While the world is driven and shaped by disruptive technological inventions, alongside social and political challenges, human perception struggles to keep up with these radical and unprecedented developments. Democracies and technologies are leading the change, influencing each other in an idiosyncratic paradigm which will eventually impact every aspect of people’s lives. Amid a sweeping re-think of liberal paradigms, democracies are facing a process of adaptation — governed by distorted and disorderly communication strategies. On the other hand, hyper-globalization, instead of causing the foreseen collapse of nation-state identities, has reinforced reactionary movements, whose ultimate goal is to fortify identities based on their “own” and defined against “the other”.
As a result, a phenomenon dubbed “glocalization” has unfolded, along with the idea of “protection through exclusion”. These trends have been incorporated into the dominant narrative within Western democratic societies, which are facing a crisis of values. In these societies, opportunistic actors position themselves as “democracy defenders” against a corrupt political establishment. The process of delegitimizing rivals effectively polarizes public opinion and erodes the very essence of democracy. As a result, values such as tolerance fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, these opportunists actively tear at the social fabric of nations. In fact, within the anomic, hyper-democratic, and borderless space of the Internet, illiberal forces are seeking to disrupt the consensus by espousing their own views and theories, and reaching people they might not have in earlier times. Consequently, communication morphs into a capillary and mimetic strategy of persuasion through polarizing beliefs and opinions, sparking a vicious spiral.
According to Jurgen Habermas — one of the most important German philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century and generally known as the father of critical social theory — democratic societies are rooted in mutual communicative structures. Clear communicative patterns allow us to understand each other and adhere to a certain set of values and principles. Those values are not immutable, but rather proper to specific cultures and socio-political contexts. Indeed, as individuals, we agree on rules that have been defined as a “solid base of common background convictions, self-evident cultural truths, and reciprocal expectations”. Regardless of religious and personal beliefs, we are able to resolve conflicts through a process of “taking perspective of the other”. In this regard, the speaker and listener may establish a fruitful communication, eventually ending in comprehension of reciprocal perspectives.
Miscommunication Generates Violence
On the other hand, terrorism is nourished by extremely distorted communications. Therefore, terrorism is a paradox: a rhetorical dimension of communicative and symbolic actions which centers on an utter lack of reciprocal communication. Terrorism can, therefore, be defined as an illocutionary force or a “process of delivering a message through the use of symbolic acts in the form of violence to create a change on the part of receiver’s political behavior”. In order to explain why terrorism succeeds in certain contexts more than others, its communicative impact in a specific context should be considered.
Habermas — as an advocate of the Enlightenment principles — believes that ideas such as universal freedom and tolerance are preconditions for future democracies, and also believes it is important for state-to-state disputes to be resolved by “rule of law” mechanisms. He identifies the causes of the debasement of communication processes in globalization which exasperate the growing imbalance between rich and poor countries. Religion itself does not automatically produce violence, but rather violence is produced by social inequality and a lack of solidarity. From this standpoint, violence arises from the inability to find common ground when negotiating inter-subjectivities. Therefore, irrespective of theses about a clash of civilizations between what was once called Christendom and Islam, or the vexed question of religion and secularism, Habermas’ theory views modern terrorism as the result of an endemic and widespread failure of communication.
Nowadays, individuals are diving into a liquid dimension precipitated by unpredictable interactions, whose forerunners follow new semantic structures. As “inforganisms”, we are unable to distinguish between the online and offline and, as a result, we might not comprehend the complex dichotomy between the fictional and real world. The message that humans are being asked to decipher is extremely complex and often results in a failure to digest the embedded content. Left with cognitive confusion and dissonance, people latch onto simplistic explanations which confirm, rather than refute, their predisposed biases. Meanwhile, democratic systems are unable to secure and filter the understandability, genuineness, and truthfulness of informational messages, therefore exposing citizens to an incredible amount of cognitive dissonance that has the potential to turn into violence.
Violence as Autoimmune Reaction
When studying the 9/11 attacks, post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida noticed that those we called “terrorists” are not “others,” but rather a reflection of the failure of our own society. Referring to Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices, he argued that “we must not forget that they were often recruited, trained, and even armed by a Western world that itself, in the course of its ancient as well as very recent history, invented the word, the techniques, and the politics of terrorism”. This is based on an empirical falsehood, but the premise serves for Derrida’s theory that terrorism is a form of indiscriminate violence deriving from self-destructive, quasi-suicidal, and autoimmune processes.
Lone wolves and foreign terrorist fighters, as well as anti-democratic and far-Right movements, are glaring manifestations of an autoimmune disease inherent in a society whose members are rebelling against it. Cognitive psychologist Fatali M. Moghaddam uses the “staircase to terrorism” metaphor to explain radicalization. Moghaddam divides the radicalization process into six floors: the first is the search for options; the second is anger at the perceived perpetrators of injustices; the third is a moral engagement that justifies terrorism; the fourth is joining a terrorist group; the fifth and sixth floors are dehumanizing enemy civilians. Terrorists feel abandoned and segregated because they don’t identify with their own society. Therefore, they become polarized because of the difficulty in overcoming cognitive dissonance and adapting to social, cultural, and political models.
Miscommunication, alongside the complexity of semiotic codes, might produce latent violence within society. The linguistic/semiotic approach emphasizes the role played by the lack of self-identification as one of the primary causes entailing the so-called individual “anomie”. This term was first coined by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim describing a condition of individual instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or a lack of purpose or ideals. The psychological impossibility for individuals to cope with the standards set by society can result in either a violent reaction to resist it, or in a suicide attempt, due to the lack of common and shared values. Anomic suicide relates to situations in which society ceases to exercise a regulating function over passions, whereas dissatisfied and disillusioned individuals perceive themselves as finally capable of imposing their “will to power”.
Amid the inadequacy of parties and institutions to mediate the significance of certain contemporary phenomena, most perpetrators of terroristic violence may adhere to extreme ideologies, such as anti-egalitarianism, authoritarianism, or religious fundamentalism. The ideological construct behind their action forms their basis of alternative explanations of certain paradigms related to the “post-truth” dimension. Post-truth indicates a situation in which people are less influenced by factual information than by their emotions or by beliefs they already hold. Where media communication either becomes meaningless or instrumental to pursue economic or propagandistic interests, alternative explanations offered by opportunistic actors will monopolize public attention. Nowadays, violence is a dormant force pervading every single junction of the network space, where out-groups who felt excluded from the ordinary media narrative build alternative significance. Due to the inherent difficulty to forge common ground and mutual understanding and indifference to “other’s” suffering, radical and extreme violence makes it impossible to achieve genuine communication.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.