Mar 28, 2011

Violence, schmiolence

Being Israeli, I'm pretty good at spotting narratives of delegitimisation. Telling someone "you have no right to an opinion" (direct quote from an Oxford based human rights lawyer, that) is a good way to avoid engaging with their argument, and is usually the first recourse of people with strongly entrenched positions who do not want to admit any challenge to their views.

Delegitimisation is the bread and butter of the rhetoric around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, of course: all this "terrorist organisation!" "illegal state!" nonsense being flung about, as if any of that actually means anything to the resolution of the problems at hand. But both sides, unfortunately, are rich in agents to whom the only acceptable solution to the conflict is more conflict, so this type of discourse persists.

Delegitimisation of course is also the daily experience of feminists, online and elsewhere; as Rebecca Watson of Skepchick recently and poignantly said, the new definition of offensive is a woman with an opinion (actually that's an old definition of offensive, but yeah).

Anyway, my point is, I'm relatively good at spotting when an argument is being made that is not an argument at all, but a way of shutting someone up. And the pearl-clutching around the so-called "violence" in London on Saturday is just such a narrative of delegitimisation. A couple of asides on that:

Aside #1: What fucking violence? Like, seriously, I was there. It was the world's most boring walk from Embankment to Hyde Park. There wasn't even any chanting. A few vuvuzelas, some lip service of booing and hissing at the Ritz (note to future generations of protesters: genuinely rich people stay in Knightsbridge), lots of mass produced flags and placards. Buggies. A certain unmistakable Boden quotient. That's about it. We sat on the grass in Hyde Park for about an hour, watching more and more thousands of people stream into the park off the march, and not one thing occurred to make me raise an eyebrow. Elsewhere, we're talking about some paintballs, a bonfire in a well-ventilated and non-flammable area, and a sit-in, from what I can make out. Broken windows != violence, Einstein. That's damage to property, which is not at all the same as damage to people. I've faced Hassidic five year olds lobbing potatoes who had more violent impulses that the marchers on Saturday did. 
Aside #2: So fucking what? Since when is violence not an acceptable form of political expression, eh? When people in other countries (dum dee dum, Tahrir Square, lah dee dah, Green Revolution) clash violently with their governments, we invariably blame the governments, assuming that the state, as the holder of the monopoly on violence, is reacting disproportionately to legitimate protests. But when it happens here, suddenly it's the protesters who are out of order. Why? If this had happened in Lybia there would be (non violent, hah) demonstrators outside the embassy as we speak.

In short, this whole business about so called "violence" is nonsense. The truth of the matter is that there is no way to monetise the spectacle of half a million people walking very slowly. It's damned dull, and while I saw a few journos/photogs snapping picks of us in the early stages, I note also that it's quite hard to locate photographs of "violence" that don't have another photographer or ten in them. The media is reduced to use itself to beef up the numbers of disturbance causers, and frankly between them creating the temptation of playing up and the police provoking reaction by being heavy handed (which they emphatically were not, on the main march route), it's a testament to the famous bloodlessness of the English that nothing really serious had kicked off.

Oh yes, but nothing like that should have happened at all, I hear you say. If it had all gone off peacefully without any side demos, we wouldn't be hearing about violence in the news all the time! We'd be concentrating on the main issues! This is very unfortunate! The violent protesters have hijacked the conversation!


As narratives of delegitimisation go, what's remarkable about this march is just how many different ones have been deployed against it. The anti-cuts movement in all its forms is continuously and concertedly attacked with so many disingenuous non-arguments that the mind reels - no wonder we can't have a proper conversation about the cuts. No wonder even the Labour party big cheeses stand agape at the onslaught of gold-plated bullshit being flung at them. Short of standing at the dispatch box and repeating "Mr Speaker, my main difficulty here is deciding whether my right honourable friend the Chancellor is lying or speaking in tongues" over and over, I don't see how Ed Balls, let alone a bunch of kids on Oxford Street, can outflank the government's torrent of disinformation. Consider:

"They're all a bunch middle class hypocrites", or the Grumpy Old Man Stance: This was the first in a series of ad hominem attacks on the people behind the movement, back in 2010 when the student demonstrations were at their height. It's an easy frame: university students can be painted as a bunch of spoilt, over privileged brats who have no "skin in the game", because they have rich parents who'll look after them. They have no daytime responsibilities like "real jobs", and are just indulging a preference for trouble making. The reason this is delegitimising is not the obvious facts that A Level students protested too, or even that not all university students come from privileged backgrounds; the reason is that it takes it as read that nobody will look at the argument and go "so what? Aren't middle class people allowed to care about the future of this country too? Aren't these students, however affluent their childhoods, right to worry that the growth-deadening cuts agenda will leave them struggling in future, or that they will bring up their own children in a darker, more unequal, more bitter Britain?".

