Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

Charlie Hebdo: How to talk about terrorism

Terrorism always shines a light on the human condition. The aftermath of an attack is often coloured with blame, apologies, and almost mind-numbing debate about the problem. More importantly: the aftermath can also shine a light on those who are interested in democracy and the political sphere, while simultaneously unmasking those who do not care about a plural, inclusive democratic state.

Unfortunately, after the debris is cleared and the victims are eulogised, the latter (ie the anti-democrats) are almost always in the majority. These people take the form of politicians who use acts of violence as a free pass into the emails, bedrooms and telephone conversations of free citizens. Or people who spend their days engaged in insidious hatesplaining (borrowed from the patronising example of mansplaining, where men explain things to women).

It’s already happening. People are already trying to explain why the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo occurred (and perhaps even, why it is understandable!), and in doing so attempt to rationalise the taking of life and the assault on the political sphere.

This isn’t a difference of opinion; it’s a patronising attempt to hatesplain the situation and diminish the severity of terrorism and political violence — acts which bypass legitimate political engagement and undermine democracy.

AFP

AFP

Perhaps the people behind “I don’t stand with Charlie Hebdo” would claim they are merely raising points about the problematic nature of some of the content published by this magazine, or attacking the people who think that freedom of speech and expression are entirely non-derogable and sacred. As TO Molefe tweeted:

“Nothing is sacrosanct! Slay the holy cows!” billows the Western man, as he proclaims freedom of speech sacred. #intellectualimperialism

Molefe speaks directly to the issue I hope to raise here: Democracy and politics must allow for constant revisability and self-reference. There can be no holy cows; everything must be up for political contestation in a truly plural, inclusive democracy. This doesn’t reduce the value of freedom of speech or other rights; it merely allows for contestation surrounding the content and substance of these rights. Of course, such political flexibility must be protected against majoritarianism and allow for inclusivity and pluralism at all times.

This inclusive democracy must also be protected against political violence and acts of terrorism, for these are illegitimate means of political contestation. In pursuing fear, death and destruction, these acts have the capacity to weaken dialogic debate and the abovementioned political contestation. That’s why hatesplaining, like terrorism, cannot be condoned.

I have previously argued that the Islamic State (Isis) is a casualty of our history and the unipolar democracies we’ve upheld over the last 20 years. This wasn’t condonation of Isis. That article was an attempt to show that we need to encourage inclusive democracies, where people can have their voices heard. Hatesplaining doesn’t seek to address the problem of terrorism or illegitimate political contestation. On the contrary, it rationalises the act of violence and ignores the importance of legitimate political contestation in its entirety.

There’s an ever present “but” in the vocabulary of hatesplaining: “Life has been lost, but … ”, “Terrorism is not good, but that magazine was so offensive.” These “buts” undermine democracy.

Democracy cannot survive acts of illegitimate contestation that foreclose the political space and exclude voices and citizens by way of fear.

Likewise, democracy is weakened where the system may force people to turn to violence to have their voices heard. It is important to engage in discussions surrounding terrorism with these thoughts in mind. Hatesplaining ignores the political frontier at a time when we most need people who are interested in affirming, protecting and reforming democracy.

By prioritising politics and democracy when we speak about terrorism, we can change the nature of the conversation. The debate is less likely to veer towards Islamophobia and support for the encroachment of our civil liberties, and instead encourage a political terrain that values contestation, debate and peaceful protest.

Image – People hold up pens during a gathering in front of the city hall of Rennes, western France, on January 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. (AFP)

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