Tag Archives: Ethics

Grievable life, ten years on.

National melancholia, understood as a disavowed mourning, follows upon the erasure from public representations of the names, images, and narratives of those the US has killed.  On the other hand the US’s own losses are consecrated in public obituaries that constitutes so many acts of nation-building.  Some lives are grievable, and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and what kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death? – Judith Butler, Precarious Life.

Set aside, for a moment, the American context of the passage above, and the fact that it was written over ten years ago.  It could have been written about the United Kingdom.  It could have been written yesterday.  The great paradox of the last fifteen years, since the declaration of  perpetual war against a tactical abstraction is that for all the talk of everything having changed, a remarkable degree of continuity remains.  As the government prepares the construction of a memorial to the British victims of terrorism over the past ten years (who number, including aid workers, less than 100), the perpetual acting-out of  trauma through a narcissistic, inward looking grief culture inevitably precludes any way to properly work-through this trauma and develop appropriate responses.

“Our” dead are, once again, endowed with vivid inner lives and identities: they were fathers, mothers, football fans, teachers, students; they had aspirations, histories and connection to communities; their faces were our faces.

It is a crude arithmetic that would place the scores killed under the streets of London, the beaches of Tunisia or the Syrian desert alongside the tens of thousands killed in the various “operations” to “secure Britain at home” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and perhaps many more (unofficial) locations.  To create such a ledger would also be a category mistake, because the critique here is not that the innocence of people killed is produced by degree relative to their location, but rather is absolute.  An Afghan farmer is no more responsible for his incineration at the hands of a drone operator than a holidaymaker is responsible for the deranged, gun wielding fanatic.

This is the heart of the problem, though.  Through the ongoing presence of a culture of mourning -vis e vis terrorism-that valourises the innocence of the Western victim whilst not only remaining silent but often actively working to anonymise the Other when they suffer a similar fate, we have fail to develop an ethical imagination appropriate to the globalised world from which we benefit; if innocent life curtailed by violent death is a priori grievable, then this applies to all who suffer this fate.

The above point is not a new claim; indeed it is at he heart of what Butler, and other theorists of cosmopolitan ethics have been writing about since the late 1990’s.  The tragedy of this is that we seem further, not closer, to incorporating the idea that all victims of violence, dispensed by states, armed groups or individuals had individual identities, lives and families; pasts and presents but, no longer, futures. To cultivate an ethical apparatus which is able to perceive in a way which refuses to create victim hierarchies, either explicitly (through the dehumanisation of the Other) or implicitly (by elevating proximate victims through grief-narratives) is more important than ever.

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The strange case of the BBC, North Korea and the LSE

A Panorama special with John Sweeney is due to be aired on the BBC next week.  The facts so far, as I can gather them, are this:

A group of students from the LSE including Sweeney’s wife travelled to North Korea earlier this year on an eight day trip under the auspices of academic research.  Sweeney travelled with the group too, although as an undercover journalist, filming secret footage which will form the basis of the Panorama program.

The inevitable debate will concern who-knew-what-when but this raises some uncomfortable questions.  According to Sweeney the students on the trip were “fully aware of the risks”, although this begs the question of exactly how much they knew about his status and reasons for travelling.  Apparently some students believed he was another academic, or post-graduate student, although the idea that they were unaware of exactly who was on staff in their own department seems unusual to say the least.

I’m sure more will come out about this in the next few days as the program is to be aired tomorrow night as “North Korea undercover” at 9pm on BBC 1, and if nothing else Sweeney seems a master at self publicity.  He strikes me as a reporter very much in the Andrew Gilligan mould, and whilst his outburst in a previous documentary about Scientology has become the stuff of journalistic legend, this plan seems ill thought out at best, and outright irresponsible at worst.  Of course there is a legitimate interest in what is going on in North Korea, although perhaps a documentary solely dedicated to the voices of those who have escaped to the South would suffice.  All foreign nationals in North Korea are given teams of minders and shown only an approved picture of the country.  Given this it is unclear what is gained by one “secret reporter” embedded in an academic field trip would add to our knowledge of the country.  Of course as I write this the program hasn’t yet been screened, so we’ll wait before passing judgement.