It's the "identity politics" switcheroo beloved of right wing demagogues: a) if you are part of the group affected, you're unreliable because you're too emotionally involved, have a conflict of interest, are just being selfish; b) if you're not, you don't know what you're talking about, and how dare you to insult those people by pretending to speak on their behalf? In this case it skillfully cuts both ways - if you're a student from a middle class background, it's b), if you're not middle class but still a student, a) takes care of you.

"They're all a bunch of freeloaders", as above, the Tabloid Formulation: Applied to anyone on benefits, who has ever been on benefits, who may in future potentially need benefits, or who works in any organisation associated with benefits in any way, up to and including the entire apparatus of the welfare state. I think the only people exempted from the virulent, almost Tea Partyesque loathing certain groups feel towards anyone they think may be getting something "for nothing" (meaning, in return for nothing more than being a taxpayer and a fellow human being) are actual serving soldiers and well behaved white Christian toddlers. It's a good one, because you can use it against basically anybody with any involvement in the welfare state and who is opposed to the cuts. Mother in receipt of child benefit? No right to an opinion! Disabled? We don't want to hear from you! Unemployed? Get a job before you open your mouth, you lazy bastards. None of the above? Who are you to talk, then?

"They're all a bunch of overpaid public sector workers with gold plated pensions", also as above, Telegraph Variation: This one really does get my goat in a massive way. I loathe and despise that the conversation about the cuts has become a conversation about lost incomes. Not that putting half a million people on the dole is not big news; it is, and those people are mostly women who already draw very meagre salaries (cause they're so greedy, duh) and don't have big safety nets to fall back on, which is exactly why the conversation should be about the cuts to services instead. I hate the way papers like the Mail and the Telegraph, and much of TV & radio news too, talk about public sector workers like all they're there to do is draw a salary. Who teaches your children, fixes those potholes you hate so much, triages you at the hospital, adjudicates your divorce, issues your tax refund? Public sector workers, that's who! How have we allowed the media to dehumanise people to the point that we just see them as walking paychecks, as an unnecessary expense, instead of seeing their contribution to the big society we're supposed to be so keen on?

"There is no alternative", or Misdirection: Er, the whole march was titled "March for the Alternative". If you say there's no alternative and half a million people come to London to tell you different, and you still claim that no one has bothered to come up with an alternative, you begin to look a little bit demented. But even before the march, it's a straight up lie that nobody had come up with an alternative: there were lots of ideas, some of them Keynsian, some of them more moderately neoliberal, but they were there. The government's refusal to acknowledge them was simply a symptom of their refusal to consider them. There is no plan B, and however many envelopes labelled "Plan B" you send to Number 11, Number 11 ain't listenin'. They've even gone as far as to make sure there's as little as possible to listen to, by forbidding the OBR to consider alternatives (against the advice of the IMF - see Recommendations in section 1). So, yeah. Not so much a delegitimisation tactic as straight up denialism of the "zombie argument" variety beloved of creationists and James Delingpole.
"It's all Labour's fault", or Deflection: This is both a) untrue and b) nonsense. It's not Labour's fault that the banks needed bailing out. We're not going to go into whose fault it exactly and in detail is (looooong answer), but it is certainly not the fault of one political party, in one country, during one decade, that the global financial system imploded. And if it were, so what? Who's in power now? You, yes? And you're how old? Older than five, yes? So WTF difference does it make who made the mess? Cleaning it up without making a bigger one in the process is your job, and if you're not qualified to do that then you shouldn't have run for office, you twat.

In Hebrew we have a joke: "If people come and say your sister's a slut, go prove you haven't got a sister". That is the essence of deligitimising arguments: they make you argue to prove that you have a right to an opinion, not that your opinion is correct. And that's exactly the trick being played here: the right wing media colludes with government framing to deflect attention from their actions and decisions, by inventing a shortcoming in someone else and putting them in the impossible position of trying to defend it.

This is not a comprehensive list of all the ways in which the moderate left, the socially democratic arm of the public, is being deprived of the right to a legitimate political voice. It's a classic strategy of right wing regimes; Thatcher did it to the so-called "hard left" and the unions in the 80s, Sharon & Netanyahu did it to the left in Israel (which consequently collapsed), backlash demagogues have been gradually chipping away at women's right to control their own bodies, using similar tactics (in this case tacitly implying that GPs have a pro-abortion bias that needs tempering with mandatory involvement of religious "crisis centres").

My view on all of this is twofold: one, it's going to work. There is a structural weakness to the liberal agenda, which is a commitment to reality based argument. Liberals just don't lie and distort with the same facility and confidence as right wingers do, and if they do, and are caught, are judged much more harshly for it. Get ready to consider Saturday's nurses, teachers, and private sector workers concenrned about the quality and cohesion of the society they live in (e.g. me), to be painted into history with the same caricaturing broad brush that the striking miners have been.

Two, this being the case, what difference would it have made if the demonstrations were completely without any hint of property desctruction, any show of anger, any creative attempt to highlight the hypocricy of the rich? The forces ranged against the socially democratic impulse will have resorted to any or all of the above strategies to undermine the legitimacy of the movement and bury the news of a tax cut for the rich.


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