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The Weasel Word Terrorism

Politics is a language game: in any given context, who gets what, when and how invariably depends on how things with no ‘essential’ or ‘naturally given’ meaning come to be defined, categorised and named. Briefly in Botswana for talks, and to learn more about its uniquely African-style democracy, my senses quickly tune in to the local political vernaculars. Fascinated, scribbling field notes, I share good conversations, watch television and paw through the lively local newspapers, where shortly after my arrival in Gaborone I come across reports of a remarkable speech by a government minister, on the subject of terrorism.

Gaborone, capital city of Botswana Botswana Tourism Organisation

Among the few successful and sophisticated democracies on the African continent, Botswana is in the early throes of an exceptionally feverish general election campaign. The great day of choosing is less than two months away, and some observers are predicting heaps of disaffected protest voting, and even a hung parliament. If that happens, it would signal the end of an unbroken half-century of rule by the dominant Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) first led by Sir Seretse Khama, and now by his son, Ian Seretse Khama. Like the ANC and other African counterparts, the BDP is a well-oiled political machine. Well-entrenched patronage and an antiquated first-past-the-post voting system (inherited from the British) work firmly in its favour. Yet the current leadership of the BDP shows signs of being rattled. Unsurprisingly, organised attempts to trope their way to yet another victory are being rolled out.

Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Botlogile Tshireletso Daily News (Gaborone)

Which brings me to Gaborone’s Daily News (26th August). The government-funded newspaper leads with Ms Botlogile Tshireletso, Assistant Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, who trumpets the way her Botswana government is ‘working around the clock to prevent acts of terrorism’. Every citizen of Botswana, she says, should ‘guard themselves so that they do not become victims’. Addressing a local public meeting (known here as a kgotla council) in the central town of Mahalapye, her own turf, the good government minister goes on to define ‘acts of terrorism’ as ‘human trafficking, illicit fire arms and drug trafficking’. For good measure, she throws in ‘brothel services’ as well.

By global standards, her definition is generous, to put it mildly. But wait. Much more is to come, not least because Ms Tshireletso shies away from defining with precision her pet term ‘terrorism’. If the minister had done so, she would’ve been forced to admit that the word terrorism, strictly defined, once referred to any attempted exercise of power by a few over the many using terror: threats of violence designed to frighten victims out of their wits, into submission.

Ms Tshireletso declines such semantic niceties, for her way of playing high-level politics with language is typical of our times. Especially since September 2001, pushed along by successive American presidents and their coalitions of willing allies, the nine-letter signifier has become a weasel word. Terrorism has come to mean whatever governments and their spokespeople choose it to mean. Several years ago, for a brief period, their public usage of the word seemed to wane. But for various reasons, including the will to win elections, Muslim baiting and the disastrous uncivil war now raging in the Middle East, the word is making a global comeback, with a vengeance, even here in peaceful and democratic Botswana.

Democrats everywhere should be worried, simply because the spreading talk of terrorism nurtures strangely paradoxical effects. For more than a decade, a word that rightly describes a profoundly anti-democratic phenomenon has itself become an anti-democratic word. A rough equivalent of the word ‘communism’ a generation ago, the term terrorism has weasel qualities, a signifier with predatory intentions.

Just like the weasel that sucks dry the eggs of other creatures, the weasel word terrorism robs life from meaningful political discourse. When wielded indiscriminately, it puts an end to conversations. It suspends doubt and smacks of self-righteous certainty. Accused of terrorism, individuals and whole groups of people should shudder. They’re in trouble. Finger pointing and ostracism will certainly come their way. Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and death by drone violence may be their fate.

Most remarkable in this context is the way the weasel word terrorism colonises areas of life in which it doesn’t belong. Its obscene beauty, we could say, lies in its combined precision and vagueness: the word masters the art of equivocation. It’s a living contradiction that refuses to be contradicted; anyone who disagrees with its use incurs the suspicion of being unreasonable, merely because they dissent. The word is a friend of tergiversation. It has an unlimited capacity to charm its doubters, magnetise its supporters, to justify what might otherwise not be justifiable, to do exceptional things (impose states of emergency, raise airport security levels to ‘severe’, torture, imprison with trial) simply by calling things by their improper name.

