ISIS has committed some terrible, cruel, crimes against humanity. The most publicized of these acts, though not the worst, is the beheading of several hostages. It is these video-taped murders which have decisively put the public into panic mode about ISIS and at least indirectly lead to President Barack Obama’s decision to rekindle warring on our favorite battleground of the past 20 years – Iraq.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a competition going on on my social media streams as to who can condemn ISIS in the most vehement terms. The word barbaric is having a little renaissance. This is a bad thing. No not as bad as cutting people’s heads off, but hold your horses for a second and hear me out.
When we call something barbaric we are participating in a specific very ancient kind of rhetoric. This is the rhetoric employed by powerful nations against less powerful groups of people outside their borders. The purpose of this rhetoric is to convince us that those people are not merely superficially different from us, they are fundamentally different. So different they might not even qualify as people. This is called dehumanizing, which is a tactic cultures engage in to facilitate violence against the target of our dehumanization.
Every people-group is guilty of dehumanizing their enemies, of course, but just as my seven year-old’s angry verbal abuse is less threatening than a grown man holding a gun issuing the same abuse, when the ones doing the dehumanizing are a powerful nation history teaches us to really be frightened. You see, despite the reputation of so-called barbarians, through history the bloodshed committed by empires like Rome, the British, and yes we Americans vastly outweighs the violence done by relatively less powerful, less “civilized” cultures. As a simple case in point we have inflicted, by the most conservative of estimates, at least 50 times as many civilian deaths in Iraq since 9/11 as were inflicted upon us.
Since the imbalance in the ledgers is readily apparent we have to convince ourselves that the violence committed by these less powerful groups is of a different character than the violence we sew. We’re violent, sure, but our violence is somehow civilized while theirs is barbaric. To maintain our willful ignorance we sanitize the violence done by our society. Our cameras show only buildings exploding from afar. We create euphemisms like “Enhanced Interrogation” to hide our use of torture from ourselves.
Meanwhile, as we begin to accept the idea that their violence is somehow more brutal or unsavory than ours, we are entrenching ourselves in an ideology that is deeply racist. This can be seen in the etymology of the word barbarian itself which is an ancient Greek onomatopoeia making fun of the way that non-Greek speaking people sounded to the “civilized” people of the Greek peninsula. To Greek ears these foreign languages sounded like “bar bar bar”. When you call someone a barbarian you’re actually repeating the world’s oldest racist joke. The ancient equivalent of making slanty eyes and saying “ching chong ding dong”.
Etymology is the least important reason why calling something barbaric is racist. It is also racist because of the millennia of history of this rhetoric being used to encourage a sense of racial superiority over the barbarians, whether that was the Greeks over the Turks, the Romans over the Germanic tribes, or Europeans over the indigenous peoples all over the world. The idea of barbarism has been the oil in the engine of imperialism and genocide again and again. Many a mass murderer has slept soundly seeing nothing wrong with their violence because it was done against barbarians, and plenty of peaceful souls have been stirred to nationalistic fervor when the barbaric crimes of some foreign aggressor was brought to their attention.
In the context of contemporary America there is no way for the idea of barbarism not to function as white supremacist rhetoric. It isn’t just the violence of beheading which is drawing this vocabulary out of us. It is who it is being done by and who it is being done against. If the murderers were not Arab and the victims were not white Europeans and Americans the situation would be represented and interpreted much differently.
If it still isn’t abundantly clear to you that when we use this rhetoric we’re being jerked around by a noxious ideology, consider that the principal reason the beheadings are happening at all is precisely to elicit this response. ISIS has been engaging in public executions, and mass crucifixions for a couple years now. They have been kidnapping young boys to train to be soldiers. For at least a few months they’ve been attempting to commit genocide against the Yazidi people of Iraq. None of this dissuaded our government from providing financial aid and armaments to ISIS to combat the Syrian government up until very recently. Not a word was whispered about how barbaric ISIS was when they tortured and killed Abu Rayyan, a popular doctor with a rival resistance movement in Syria. For whatever reason, ISIS no longer wants US support, they want our attention and by playing to our stereotypes, by fulfilling the barbarian archetype they surely have drawn it.
Similarly, our military-industrial complex, for whatever reason, wants to attack ISIS and so they need us to be suitably convinced of their villainy. That makes it time to trot out the tried and true racist tropes. The domination system doesn’t evolve much. Tragically, it doesn’t have to. We’re all too ready to play along.