The Banality of Political Language : media, terror and conflict in mass politics

Our modern political discourse is many things, but it is, most forcefully, a media spectacle. There is nothing untoward or unexpected in the media-saturation of modern political life. That nations are ‘imagined communities’, constructed through shared stories of national origins, through the telling, and re-telling, of common grand, unified histories and, consequently, shared destinies, is as close as one gets to an established law in current social sciences. Historically, nations as imagined communities, came together through the shared experiences provided by early media, most importantly newspapers, but also mass market books, then radio, then cinema, and, finally, television. But among these early mediums, one which goes mostly unmentioned is the large, political gathering, or political rally.

3641600205_bee74b7f03Political rallies had their antecedents in earlier religious and cultural gatherings, but only acquired a more immediate political character with the emergence of mass politics. This was a circular relationship, in a way, the political rally created mass politics as much as it was its consequence. The political rally would become even more effective after the invention of the microphone, which allowed the human voice to surpass the limitations of its evolutionary capacity, and spread across wider spaces at a single location. Within these wider spaces gathered larger and larger groups, from different classes, different regions, and above all, different cognitive capacities. The only way to communicate in such a vast plurality of human intellectual differences was through ‘to the point’, refined, and, above all, simplified and short messages. Thus, was born the political slogan. So, earlier political slogans became rallying cries. Such as – workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. And the political rally became the mass political technology which would create the new era signified by the slogan.

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Political sloganeering is great for amassing crowds, for bringing them together into political groups, all identified by and identifying with the categories defined by the slogan. The ‘worker’ becomes a worker after he realizes that he is a worker – this was Marx’s idea of class consciousness which was dormant in the masses and had to be ‘woken’ by the public intellectual. But, the public intellectual, ah! – what a wonderful idea! Alas, as it turned out the idea of the public intellectual was itself a political slogan, useful to aggregate another class of people, and give them the illusion of self importance. But the illusion of self-importance, devoid of Socratic humility, can be a dangerous thing. (Socratic humility refers to Socrates’ own slogan There is one thing I know, that I know nothing at all. Which, ironically became his justification to announce himself as the wisest man in the world. But it is the concept, not the man, that we are concerned with, and definitely not the paradox.)

So, as the public intellectual rises to his self-annointed role as the leader of society he does so by believing perhaps too much the labels he has given himself. But moving on, who are the public intellectuals of today? On the face of it, political leaders, or politicians as they are lovingly known, media managers, journalists – the entire spectrum of the politics-mass media interface, including financiers, proprietors and owners of media instructions and companies. With social media the balances have been challenged and perhaps modified, but let us leave that for later. For now let us see how politics and political discourse changes and challenges perceptions and roles in society through an engagement with one of the most pressing categories of today – terrorism.

Engaging with the idea of terrorism, the concept, really, is fraught with conflicts of philological paradoxes. Terrorism, as a concept, draws from its root word terror, which is, directly speaking, great fear. Now, the role of terror in human societies is ancient, even primordial. The terror of Deus, of gods, spirits and divine retribution, is perhaps even older than the languages to express it first originated. What I am more interested in is the appropriation of this divine terror into human societies. The earliest, at least large scale, stratification of societies took as a template this idea of divine terror and applied it to their societies, for social control. So, the terror of God was now reflected in the terror of the King, of the King in his administration and so on downward. This was what Aristotle called the Great Chain of Being, the system of human society from God to man and upward in one grand cycle of existence. The Great Chain of Being had its parallels in the Heavenly Kingdom of Ancient China and the Varna/Caste System of India – I use the two only as examples but the Great Chain bound everyone in their place, absolutely everywhere on earth, in its own unique forms, but with this one common structure. A structure underlined by terror. Curiously, from this idea of terror also originated the idea of territory.

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This idea of what we can call social terrorism is different from modern understandings of terrorism. Modern interpretations of terrorism see it as disruptive of established, and very peaceful, social order. Terrorism is the violence that seeks to disrupt this social peace. This again, is an understanding of terror from an established, state-centric perspective, linked to social order, linked with the Great Chain, and drawing from, the divine right of state-social structures, even if they are expressed as abstracted concepts, say freedom, justice, human rights, or even democracy.

