Last night’s events in Paris were horrific. I went to bed with a heavy heart, in the knowledge that the original death toll of 40 people would surely rise, and that those people with murder in their hearts had slaughtered people enjoying Friday night in the City of Light for brutally cold reasons, heavy with symbolism and narrative.
When it comes to ISIS terrorism it seems as if we go round in a circular discourse in Europe – never coming to a meaningful, cohesive strategy, stuck in the language of condemnation, solidarity, and retaliation until the next atrocity on European soil, or off it as with the likely bomb on the Russian plane over Sinai a fortnight ago.
The whole discourse is bogged down in category errors. For a start, every time the term ISIS, IS or even ISIL is used, we are linguistically legitimating the territory claims of an organisation centred on suppression of human rights and rule through terror. These are the three acronyms most commonly used:
ISIS – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
ISIL – The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
IS – Islamic State
Islamic State does not exist as a recognised state, except in the minds of those who support it, but the term is a powerful one that recruits to the wider cause. Muslims in the UK pointed this out last year in a letter to the Prime Minister signed by members of the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of Muslim Lawyers stating that it, ‘is neither Islamic nor is it a State. The group has no standing with faithful Muslims, nor among the international community of nations.’
A suggestion also made within the letter was that the group was referred to as the ‘Un-Islamic State’. That the media, and politicians continue to use any one of the 3 acronyms listed above steps directly and repeatedly into the narrative space controlled by the organisation I will now refer to as the Un-Islamic Non-State (UNINONS). UNINONS already sounds less powerful to my ear than IS, or ISIL or ISIS and by changing the name we create a different narrative and a potentially different way of relating to the organisation that successfully drew people in order to ultimately murder other people in Paris last night.
Another category error (and there will be far more than just these) is the concept of ‘the West’. This morning the unhelpful in the world Rupert Murdoch tweeted this:
Paris outrage not an attack on all humanity, but an attack on us. ie, Western civilisation!
‘Us’, eh? ‘Western civilisation’ eh? Murdoch has stepped straight into the narrative space controlled by UNINONS. I have little ‘us’ with a poisonous media mogul whose media outlet hacked the mobile phone of a murdered teenage. But I do have an us with my brothers and sisters under attack around the world, wherever I may find them. I do not claim a ‘civilisation’ where inequality booms and Islamophobic sentiment flourishes. As for ‘the West’ that has become a stick that UNINONS and Al-Quaeda before them could beat parts of the world with and it’s a stick we created by the way cartographers set out the world. Make China the centre of the map and America is the new East and Africa the new West.
‘The West’ has become shorthand for Europe and America, UNINONS use it to create a generic common enemy, and when we use it ourselves we simply reinforce a historic colonial way of viewing the world that, like Rupert Murdoch, is not helpful when looking to create worldwide peace and harmony in the 21st century.
Our inhumane treatment in Europe of refugees, many of whom are fleeing destruction and terror caused by conflict that involves UNINONS, potentially sows seeds of radicalisation. Those who say that the refugee population contains UNINONS supporters who will bomb us later, manifestly fail to recognise that we are growing our own radicalised UNINONS supporters in-house already. We do that by everything we do above.
We do that by marginalising Muslims in our society – in a world where racism is not acceptable, Islamophobia seems to be worryingly acceptable in certain quarters.
We do that by asking Muslims to apologise for the actions of UNINONS when we would never consider asking Catholics to apologise for the IRA, or Christians to apologise for the Holocaust.
We do that by increasing economic and social inequalities through austerity and by cutting the funding of the education sector that is one of the few places in secular society where different races and religions can come together and gain an understanding of another viewpoint (see contact theory).
We do that by threatening teachers with jail time if they do not report suspicions of radicalisation, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia.
We do that by publishing front page pictures of the killers of Lee Rigby with bloodied hands holding a knife.
We do that by breaking international law and killing people in countries around the world because we can.
We do that by picking and choosing the so-called righteous beneficiaries of our aid and intervention – yes to refugees in Jordan, but no to those in Europe. Up to our necks in Iraq, but silent on Palestine. We protect oil wells, but not people.
Until we get our own houses in order, and take responsibility for what needs to change on the ground in our own countries, it seems inevitable that UNINONS will continue to flourish. Everything we do has an effect. Bombing with drones may seem like a bloodless way to engage with the world’s problems over here, but in the countries where that happens, children grow up to be afraid of a clear blue sky.