The reality though, is that no one will come out of this looking good, given that one or more of the following seems to have been the case:

EIther (as the LSE’s media are claiming) the BBC has sanctioned Sweeney to smuggle himself into a country under academic pretences in search of a story, a story that–no matter how important–comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions in the region.  If this is the case and neither the students or the LSE knew of Sweeney’s intentions then this is the height of irresponsibility and threatens not only LSE students/academics travelling to sensitive regions in the future, but the reputation of the profession generally.  Similarly, if the LSE, through Sweeney’s wife was also aware of the deception, then this shows a disregard for the safety of students involved.  They may have signed up for an academic research trip to North Korea but I imagine many may have had serious reservations had they been aware that a journalist would be travelling incognito alongside them.

The most worrying possibility though is that everyone was, so to speak, “in on it” and that the students either wanted or were encouraged to feel a sense of “danger-research/secret agent” fantasies towards the trip.  Such an attitude is an even greater threat to academia’s capacity to get into and be trusted in sensitive areas.

Of course, certain institutions international relations departments are notorious for having staff and post-graduates who have…shall we say…”cosy” relationships with both the foreign office and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and this kind of ill conceived tabloid subterfuge will do little to help dispel suspicions of researchers working in geopolitically sensitive areas of the world.

It will be interesting to see how this story develops.

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The End of The (News of the) World as we know it…

Like many with uneasy feelings towards giant, hydra-headed, global media conglomerates with immense, unaccountable power and influence, the deafening collective squawk of chickens arriving home to roost in the last 48 hours offers cautious grounds for optimism and, yes, a little satisfaction, but not much.

The most important issue at stake here is that the smokescreen of the summary execution of an instantly recognisable (if now thoroughly toxic) brand is, to all intents, irrelevant. As, I would venture to say, is the actual issue of the phone hacking itself. As with pretty much every major public scandal, the issue at stake is how, why and by whom the attempts to cover up the complicity and extent of the criminality involved. The announcement of a public inquiry is welcome, although the the turgid pace at which such processes move will, one feels, allow for sufficient time to have passed for individuals called to testify to get stories straight, have convenient lapses of memory or textual evidence to have been “lost in the move”.

Important questions accumulate with the closing of the NOTW rather than being answered by it, and the following must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

1) What was the role of Andy Hayman, the officer in charge of the original phone hacking inquiry, who left the Met in 2007 after expenses and other misdeeds, only to be, subsequently employed by News International?

2) Given the arrest of Andy Coulsen and Clive Goodman in relation to the corruption inquiry, is it not inconceivable that Rebekkah Brooks should not also be arrested given that she ADMITTED during the select committee hearing in March 2003 that the paper had paid police officers for information?

3) What was the role of the last Labour government, given their position at the time of the offences being committed (i.e. why was a public inquiry not mooted, and indeed blocked it seems, by Gordon Brown in 2005)?

Amongst many many others. Answers on a post card? (In a sealed brown envelope stuffed with cash…..)

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Making a Killing

An interesting interview tucked away in the business section of the Indy today with Dr David Price, CEO of arms manufacturer Chemring, confirms the problem of abstraction and divorce from commonsense notions of morality (and, in some cases reality) at the upper echelons of the sector.

Dr Price (CBE) who, the profiler states, is a patron of the Royal Opera House and avid Mozart fan and equestrian (which brings to mind nothing so much as the apocryphal tales of SS commandants with a penchant for Mahler and fine wine), heads, in Chemring, a major player in the global arms trade valued at around £1.3bn.  Whilst NATO and Western governments remain their primary customers, specialising as they claim to do in primarily defensive technologies (Counter IED munitions and technologies, battlefield illumination and pyrotechnics), Chemring still maintain a major interest in the sale of explosive ordinance, stun grenades and tear gas, with the latter being seen in action in the recent clampdowns in Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia.

The interview, when subject to even a cursory deconstruction provides, however, moments of insight into the minds at work in the higher levels of the corporate arms trade.  “Terrorists are very innovative, constantly changing the mechanisms they use to attack us”, Price claims, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, namely that “terrorist” weapons systems and delivery have remained relatively unchanged (Vehicle/Human borne IED’s) for almost a century.  As many of the Paris school of Critical Security have argued, the attempts by business interests to reconfigure the discourses of threat in order to create a marketplace for “solutions” which they have the capacity to provide are now part of standard commercial practice within the industry.

Price’s unusal statement regarding Chemring’s development of battlefield “pyrotechnics”  for use in illumination also bears repeating: “The type of products we make are a bit like making Mars bars-only using chemical energetic materials of one sort and another…You get a bunch of chemicals and mix them together; make a shape, coat it, wrap it in metal or plastic.”  The equating of munitions and weaponised “fireworks” manufacture with confectionary may seem absurd, although it is highly instructive of the moral tenets of late capitalism:  “There is no good or bad product, other than that which will or will not sell; that my business constructs, manufactures and sells deadly weapons for use, whereas yours makes chocolate bars is neither here nor there, we are morally equivalent.”

