Archive for the 'War' Category

Pyresome

In my last post I highlighted a phenomenon whereby some opponents of the Iraq war attempt to reduce the conflict to a force of nature – like a fire – in order to redirect moral blame away from those actually doing the killing. Today, in The Guardian’s Comments is Free, one Pankaj Mishra does precisely that.

Many [critics of totalitarian Islam] championed the misbegotten wars that have already killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and ruined innumerable more lives.

In phrasing things this way, he avoids mentioning who – i.e. insurgent groups and, strangely enough, the representatives of totalitarian Islam – are actually slaughtering Muslims. Instead it’s simply an abstract concept – “wars” – that have killed them. And the wars were supported by the critics of Islam. It’s a trick – and it’s become tiresome. Keep an eye out for it.

Update: Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels deals with different guff in the same article.

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We Started it, but it’s not a Fire

When discussing the rightness or wrongness of a certain chain of actions, it’s best to talk, in the active voice, about choices made by moral agents (like, “Person X then chose to plant and detonate a bomb”). It’s less useful use the passive voice and refer only to events (e.g. “At that point a bomb went off”.)

  • A. Bob lit a fire in an occupied building, which led to the deaths of X people.

Sentence A is fine. It identifies the moral agent (Bob) and his choice (to light the fire). Once the fire is burning, there is, morally speaking, nothing more to say; neither fire nor the forces acting on it are moral agents. Thus, Bob is to blame for the deaths.

  • B. Bush and Blair started the war, which led to the deaths of X people.

Debate the justness or lack thereof of the Iraq war for long enough and you’ll see a sentence like B. It starts off OK, by identifying moral agents (Bush and Blair) and their decision (to start the war). But, unlike A, once the war is underway, there’s plenty more to say. The problem is, B, partway though, slips into the passive voice and treats war like sentence A treats fire – as a force of nature. But war isn’t like that. War is, in moral terms, a collection of actions by moral agents. The majority of deaths in Iraq owe to the deliberate slaughter of innocents by insurgents. Sentence B seeks to conceal this fact – to short the moral circuit – by failing to mention these moral agents and attributing deaths to a fire – the inanimate “war” – which, in turn, was consciously started by Bush and Blair. When the latter part of B is expanded and the moral agents properly identified, you get something like this:

  • C. Bush and Blair, in starting the war, caused the deaths of innocents, unintentionally if foreseeably. Additionally, certain insurgents opposed the war by murdering as many innocents as possible. Between the two groups, they killed X people.

So, B contains a rhetorical trick. It’s a way of redirecting blame away from the true culprits and toward whomever one chooses. In fact, it’s is even worse than that, as it attempts outright moral inversion: to loop the blame for the deaths back onto the very people trying to stop them.

Debate Space: Iraq Part I.

See the comments section for a debate on the Iraq war.