In her Mahalapye speech, Ms Tshireletso shows how it’s done, in such a stylishly perverse way that even clever weasels would be impressed. Her aim is to win an election by redefining Botswana as a target of terrorism. This she does by testing the elasticity of an already-stretched word, pushing its hollowed-out meaning to the limits of intelligibility. Never mind that Botswana is a remarkably civil country, with very low crime rates by global standards. Disregard the fact that it has no history of military meddling in civil affairs or cooked-up tribal violence. Forget comparisons with the criminal butchery, enforced re-settlements and thuggish gangs (chipangano) of neighbouring Zimbabwe. The citizens of Botswana, the good minister insists, must remember not to delude themselves. They need to be vigilant. Caution is a duty, in every situation, especially when ‘looking for employment opportunities’.

Did Ms Tshireletso mean that citizens should be on the lookout for terrorists lurking within government departments, or church-based NGOs, or municipal schools, or cricket, football and other sporting leagues? She didn’t explain. But what she did say is that the republic of Botswana sits on soil riddled with tunnels of terrorism. When citizens take steps to ‘further their education’, they should stay fully alert. Their terrorism detectors, she added, must at all times be switched on, even when ‘looking for marriage partners through the use of social media’.

Ms Tshireletso didn’t exactly pronounce a prohibition on digital dating but that, absurdly, is what her speech implied. That’s the way weasel words work: they destroy common sense by weaseling their way into situations where most definitely they don’t belong. Since the Internet is thick with terrorist thieves, the minister hinted, new questions should be tabled, and taken seriously: do citizens who meet and communicate online unwittingly hold hands with terrorists? Is a comment on Facebook potentially an act of terrorism? Dancing and petting its blind accomplice? Kissing and making love its consummation?

Predictably, the Daily News report cuts out at this point, leaving readers in the arms of a weasel word that tempts their political imaginations to run wild, into the land of nonsense. Can BDP talk of terrorism help win an election, as it did for George W. Bush in the United States in 2004? We’re going to see. Nothing is certain, which is how a fair and free election should be. During the next few weeks, much will depend on whether discerning Botswana citizens see that the slippery language of terrorism can fall into the wrong hands, who then misuse it to weasel their way into citizens’ lives, to pull wool over their eyes, in effect terrorising them softly into submission, so confirming the maxim that in politics words are just as powerful as votes, or money, or guns.

Violence and the Censor

With the outbreak of uncivil wars on a regional scale, in central Africa, the Arab-speaking world and eastern Europe, readers shocked and sickened by their terrible violence may find of interest my short foreword to the just-published Chinese edition of Violence and Democracy.

Presented below in both English and Mandarin translation, the foreword offers a short summary of my appeal to see violence in all its forms as a contingent historical (not ‘natural’) phenomenon that is politically curable; and it does so by asking Chinese readers to reflect on their own past experiences of great violence, and how they might come to terms with their legacy, and their lingering unjust effects.

In contemporary China, of course, the episodes of massive violence stretching from the civil war between the nationalists and communists in 1946-49 to the ‘anti-rightist’ campaign of 1957, the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are still treated officially as taboo subjects, as if they had never happened. Violence and Democracy is a small backdoor contribution to breaking the taboo, but in order to reach the bookshops the translator and publisher had to tread carefully. I did the same. To sidestep the censors employed by the Central Propaganda Department, the foreword resorts to allegory. It speaks of an imaginary place of cruel horrors, a dystopian Land of Violence where unspeakable cruelty against the minds and bodies of many millions of people is practised without restraint. Chinese readers won’t miss the target of the allusion, hopefully.

It is a great honour and personal pleasure to share Violence and Democracy with my Chinese readers. They should be warned that the book is an adventure of the political imagination, an experimental essay designed to stimulate fresh thinking about the origins of violence (bàolì), its consequences, its functional purposes and possible remedies. Taking issue with the common sense view that ‘human nature’ is incorrigibly wolfish, the essay probes the disputed and changing historical meanings of the term violence. It examines the new forms of violence gripping our 21st-century world and asks searching questions about the problematic relationship between violence and democracy, and why mature democracies are unusually sensitive to violence.

