The Buzzfeed Phenomenon: Righteous Banality

This essay is in response to the Independent’s: Debunking the righteous Syria memes that fill up your thread

Before I dive down a slippery road of raging and ranting about the particulars of this piece, I would like to write a few words about the format of this “article”. The reason why this article is in quotations is that it lacks the structure and content of anything that might reasonably be called an article. It is more in the vein of a Buzzfeed-like list which briefly acknowledges the points selected, before swiftly moving on. Indeed, in its haste, it presents very little in terms of well thought-out arguments or intellectually interesting points.

I can admire the intent of the piece, however, the delivery of these points lacks seriousness, and results in something that looks more like a social network post rather than something that is published by (what purports to be) a reputable news organisation. I can understand that this delivery is easy to digest and process, however it transforms a set of very complex and important issues into mere banality.

This banality transcends the format of the article, and penetrates into the content of it as well. It is addressing points brought about by memes…(I feel like I need not say more). Memes do not lend themselves to making points of substance. They might carry certain element of truth in them or put forward an interesting point however they are also used by sites like 4chan to troll people and induce rage.

“I can hardly imagine a debate in any university where a highly esteemed professor presents a picture of a lolcat and consequently wins a debate.”

Moving forward, it starts off with establishing the negative elements of war, which are neatly presented for you with phrases such as “War is horrible”, just in case your were unaware of the fact. I think it is very bizarre that we live in an age where you merely say “war is horrible” and people are somehow automatically on board. This position seems to be underpinned by this quasi-deontological position which just assumes that some things in life are (somehow) inherently bad, or arbitrary. Paying very little attention to the fact that in many cases it took wars to establish spheres of influence, or independence from someone else’s influence. It is within these autonomous spheres that states can exercise sovereignty and establish such things as laws, rights, education or healthcare.

Do not mistake me wars do cause suffering. However, they have also been with us since the dawn of man. This modern liberal attitude that we are somehow too civilized to be engaged in wars is just an expression of our very own pompousness and perceived superiority. For millions of people wars or regional conflicts are a day-to-day life experience. Rejecting or dismissing such conditions does very little for our understanding of violence and how to prevent it. In another words, the possibility of war is always there, it cannot simply be irradiated like smallpox. Just like conflict and disagreement between people, war is a perpetual condition of the human existence. Wars do destroy, and cause suffering, however they are also catalysts of change. They can even be the developer or protector of that which we hold dear.

As such, I think it is very convenient for us to stand on our moral high ground of relative political freedoms and wealth and patronise the inhabitants of Syria as unfortunate “others”. In an apologetic fashion we put forward arguments such as the 1st point of the Independent’s post. We cry out “but what about the children and women” taking very little notice of  Article 50 of Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention, the rules and regulations of engagement, the ethical doctrine of jus bellum iustum, or plethora of other codes and regulations in place that are aimed at those who are traditionally not combatants (such as women and children). This is not to say that these regulations are perfect in every way and prove sufficient enough, far from it, however they do provide us with guidelines as to what to do when we find ourselves in armed conflicts. This is briefly outlined by Ben Weller, the author of the Independent article in question. However, he then goes on to say something really rather strange “ a little more thinking should have revealed that morally we are just as responsible for those murdered by Isis if we fail to act”. Failing to reveal how exactly all of us are responsible for the specific cases of murder committed by a group of religious fundamentalists who refer to the Western world as ‘crusaders’. Omitting any judicial concepts of personal responsibility or control of one-self, the author just attempted to recruit us for the pro-conflict efforts by assigning the responsibility of murder to us (the reader) “if we fail to act”.


Just for the sake of irony …

Having said that we can make a point that is more in line with something that Noam Chomsky put forward in the following link. That the choices made by western governments created the conditions and context within which organizations like ISIS emerged. Now that is a point that is far from “if you think a little harder, by being against war you are responsible for those people killed by ISIS“. If we are to take responsibility for “the sins of our fathers” we could make an argument that we have some sort of responsibility to stabilise the region to ensure the social and economic well-being and stability in the region as well as ensuring our own national security.

“However, rather than making references to scholarly articles, or well thought out arguments, Mr Weller decides to use the insufferable TV show, Doctor Who – complete with its plot holes and cheesy narrative.”

Fictional characters can have a lot to say about the historical context of our conduct precisely because they have the freedom of being fictional. Unfortunately we don’t have the freedom of writing our way out of real life conflict through time travelling mechanism and screwdrivers that light up. Thus, taking on an argument that is clearly an inflammatory remark seems somewhat pointless.

Now, number 4 on this list is something worth addressing properly. Its delivery is not brilliant since it is a tweet, and it is conflating military intervention with terrorism; but it is bringing up the issue of “how are we going to pay for war” which is highly relevant since in the UK we are still recovering from the recession and economic growth is still minimal. Rather than addressing this point, this article dismisses it as nonsense. Well technically speaking it is the Ministry of Defence’s budget that is paying for the war, so in that sense it is coming from a different “pot”.  Although organizations like NATO are supporting the endeavours of the Ministry of Defence; its budget is also drawn up in the House of Commons paid for by general taxation. This results in the point number 4 being relevant. This is a space where we can develop a discussion about the budgetary functions of the government. Both healthcare and education are often greatly underfunded resulting in provisions which are often thought of as unsatisfactory. The BBC reports that A&E waiting times ‘getting worse’ with the NHS often struggling to see and treat A&E patients within 4 hours. When it comes to the statistics about education they are equally as unsatisfactory. Especially when we consider the poorer regions in the UK, as demonstrated by the following article. Considering that we are in the middle of “tightening our belts” and given these domestic issues are something that the populace sees, experiences and hears about more readily; it is not surprising that a lot of people are unhappy that  money is being spent bombing Syria. Just how much it is costing or is going to cost is unclear, but if Libya is anything to go by we might be looking at up to £1.5 billion as outlined by The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the following article.

Upon considering the fifth and final point, the author addresses the issue labelling of the Syrian military intervention as a genocide. Which is of substance, since genocide as a term was most notably summoned by Raphael Lemkin (a Polish-Jewish lawyer) in the light of the Nazi policies of systematically killing Jews and destroying anything even remotely related to Judaism. Lemkin described genocide as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves”. Which is clearly not the case when we consider that this intervention is being portrayed as an issue of national security as well as that of humanitarian concerns. On the other hand one could argue that interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are just stepping stones towards a genocide. However that would require us to use the ‘slippery slope’ fallacy as well as completely disregard the military objectives of these campaigns or the fact that Western troops actively tried to participate with the domestic forces in order to stabilise the political context in the Middle East. Or the fact that Muslim communities in the West are under the same rule of law as everyone else.  There are, however, some significant problems when it comes to the integration of Muslim communities as pointed out by Erick Da Silva in his article, there is an element of general disregard for any outwardly religious remarks in liberal democracies. This is even more of a case for the religion that is not entrenched in the Western world. This sentiment contributes towards the polarization of the Western and Muslim worlds, however we would be hard pressed to label it as genocidal.

In conclusion I am alarmed by the tone and the lack of substance or genuine discussion in Weller’s argument. This article claims to be debunking the views of public, which seems to be somewhat hit and miss. He does raise several interesting points but fails to explore them further, or present a solid and convincing argument. The presentation of the article is “in the spirit of the time” with these nonsensical lists, however it doesn’t really debunk anything at all. What saddens me the most is that it got endorsed by the Independent without even a hint of referencing. Overall, it is somewhat disappointing and part of a troubling trend but in honesty, it won’t prevent me from reading either Weller or the Independent again, even if it is just as the first step in further research on a topic.Facebooktwitter

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