Paris/Beirut/Tel-Aviv & the Failure of Language

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said:“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 14:  Medics evacuate an injured person on Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, close to the Bataclan theater, early on November 14, 2015 in Paris, France. According to reports, over 150 people were killed in a series of bombings and shootings across Paris, including at a soccer game at the Stade de France and a concert at the Bataclan theater.  (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE – NOVEMBER 14

When you think about the violence that has struck Paris, or Tel Aviv, or Beirut, in recent days, know one thing; the people that use the word “terrorism” to describe what happened haven’t read much Ludwig Wittgenstein. How else do you account for the use of a word that says so little and does such a poor job of describing what’s taken place? To be clear, ‘terrorism’ is not an ideological movement, political or otherwise. It is by its nature, merely a method. Just as bullets and bombs are not an ideology, the word terrorism describes nothing of the motives of its users. The limits of our language in this case, are as Wittgenstein might have said, creating “the limits of our world,” and therefore, of our understanding.

Honing our language, while not a ‘solution’ per se is at the root of our gaining a better grasp of some of the prime causes of this terrible situation. Nothing is solved when the words we use lead us to an inadequate framing of what it is we face. It wasn’t ‘terrorism’ that struck, and it wasn’t fanaticism.

The people that perpetrated these murders should no more be called terrorists than they should be called gun-shooters or bomb-vest wearers. Those are merely the means by which they disseminate their ideas. They are a particular and small group of religious adherents who are extraordinarily passionate about bringing about their vision of worldwide domination. They are not looking for better jobs or healthcare or better educational opportunities for their children. They are looking to accomplish something that is beyond the understanding of most Western secular people.

Among the many responsibilities their principal religious text makes incumbent upon them (responsibilities which I should note, also include acts of kindness and charity,) is that a faithful adherent must wage, what amounts to a religious war. Like many religious obligations, the means of purveying this particular one is complicated and as such, it betokens far different things to different people. It is in one sense quite positive; a holy war against one’s own darker impulses. Taken in this light, it is an inner-struggle that plays out in the mind of the believer. Among the majority of adherents who interpret their ‘holy war’ in this way, it brings them to moderate and non-violent actions and beliefs. However, there are those who interpret the command as an actual all-out and violent contest against those of us who do not believe as they do. These people want to promulgate their views in such a way as to make us either believers in their fundamentalist vision of their faith – or dead. They’ve said this very thing many times themselves as in: “We won’t stop until our flag is flying over the White House.”

The problem, or at least the problem that we can begin to solve right away, is how to get our own terminology straight. The limits of our language and specifically, the language of our leaders limits our understanding of these people’s motives. By choosing the word “outrageous” for example, to describe the attacks in Paris, our president seems to suggest that the people who carried them out are so cruel as to be beyond comprehension. While the acts themselves are tragic and evil, the motivations of the attackers should be well within our understanding.

The people who murder innocents in Paris, or Madrid, or Tel Aviv, or New York, or London, are doing something that is orderly and logical. They are not criminals either. (Another word that has been used to describe them.) They are simply following the most violent interpretations of a duty mandated by their chief religious text.

Perhaps what we in the West fail to understand is how a rational person can commit such violent crimes. Consider this: A hypothetical filmmaker’s passion causes her to invest years of time and money into realizing her vision of creating a cinematic masterpiece. No one but the most determined artist can endure the sacrifices necessary to bring a project of that scope to fruition. But for the few that can stick it out, their film eventually gets made. What connects this hypothetical filmmaker and the participants of actual religious warfare is that they both share a passionate vision.

That of course is where the similarities end.

The painfully obvious difference is that in one case, a passion – call it a fanaticism if you like – leads to a work of art, and in the other, it leads to universal carnage. Make careful note that isn’t ‘fanaticism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ in and of itself that brings the latter to use terrorism to accomplish their vision of a worldwide domination; it is in fact, their immoderate reading of their own religion.

But what does this focus on language mean and where does it get us? Perhaps in the initial stages, not much and not far. But clarifying our language to create an accurate reading of the challenges we face is the first step in what is likely to be a very long and very arduous journey.

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