Running through Violence and Democracy are unavoidable ethical questions, such as the circumstances in which violence against others can be justified. In such matters as the maltreatment of children, the rape of women by men, police and battlefield brutality, the essay steers an unorthodox course through narrow normative straits. It raises doubts about conventional pacifism but it also radically questions the blind acceptance or aesthetic worship of violence. It does so by proposing that violent behaviour and weapons of violence can and should be ‘democratised’: made publicly accountable to others, so encouraging political efforts to consider public alternatives to violence, and to erase surplus violence from the world.

Throughout these pages, in order to get a sense of perspective on things, and what is at stake, readers are asked to imagine violence in its pure form. The essay carries readers to an imaginary Land of Violence, let’s say, to a place where violence, collectively delivered as political theatre, takes on a life of its own, without open public questioning, or public resistance, or public alternatives. In this imaginary territory of horrors, those who practise cruelty against the minds and bodies of others do so without restraint. They seem thoroughly to enjoy what they are doing; they have a passion for the poetry of cruelty. They revel in screaming mobs, cowering victims and rituals of violence. Hooked on savagery, they are sure that violence is necessary, and that they are always right, and so they think of themselves as entitled to deploy violence at will, without penalty or sanction. Hence they track down, punish and eliminate all dissent.

In the Land of Violence, lynch mobs are public rituals. Murder is rife, and displayed openly, for all to see, and to fear. Arrests in the night, blackmailing, persecution and disappearances: all are normal practices. So, too, is paranoia, fuelled by the frenzied creation of an unending supply of ‘objective’ enemies: flesh-and-blood individuals and groups whose subjective identity is secondary to their objective position in the political order of things.

In the imaginary Land of Violence, where sincerity and smiling are compulsory, there are always opponents, even if and when they protest their innocence. That is the reason why people must be tortured: not just to inform on others, used like tigers to bite tigers, but to admit their own corruption, to change their ways, to liquidate their own sense of self. Their freedom of silence is not an option. Lawlessness and terror and self-annihilation prevail, no more so than in the institution known as the concentration camp. It is there that violence in its purest form is practised.

Often called houses of correction and labour camps, these thoroughly modern inventions in fact operate as political laboratories. They are sites of liquidation, crazed experiments with the bodies and souls of their victims, who forfeit their rights to have rights of any kind, not even the elementary right to withdraw from the world through suicide. Everything is permitted in these dungeons of horror. Bizarre inversions are commonplace. The unimaginable is real; reality is unimaginable. The singular aim of these camps, if aim it can be called, is clear: the reduction of inmates to mere molecules of matter, so proving that violence can purge disobedience, along the way eliminating all traces of what people once called democracy, self-government by people through their chosen representatives.

