Wednesday, August 27, 2014


In the past few months, we've witnessed the rise of ISIS -- and you know what that means: It means it's time for American conservatives to begin policing the language of non-conservatives. Take it away, Jonah Goldberg:
... sanitizing the language only works so long as people aren’t paying too much attention. That's why the Islamic State is so inconvenient to those who hate the word "evil." Last week, after the group released a video showing American journalist James Foley getting his head cut off, the administration’s rhetoric changed dramatically. The president called the Islamic State a "cancer" that had to be eradicated. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to it as the "face of ... evil."

Although most people across the ideological spectrum see no problem with calling the Islamic State evil, the change in rhetoric elicited a predictable knee-jerk response. Political scientist Michael Boyle hears an "eerie echo" of Bush's "evildoers" talk. "Indeed," he wrote in the New York Times, "condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely 'evil' is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs."

James Dawes, the director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, agreed in a piece for Using the word "evil," he wrote, "stops us from thinking."

No, it doesn't. But perhaps a reflexive and dogmatic fear of the word "evil" hinders thinking?
Yes, folks, it's just like the Bush years all over again: We're going to fall under the tyrannical yoke of murderous jihadists because two college professors questioned the use of one word to describe those jihadists.

Does Boyle think the moral status of ISIS is ambiguous? Here, let me give you that Boyle quote in context:
There is no question that ISIS has committed thousands of grave human rights violations against civilians in Iraq and Syria, and that many of its most gruesome acts, like the execution of Mr. Foley, constitute war crimes. Anyone with a conscience is disgusted by their brutality toward not just Mr. Foley but the thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians whom they have killed, raped and even buried alive.

It is natural to want to condemn this organization and to do so in harsh language that fully expresses our revulsion over its tactics. Indeed, condemning the black-clad, masked militants as purely "evil" is seductive, for it conveys a moral clarity and separates ourselves and our tactics from the enemy and theirs.
But if the "war on terror" has taught us anything, it is that such moralistic language can blind its users to consequences. Describing a group as "inexplicable" and "nihilistic," as Mr. Kerry did, tends to obscure the group's strategic aims and preclude further analysis. Resorting to ritualized rhetoric can be a very costly mistake if it leads one to misunderstand an enemy and to take actions that inadvertently help its cause.
And Dawes actually uses the word "evil" to describe ISIS, though he makes the same point as Boyle:
Is ISIS evil?

The problem with that question is that the answer is as easy as it is useless. Yes, ISIS is evil and must be stopped. Saying so over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
Boyle elaborates:
How is ISIS able to achieve the support it needs? What drives people into its ranks? What social pressures and needs, what political and regional vacuums, make it possible for a group like this to thrive? We can choose to answer these questions in two ways.

We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them.

We can analyze the ways its violent tactics are effective for its purposes given the local power dynamics, so that we can also better understand its weak spots. And we can ask how it is that normal men -- men who were not born evil -- get turned into monsters, so that we can work to change the structures that produce terrorists over the long term instead of locking ourselves into an endlessly repeated, short-term policy of "killing fanatics" until they are gone.
Right -- Boyle and Dawes urge us to avoid simple words like "evil" so we can think clearly about what makes ISIS effective in order to develop tactics to stop the group's spread, and to prevent the rise of similar groups.

Goldberg sneers at all this:
For instance, Boyle suggests that because the Islamic State controls lots of territory and is "administering social services," it "operates less like a revolutionary terrorist movement that wants to overturn the entire political order in the Middle East than a successful insurgent group that wants a seat at that table."

Behold the clarity of thought that comes with jettisoning moralistic language! Never mind that the Islamic State says it seeks a global caliphate with its flag over the White House. Who cares that it is administering social services? Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot did, too. That’s what revolutionary groups do when they grab enough territory.
Right -- and Boyle's point is that we're talking about ISIS as if it's "Al Qaeda 2.0" when, in fact, Al Qaeda was never effective at seizing territory. So let's not lose sight of the difference, Boyle says. Let's figure out why ISIS is effective at this where Al Qaeda wasn't.

Look, I found the use of the words "evil" and "evildoers" in the Bush years simple-minded -- Goldberg acknowledges that he did, too (which is not going to stop him from policing other people's distaste). But I'm not sure the public use of such words necessarily precludes careful thought leading to effective action (though careful thought leading to effective action wasn't exactly a Bush administration strong suit).

But Goldberg implies that we'll never fight ISIS effectively unless we're willing to say EVIL EVIL EVIL. I suppose you could argue that the professors are trying to police language one way and Goldberg's trying to police it the other way, the result being a wash -- except that Goldberg's harrumphing almost certainly foretells a lot more word-policing from the entire American right wing. Remember, when wingers can't find an elected official who's doing something they can condemn, they search high and low for a Hollywood star or academic who violates their strictures, and then the Two Minutes' Hate begins. So brace yourself.


Victor said...

"Evil," is always in the eye of the beholder.

ISIS, a Sunni group, looks at all other Muslim sects, Christians, Jews, people of other religions, and secular humanists, as "EVIL!"

There are evil people in the world - the ones who kill others because they think of them as evil.

Until we learn to stop thinking/believeing that anyone and everyone who disagrees with our religion, or political POV, etc..., is evil, we'll keep killing one another over what essentially, is sophistic mumbo-jumbo, and religious nonsense.

"Why can't we all just get along?"

Probably because there are too many @$$holes who insist that it's either their way, or the highway.
Or, preferably, the graveyard.

Jebediah, RBG said...

So it seems that Jonah Goldberg has read someone else's well-thought-out, clearly written piece, and managed to miss most or all of the point.
That, I'm sure, is totally unprecedented.

(Snark aside, Jonah should be pointed at and mocked often and vigorously, mostly as an experiment to see if there really is no amount of shame and embarrassment that is enough to make him shut the fuck up and go the fuck away.)

Yastreblyansky said...

It's so much easier to solve the problem if all the supporters and bystanders are evil too. "Exterminate the brutes!"