The victims in Paris of yesterday’s outrage were innocent, but our history, the media, our governmental institutions and our politicians are not. The refugees who continue to flee from areas where UNINONS and governments are in conflict are also innocent. The pain from one atrocity does not somehow nullify that of the other.
As individuals we can only point this out, keep love in own hearts for all our brothers and sisters, and organise for change – soon.
What follows is an attempt to explain to those of you who couldn’t give a seasonal fig for horse racing one of the reasons that those of us that do love it, do.
It’s because of the story: the true story. In fact, a horse race is so true I want to attempt to separate it almost entirely from the world of story. It’s not easy and here is why. They say there are only seven types of story out there, literature being based on one, or another of them. And what we are inclined to do is (sometimes interchangeably) impose one of these seven narratives onto our own muddled existences. We do this backwards, to understand the past, and we do it forwards, to better enjoy, or ‘plan’ the future. However, the fact of the matter is that we only know the now, this present moment, and in this moment there is no particular story to be grabbed on to, unless we want to take down a reel from the shelf of life and roll it both backwards and forwards to make the present, the now, cohese with the past and the future that exists only in our minds.
And as complicated as that sounds, that is pretty much what we do. For example, many of us will have played the showreel labelled ‘Christmas’ on a loop for the last few days. We tend to think in narratives and we have accompanying reels for just about every mundane, and otherwise, scenario. And we do it so very well that the storytelling about ourselves, our lives and others becomes an automatic way of being and before we know it those stories are not just super-imposed onto the current context of our lives, they become our lives. Our minds become a dark space waiting for a reel to flicker into life. The flickering stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and others, start to run our thinking. Our thoughts fit the narrative from the shelf…
I am not against stories, but I am cautious of the way we let might let sloppy ones run riot in our own heads, unexamined and rarely called to account. The power of a narrative tool, used judiciously is a beautiful thing, but the reality is that we are awash with cheap, emotive and polemic narratives that do us all a disservice. Our unquestioning acceptance of our own and consequently other people’s stories about our lives, their lives: Life… leads us into an unthinking loop and when we tire of those narratives, we reach for the alternative but equally manufactured ones via tv remote, or a book, or the computer.
It is in this state of narrative-induced inertia that we en masse sponge up the stories of advertisers who infer to us that we’ll be more cool if we buy an iWhatever, or we’ll capture love if we buy and wear a certain perfume. We take those stories, and we say, ‘Aha! That’s a rubbish story that is. Of course I am not going to meet a film star if I buy a coffee machine. What do they think I am, stupid?’ And we forget about it… But do we? Actually we don’t. Of course we forget much of the detail, perhaps even the actual name of the perfume or coffee machine. But our memory has a remarkable tenacity and clings onto the basic narrative like a piece of driftwood. Our brains remember the gist of it, minus some detail and part of the reason we do this is because it makes the complication of life more simple. It makes the downright dog’s dinner of human existence cohese into a more palatable selection of amuse-bouches. It also makes us buy products whose advertising narratives best fit our own…
It’s not at all our fault and it partially explains why memory is so unreliable. See that showreel labelled Christmas? Well it’s not a re-run every time you play it on the Dave channel of your mind. It’s more a story board for the future made up of the basic gist of the past, missing quite a lot of forensic detail. We tend to retrieve only an abstract impression of the past, especially the commonplace, and even that shifts with every separate retrieval.
So why hang onto the horse race, which could itself be described in narrative form? Because amongst the smoke and mirrors of so many individually nuanced stories about life, crossing the line in front is a one true fact. A fact of the matter. It stands outside my context, and yours. It is what it is. And in the seconds of victory, that can be replayed at will in detail, unlike our own plentiful faulty memories, it ties us to a present moment like the very few other facts of existence that are uniquely glorious in their own immediate context: like the birth of a baby, or a gin and tonic.
Horse racing is a factual account that sits in its own context and demonstrates the power of now. Of course when Kauto Star won his fifth King George, in his sixth run in the same race, we ran the story backwards in our minds to enjoy the possible forwards of it all that much more if he won. But nothing was certain; he might have lost. For me, the power of a great horse race like yesterday’s story…
Kauto Star’s Fifth King George the Sixth
…lies in this one thing, the thing you can be fairly sure of amongst all the hyperbole, in all our story-ridden intepretations of life – the horse wasn’t counting. We can choose to overlay the day with a fantastic and triumphant narrative, if we like, but the main protaganist, the horse, will not.
We can learn a lot from that.
A note to my own self, narrative and otherwise…
via Learning Change