Terrorism, as a revolutionary act, is a phenomenon of modernity. It begins, most evidently, with the beginnings of industrialization, when some public intellectuals begin to understand society, how to put it, a little differently. The difference is that they begin to question the divinity of social order, or the divine right of the Great Chain of Being. Things are not how they should be but how we have been told they should be, told by others who want them to remain the way they are. The Chain is, literally, speaking a Chain. And these public intellectuals begin to challenge the Chain. They begin to conceptualize new ways of ordering society. But before there can be a new way, they begin to believe, the old way must be shattered. And since the old way had its basis in terror, the only way to shatter it is, through revolutionary terrorism.

These public intellectuals, anarchists, communists, and a whole spectrum in between, were proud to call themselves terrorists. They glorified their roles as terrorist revolutionaries. Among them, were the revolutionaries of the French Revolution, who, in reality, commenced a reign of terror to transform society. Among the early terrorists were also Russian anarchists, who went as far as assassinating their rulers. Among them too were early Marxists, who ultimately gained power in Russia and began their own reign of terror.

Now, one could say, that all these terrorists were in the end, just that, terrorists. They rose to power on the basis of violence, and once in power, they began new reigns of violence. But, one should also note, that the creed of violence was also the basis of all earlier social orders. It is only that earlier social orders cloaked themselves in the aura of divine legitimacy, the new terrorists found their legitimacy in their own beliefs, of a ‘better’ future. But also, one should note, that revolutionary terrorists did in the end become state terrorists, creating their own ‘divine’ orders.

Now, to put it formally, terrorism can be two-directional – from top to bottom, enforcing the great chain of being, and from bottom-up, seeking to overthrow it. In both cases, terrorism resorts to political banality, through sloganeering, dividing supporters and opponents into neat, homogeneous categories, set against each other, in permanent competition, and state of war which can only be resolved when one party establishes its reign of terror over the other. For a state, it would mean no opposition to its rule, its decisions and its definitions of right and wrong. For the terrorist revolutionary, this would mean the overthrowing of the Chain-regime by identifying groups within society who give legitimacy to that regime, and systematically silencing, or eliminating them. The end result of both is violence, whether its is the structural violence of the unjust stratification of society legitimized by old regimes, or direct violence and war. This war, generally, without resolution, with terroristic violence from one direction drawing terroristic responses from the other, both feeding on each other to gain legitimacy. Of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s revolutionary, just as top-down, state-structural terror is, often, an anti-terrorist response.

Almost every society, at every moment is history, society is placed at the edge of such crisis, in varying degrees. A conflict between existing orders and new visions and imaginations. While meta-orders rarely change, except very slowly and organically, at every moment in human history, at some place or another, some crisis in some form is always ongoing. But sometimes there are revolutionary breaks in history. They are, literally, revolutions, when a regime might be overthrown by its challenger. Almost in all such cases, the new regime has to resort to the techniques of state terror, now instruments it has legitimate control over, to eliminate the reaming vestiges of support for the old order. This architecture of state terror might use direct violence and physical elimination of opponents, or it might resort to political discourse to rob the old ways of being of their legitimacy.

Political discourse, streamed into our homes, faces and minds all the time, forces us to choose, and take sides. To prevent our minds from being exploited by the the propenents of new discourses, one must develop some sensibilities.

The first priority, is to realize how the great chain binds us all, from all sides. What political discourse, through the black and white categories of political sloganeering, might represent as absolute battles between forces of order and chaos, even good and evil, are never so simple. The world is too complex to be reduced into simple positions, of one versus the other. One must embrace the complexity of the world. Complexity is the reality of our existence, and the only anti-dote to the banality of political language. What does it mean to embrace complexity? To embrace complexity means to reject ‘either this or that’ reasoning, or the ‘versus-approach’. One must think of the world as a series of flows, each with their own motive force, and their own rationales. The anti-dote to terrorism is syncretism, and the absence of syncretism is, perhaps, its cause. Terror feeds on the construction of cascading boundaries, social and spatial boundaries, between classes and nations. Once the process of bounding, and binding, begins, it will carry on creating more and more divisions. And as the masters of divisiveness seek to protect their domains, they will use terror. Terrorism will end only when we dissolve boundaries, first, in the mind.

So, we must realize the banality of political language, of political sloganeering, and resist the seductive mass-appeal of the political rally, in which one man on the podium seeks to tell us all their is to know about he world, what it is, and what it will be. Political banality cascades through the entire media-scape, from the mass media to the social-media, until it becomes all there is to know about the many realities of our existence. And as our minds feed – are force-fed – on these reductive, abstracted notions of who we are, like the mythical creature that continuously feeds on its own tail, that is all we become, as even the daily challenges of our lives become political contests, and our lives another role in the political drama that reduces us all into actors in someone else’s story of the world.

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