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The Right to Radicalisation?

Partly in response to the recent arrest of a Nottingham student for downloading the al-Qaeda 'Manchester Manual', Poetix writes on the dangers to academic freedom posed by the current security climate, and the nature of the university experience itself:

The right to radicalisation

Today, the very idea of the university as a space of unconditional freedom seems anachronistic; such are the times we live in. “Academic freedom” is now to be considered a freedom under condition, a freedom amongst other freedoms to which it stands in a relationship of mutual limitation. The model for this system of mutually limiting (or competing) freedoms is cybernetic: its twin goals are homeostasis (stable reproduction of the “primitive” conditions under which it functions) and efficiency (optimal ratio of output to input). The state simultaneously declares its commitment to the utmost self-realization of every individual citizen, and constantly intervenes to manage the “balance” of individual freedoms in order that no particular project of self-realization should locally destabilize the system. Threats to the system as a whole are rare, but the vexations of terrorism, deliberately calculated to elicit a disproportionate response, are severe enough to be treated by it as a source of existential menace.

The radicalisation of students is a risk built into the university’s teaching function, the purpose of which is to reproduce the conditions of knowledge within each new generation so that the research function - which requires a continuous supply of peers competent to discuss new developments - can be upheld. That “there are students in the university” is a fact that must be continually confronted, ideally by graduating them. Yet in the process of acquiring competency, students must undergo a partial deculturation: the worldview of the research community is not that of most people’s “native culture”. One cannot create new researchers in a field without exposing young people to the crisis of knowledge at the root of that field, the irreducible problematic on account of which it - and not merely the spontaneous commonsense of “uninformed” people everywhere - troubles to exist. To be initiated into a field of study is to be seduced by it, to the point where its problems become one’s own. The first thing the student must learn is therefore how to be seduced; and the “best” students are in this sense the most seducible.

 

Read the rest here.

Posted on Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 07:15 by Registered CommenterTim Stevens in | Comments6 Comments | References1 Reference

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  • Response
    I’m mean, WTF?! This actually piggy backs off an earlier discussion I had with Jack Wiley: what in the world happened to patience? Where is the need to validate your information? You would think that bombing the wrong building or shooting the wrong person or illegally detaining children would make people ...

Reader Comments (6)

Playing devil's advocate here: I read the full post at Poetix. Sort of a cop-out, too, isn't it? University education and training is about - theoretically - exposure to new ideas and the cultivation of students' abilities to think critically, consider and integrate competing concepts, argue logically, and communicate effectively. Radicalization suggests a loss of reason, and perhaps, some might say, demonstrates a deficiency of thought (whether through cognitive malfunction or inadequate education or what have you).

Sure, plenty of students - and professional academics - sport strong ideological biases. Some are even "radicals", and some of those, to the point of violent action. It's that last form of behavior that can't be tolerated, by any standards. None of which is a justification for loss of academic freedom, or equally uncritical knee-jerk responses from officialdom. But some things do come with responsibilities, and that's also a notion that sometimes gets lost while we're playing amidst the ivory.

Personally, I like the BISA's righteous approach to this: get everyone in the Critical Terrorism Studies Working Group to download the offending materials. A bit like encouraging everyone to deliberately tag messages and posts with trigger word combinations... but probably a bit more like getting everyone to wear the Star of David, once upon a time.

May 31, 2008 at 08:45 | Unregistered CommenterMike

University education and training is about - theoretically - exposure to new ideas and the cultivation of students' abilities to think critically, consider and integrate competing concepts, argue logically, and communicate effectively

That is very much the current consensus: university education as training, en-skilling, the acquirement of "transferrable" competencies...

In focusing on the teaching function of the university specifically in relation to its research function, I'm suggesting that something more is involved: to become a member of the research community, a peer of others working in the same field, one has to become "radically" involved with the problems of the field. (I assume here that a field is characterised by a set of problems that no-one working within the field can resolve; for those working in other fields, or for laypeople generally, these may be non-problems, problems to which it is assumed there is a commonplace answer or workaround - "why don't you just...", or "why do you have to over-intellectualize that?". In other words, the researcher is characterised less by what he knows than by what he is unable to "know" - as Thomas Mann said, a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people).

This involvement can't be characterised simply as the acquisition of knowledge, or gaining acquaintance with a variety of perspectives: it entails a fundamental shift of outlook, an upheaval which could be characterised as deculturation, deracination, seduction and so on. To make the shift, one has to be able to be "seduced", to assume a new problematic.

In the case of Islamist "radicals", you could argue that the turn to a manichean, fundamentalist worldview is a retreat from precisely the kind of critical engagement I'm talking about: after all, those guys already know all the answers. The risk here is not that people will be radicalised, but that their radicalisation will "fail": instead of becoming seriously engaged with the problems of peace in the Middle East, for example, they will come to espouse a solution that simply involves the extermination of one of the warring parties.

It seems that university students are especially vulnerable to this sort of malign seduction. I was warned by several people before going to university to beware of various predatory groups and cults, from the Jesus freaks to the SWP; my mother seems to have worried that I'd end up in some sort of Baader-Meinhof-type outfit (in the event, the opportunity never presented itself). Instead I took the soft option and became a Derridean - a sect that seems to produce management consultants rather more often than it does militant desperadoes, although it is partly responsible for enabling the former to feel that they share in some of the glamour of the latter.

In any case, a crackdown on campus "radicalisation" seems to mean in practice an insistance on de-problematisation, on a normative model of "appropriate" and "legitimate" enquiry which precludes investigation of the ideological basis of those norms and the manner of their operation.