《暴力与民主》中文版序言 约翰•基恩 非常荣幸能与中国读者分享我的《暴力与民主》一书。应该指出的是,本书既是关于政治想象力的大胆尝试,也是一次启发性的试验,旨在激发人们思考暴力的起源、后果、功能性目标和潜在补救措施。本书深入探讨了暴力概念长期以来存在的争议及其不断变迁的历史内涵,本书并不认同“人的本性”具有难以根除的狼性这一观点,对人们这一通常的认识提出了不同看法。本书检视了萦绕于人类21世纪的各种新的暴力形式,提出了一些探索性的问题,包括怎样理解暴力与民主之间的关系,为何成熟民主国家通常对暴力都非常的敏感? 贯穿《暴力与民主》全书的主题是人们无法回避的的一些伦理问题,例如在什么情况下对他人的暴力是正当的。在如何看待诸如虐待儿童、强奸妇女、警察和战场暴行等问题上,本书通过狭义规范路径提出了一些自己独特的观点,对传统的和平主义表示怀疑的同时,也从根本上质疑对暴力的盲目接受或审美崇拜。为此,本书认为暴力行为和暴力武器可以而且应该“民主化”:即对他人公开负责,并鼓励通过政治努力寻找暴力的替代方式,将过剩暴力从这个世界清除出去。 纵观全书,为了获得对事物的真知灼见和洞察其中的利害关系,读者需要对暴力的纯粹形式进行思考。本书将带读者进入一个虚构的暴力之域,暴力之域指的是这样一个地方,在那里暴力作为集体的政治舞台,具有它自己的生命,不会受到公众的公开质疑,不会遇到公众的抵制,也没有其他公开的替代方式。在这个虚构的恐怖之域,一些人毫无忌惮地对他人的精神和身体施加残忍的暴力。他们看上去正在享受这个过程,流露出一种对残忍行为的嗜好。他们沉迷于暴徒的呼喊尖叫、受害者的畏缩怯弱和暴力的典礼仪式。他们已经迷上了野蛮,相信暴力是必需的,而且认为自己永远是对的,所以他们认为自己有权随意运用暴力而不受处罚或制裁。也因此,他们压制、惩治和消除所有不同意见。在暴力之域,暴徒滥用私刑成为公开的仪式,杀戮盛行并公开展示,让所有人都能亲眼看到并感到恐怖。诸如晚间逮捕、勒索、迫害和失踪等手段,这一切都是家常便饭。偏执狂也是如此,他们疯狂而无休止地构想出一个个“客观存在的”敌人:即真实存在的个人和团体,其主观身份从属于他们在政治秩序中的“客观”位置。 在暴力之域,人们被强制展现诚意和露出微笑,但总是有反对者,即使是当他们声明自己是无辜的时,也有可能是在表示反对。这就是为什么一定要对人进行残酷折磨的原因:不只是用“狗咬狗”的方式达到检举别人的目的,而且是为了让他们承认自身的堕落,去改变他们的行为方式和消除他们的自我意识。人们已经无法自由地选择沉默。无法无天、恐怖残忍和自我毁灭的行为盛行,在被称为集中营的机构里尤其如此。正是在那里,正在上演最纯粹形式的暴力行为。 矫正室和劳改营是十分现代的发明,实际上被充当政治实验室的作用。它们利用受害者的身体和灵魂进行惨无人道的疯狂实验,这些受害者丧失了几乎所有权利,甚至包括通过自杀离开这个世界的最基本权利。在这些恐怖之地,各种恶行毫无禁忌,令人匪夷所思的反常行为在这里真实上演,任何暴行都可能出现。在这些地方,无法想象的东西真实存在,真实存在的东西又让人无法想象。这些地方的唯一目标,如果还有目标的话,是非常明确的:将囚犯挫骨扬灰以证明暴力可以清除不服从,人们一度称之为民主,即通过民选代表进行自治的行为,也一同被抹去所有痕迹。 2014年4月于悉尼和柏林


During several decades of contact with writers trapped in stressed and strained political circumstances, I can’t ever recall meeting a literary figure who was brave and principled enough to offer herself up for arrest and imprisonment by the authorities. That’s what the young Chinese writer Murong Xuecun has just done.

After contributing to a private event in Beijing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen June 4th uprising, Murong sided with several other contributors who’d been arrested. He took the unusual step of issuing a public ‘statement of surrender’, in which he confessed to the crime of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. ‘For the next 24 hours’, he wrote, ‘I will be waiting in my home in Haidian District, and request that those who come bring the appropriate documents.’ He added: ‘please telephone in advance to arrange a time’. A few hours later, the police came for him.

Murong Xuecun, Sydney, June 2014 John Keane

Murong is a rising young star in the Chinese literary scene. Otherwise known as Hao Qun, he’s the author of several important works, among them Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002), Dancing Through Red Dust (2008) and China: In the Absence of a Remedy (2010). He’s a blogger with a big following of millions inside and outside of China, and he writes a column for the New York Times.

He first came my way at the University of Sydney, during a stay as a writer in residence. Colleagues were impressed by his irrepressible democratic spirit. As if sent by the heavens, just for a few short weeks, there he was in our midst: a chain-smoking raconteur, a good listener, a young man of understatement, thoroughly modest, always open-minded, a lover of black humour, a very talented young writer unwilling to suffer fools gladly, or to be pushed about. I came to think of Murong as living proof of the difference between brave and ordinary people. He knows the dangers and risks of being an honest writer. He fears beating, disappearance, imprisonment and ‘death while dreaming’. Yet the really remarkable thing about him is his capacity for hope, his belief that the world can get better, and that the long dark night of censorship spreading through contemporary China will sooner or later come to an end.

Featuring Murong, with his permission, granted after his release from police custody a few days ago, here’s the first short video produced by our Sydney Democracy Network. It’s entitled Granite Brain. It’s a pungent spoof on state censorship, and might just make you smile. More video material by him is to follow:

Telling stories: Murong Xuecun, under the famous old jacaranda tree in the University of Sydney’s Quadrangle, May 2014