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Isis Happens

eye on the news

Isis Happens

On the linguistic constructions of liberal intellectuals August 6, 2015
Photo by Tom

Sometimes the employment of a single word in common use gives away an entire worldview. There was just such a usage in the headline of a story in the Guardian newspaper late last month: “How the ‘Pompey Lads’ fell into the hands of Isis.”

Pompey is the colloquial name for Portsmouth, the naval town on the south coast of England, and the “lads” of the headline were five young men of Bangladeshi origin who grew up there and later joined Isis in Syria. The article describes how the last of the five has now been killed, three others having been killed before him and one, who returned to Britain, having been sentenced to a four-year prison sentence (in effect two years, with remission for good behavior). The use of the word “lads” is intended to imply to the newspaper’s readers that there was nothing special or different about these five young men, nothing that distinguished them from the other young men of Portsmouth. Its use was a manifestation of wishful or even magical thinking, as if reality itself could be altered in a desired way by the mere employment of language.

But the word that implied a whole worldview was “fell.” According to the headline, the young men “fell” into the hands of Isis as an apple falls passively to the ground by gravitational force. The word suggests that it could have happened to anybody, this going to Syria via Turkey to join a movement that delights in decapitation and other such activities in the name of a religion—their religion. Joining Isis is like multiple sclerosis; it’s something that just happens to people.

The word “fell” denies agency to the young men, as if they had no choice in the matter. They were victims of circumstance by virtue of their membership of a minority, for minorities are by definition victims without agency.

There is a strange parallel here with how heroin addicts explained themselves to me. When I asked them why they started taking heroin, they almost invariably answered that they “fell in” with the wrong crowd, again passively, as if by some kind of natural force. By this means they denied responsibility for their situation, though it was obvious that they had not so much fallen in with as sought the wrong crowd. They knew that their explanation was bogus, because they laughed when I said how strange it was that I met many people who fell in with the wrong crowd but never any members of the wrong crowd itself.

But this contrived account of “falling” into drug addiction is often accepted at face value by liberal intellectuals, who want to divide humanity into the tiny minority of people with agency (perpetrators) and the vast majority without it (victims)—the latter requiring salvation by liberal intellectuals. The rich and powerful are perpetrators with agency; everyone else is a victim without agency. To preserve this worldview, the Portsmouth lads had to be described as “falling” into Isis’s hands.

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