May 31, 2008 at 10:52 | Unregistered CommenterDominic Fox

I was thinking about how to respond to a host of very intriguing points raised in this discussion, when this comment by my esteemed blogfriend Justin Boland cropped up:

An interesting and provocative angle, since I 100% agree. What’s really interesting to me is what’s beyond the thesis here.


I’ve been “radicalized” several dozen times by as many thinkers and schools of revolutionary thought. I’ve also come full circle and realized that even revolution is a con game, and we need to tread carefully and speak openly until solutions evolve. (And brainstorm all day every day, but that’s a given.)

So here’s an angle for memetic anti-bodies. Like I mentioned in a previous comment, spreading information is far easier than reversing or supressing it.

However, there’s also a memetic life cycle at work. Perhaps combatting “online radicalization” could take the form of being far more open about it, in order to accelerate that life cycle — from novice enthusiasm to experienced cynicism.

After all, we’re seeing a lot of senior Al Quaeda members doing exactly that, in a very public way.

Come to think of it, that’s basically the worldview I offer to teenagers: your leaders are lying murderers, our brains are dangerously misleading, and our cultures are terminally sick. However, there’s no way to “fight back” without making things worse, quick.

It’s a long hard road to reach that higher synthesis — working hard for solutions with no rewards and no guarantees. Staying optimistic in the face of reason itself.

Just the same, the sooner we can get kids there, the safer we’ll all be.

I find that fascinating. Firstly, to freely admit that radicalisation is indeed part of education, allowing oneself to become seduced by new modes of thought, and that this informs the critical process. Secondly, that a possible counter-strategy to undesirable forms of radicalisation might be to allow them to 'work themselves out' in some way, towards the goal of enlightened cynicism. Obviously, the more often one has been 'radicalised', the easier it should be to be critical, and therefore presumably to restrain oneself within acceptable moral and ethical bounds.

Jun 1, 2008 at 08:37 | Registered CommenterTim Stevens

There've been some hysterical reactions elsewhere in the blogosphere to all this, including at least one from someone who should know better but decided to indulge in oxygen-theft polemics anyway. No, I'm not going to point out who. That would be rude.

On the more reasoned side of things, Mike Tanji at Haft of the Spear suggests basic problems of process that appear to have been lacking. Here's to reasoned analysis - and yes, the reference back to HOTS that appears at the top of the comments section (argghhhh...) constitutes circular hat-tipping.

Jun 3, 2008 at 17:21 | Registered CommenterMichael A. Innes

Perhaps this is way beyond the confines of the discussion, but if schools and history books would stop lying and white-washing, it would go a long way towards de-fusing this radicalization process. The most important phase of de-radicalizing Justin Boland was SEEING THE CONSEQUENCES.

So many populist movements and uprisings are just scrubbed from the history curriculum, or reduced to caricature villiany. An honest examination would be so much more effective, because what really snaps people out of their naive enthusiasm is seeing the cycles of history, and especially seeing the gap between the Ideals of a movement and the Reality of those ideals being applied.

It's great to quote Sartre, but once you start digging into his cheerleading for Stalin it leaves his words remarkably empty. I thought Che was a superhero in my youth, but the more I read the more I realized he was psychotically irresponsible -- more of an adrenaline junkie than a people's hero.

So, I think it's important that we not reduce Al Quaeda to cardboard evildoers. Let people have a more honest discussion about Iraq, and Al Quaeda will be revealed as what they are -- Islamic organized crime, taking advantage of the desperation and poverty that the US created, via the CPA and the corporate feeding frenzy that should have been "reconstruction."

As far as memetic antibodies, I'm still brainstorming on that one...more soon.

Jun 3, 2008 at 19:59 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

From: http://tinyurl.com/2cscvq

"The smarter question, the one experts have now begun to ask, is, Why do people leave terrorist groups? John Horgan, a Penn State psychologist, has interviewed 28 former terrorists. His subjects have spanned 13 organizations, including five Islamic extremist groups. The men have told him strikingly similar stories of disenchantment. "I was stunned by the common denominators between members of the ira and members of Jemaah Islamiah [a militant Islamist group in Southeast Asia with ties to al-Qaeda]."

Many said they'd been disappointed by the terrorist life. "The reality didn't live up to the fantasy," says Horgan. "The reality is depressing, stressful and generally not what people expect." And in that disconnect lies opportunity. Nearly a dozen countries, including the U.S. in Iraq, have recently started programs to educate radicals about the gap between their religious ideals and the groups they follow—to essentially force the disenchantment process with the help of clerics and ex-terrorists. "We've been fighting the wrong battle," says Frank Cilluffo, a former White House Homeland Security official who is researching deradicalization at George Washington University. "The real center of gravity of the enemy is their narrative. It is ideologically bankrupt."

Further:

"Such experiments can be expected to be messy. Of all the men he has interviewed, Horgan says, none are truly deradicalized. Disengagement is more realistic. Nasir still supports the creation of an Islamic state and says Muslims have a right to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. When he recalls turning in former comrades, he becomes visibly upset. "I felt very sad. You will never be able to imagine how I felt." His eyes look defeated. He asks TIME not to name the coffee shop. Then he leaves, returning to the netherworld between the masses and the margins."

I guess the question here is how we define "De-radicalization." Do we really want to make humans into sheep? Are we really going to claim the status quo is perfectly acceptable and fair to everyone, and any sane human should accept it?

Jun 4, 2008 at 21:11 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

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