and used them - often, if not usually, 'indiscriminately'. If that's not psychotic (and clearly there's an argument that it is) I'm not sure how the bombers' actions can be.

I also feel, going off on a tangent, that just as an individual can be seen as suffering from a psychosis when they can no longer function within the society they find themselves; so entire societies can be viewed as psychotic when they lose their ability to function sustainably within their physical environment.

Yes. One of the trailing edges that got trimmed had to do with collective psychosis: societies whose self-understanding, in a particular period, has all the rationality of 'God told me to do it'. I remember reading that a Khmer Rouge cadre, put on trial for his part in the regime's crimes, justified killing a busload of people (literally a busload - he pushed the bus into a ravine) on the grounds of 'class struggle'. I really don't think that was what Uncle Karl had in mind. (I'm aware that 'psychotic', clinically speaking, doesn't equal 'murderous' - indeed, that piece on Blair suggests another form that the divorce from reality could take.)

17/8/05 20:45  
Anonymous Syd Webb said...

a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks

Alison is missed on s.h.w-i There are, however, other posters who are also missed by the wider s.h.w-i readership.

BTW, a memorial to Jean Charles de Menezes in a Thomas More episode posted today.

18/8/05 04:16  
Anonymous Brian said...

Phil,

Belatedly coming across this interesting post of yours, I'm struck by your assertion that -

"To demand that 'the West' withdraw from 'Islamic lands' is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I've argued before, it's hardly possible - and may not even be desirable - to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)"

This seems to me utterly wrong. To employ the weapons of terrorism -- i.e. to seek to advance a political cause by killing, attacking and terrorising innocent people who have no responsibility for obstructing the cause in question -- is indefensible irrespective of the merit or lack of it of the cause, especially in a situation where it is possible to promote the cause by non-violent, democratic means, as in the UK now. Unless you accept that, you come close to implying that because the London bombers probably favoured the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq (although it has to be remembered that there's not a shred of evidence for this: the Sidique Khan video doesn't even mention Iraq!), and because that's an objective that many sensible and liberal people would agree with and one that is arguably in the national interest, therefore the murder of 52 people and the suicide of another 4 were somehow less reprehensible than if they had been acting in an obviously bad cause. Not so. The merits of the cause are entirely irrelevant.

Brian
http://www.barder.com/ephems/

5/9/05 12:47  

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