Some of you may think that this is labouring the point, although I do not.  The manner in which high level CEO’s discuss their businesses and define themselves is a vital component of the communicative landscape in which they operate.  Price further claims that “We’ve probably saved thousands of coalition lives in Afghanistan”, thereby inverting, but perpetuating the Rumsfeldian maxim that “We don’t do body counts”, when referring to those killed in coalition operations.  Price’s position, clearly, is that in Chemring’s role a “protector” (i.e. where it’s products are defensive, rather than offensive), the people who matter are not the indigenous population of Afghanistan.  Again, this is not to suggest that Price operates as a death-dealing sadist, a cartoon villan laughing maniacally to himself in his boardroom whilst thousands die by his (indirect) hand.  Rather, it is further evidence of how the corporate arms industry’s discourse is bound to and reflective of the official state discourse of the War on Terror, the moral vacum which is implicit in free market capitalism is reinforced by successful companies such as Chemring.  This is to say that, where laws are followed, and profit is made, this is the “good” operation of the system, regardless of what it is which is making the profit.

It would be absurd to suggest that a 500 word interview tucked away in the business section of a broadsheet should involve the kind of coursucating ethical grilling to which most right minded people would like to see the arms industry subject to on a daily basis, and for discourse analysts and deconstruction, the context of the piece is more illuminating when conducted in this framework.  Hostile questioning of those in the arms trade is generally met with walkouts, closed doors and blacklisting for journalists, whilst these kind of pieces can, to an extent, “unmask” individuals involved, where their belief that the discourse is being conducted within their own moral framework (this is to say that of business), their ethical position may become far easier to critique.

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Complex answers to multifaceted problems. In microseconds.

Coming home from work this evening, I stopped at my local store-lets call it The Co-Operation store-to do a spot of food shopping. The store had been recently (in like the last 4 months or so) renovated, brighter with more stock and space. I’d noticed this cosmetic change in the same way you might notice a co-worker’s change of hairstyle: a brief interest, possibly feigned, whilst you accommodate this alteration into the relevant cognitive schema before moving on and forgetting all about it.

One thing about the change in the store however, had stuck with me, albeit in a minor way, only compelling me to notice it properly today, when its total incongruity was shoved, right in my face.

I should explain. Like in most stores, but usually every grocery store, you can pay by putting your debit or credit card into the chip machine at the register, which instructs you to “insert card”, “enter pin” etc… The machines at the Co-operation store, since its makeover, taken to soliciting information from customers, by way of having pre-set questions pop up on the display, before you can begin any transaction. Responses to the question can be made by pressing a keypad button indicated “Yes” or “No”.

The questions are, and have been, for the most part, almost entirely innocuous ranging from basic, staff training type fluff: “Was our store clean and tidy?”; “Were our staff well presented?” to market research oriented “Did you know you can bank your money with us now?”. I mentioned earlier that I had noticed these captive audience questionnaires during previous visits, and I had, but they had never seemed worthy of afterthought, a simple harnessing of new technologies to target consumers.

Today however, as a glanced down to the screen prior to paying for goods supplied, the question staring back up at me took me aback so much that for a second, I just stopped and stared back at it. It read:

“Do Co-Operatives help to narrow the gap between rich and poor?”

YES<                                                                                                                  <NO

Market Research and Consumer Studies are, for all their protestations and fantasies to the contrary, an inexact science. This is precisely due to the fact that individuals, groups and societies are similarly inexact in their beliefs, desires etc.. It would seem though that a special kind of hubris, ignorance or simple carelessness bears responsibility for believing that this question could be formulated in this way, presented in this form, in that context and believe that anything whatsoever could be gained from it, commercially, ethically, politically or otherwise.

I gain no joy from picking apart minutiae, (although I think that this is somewhat more) or trying to reconstitute it as something bigger. But to see such a question, which is not, in itself a question so much as on proposition or premise (and an incredibly important one at that) amongst many others in a complex ethico-political series of arguments and counter arguments about justice, economics and human autonomy, distilled by persons unknown, into a one line “push-button-text-vote” in a grocery store line in the micro-seconds before a commercial transaction is…well…I don’t know, something.

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