I think I was called mentally deranged – But how would I know?

Last week I met a curator to show her some of my work on Islamist propaganda. I wrote her an email and asked if we could meet and the fact that she replied, let alone the fact that we met in the end, is an almost unheard thing all together. But that would be a different text in of itself.

The meeting itself was quite disastrous, since she absolutely hated what I had to show. It is not the fact that she hated this work that disturbs be slightly, but rather some of the reasons she gave for her distaste. The moment she looked at the material, she instantly replied “why would anyone ever look at this?”. If I understood her correctly, she was talking about two things. First my work, but also the source material itself. She told me that to her understanding only mentally deranged people would ever be caught by this kind of propaganda and never “someone with a college degree”.

I could easily live with her thinking of me as morally or mentally deranged. But since she is in the position of an educator – she happens to run a publicly funded exhibition space -, her views on people who might fall for propaganda are dangerous. It is easiest, I know, to look at your opponent as someone being stupid or morally completely out of line. I think if you do this, it is quite certain, that you and your opponent can at least agree on this one idea – since he definitely thinks of you the same way. But beyond this fictitious agreement, there is little we have learned from this encounter.

She did not even seem to try to understand the mechanisms at work here. For her, all the young men who watch these videos are stupid and all the people who make the videos are evil. She did not really express that, but since I look at the material and work with it, to her, I might even fall in both categories.

One of her arguments was quite striking. She said, the people who create these videos burn innocent victims and are therefore purely evil. At a first glimpse, that sounds like a sound argument. But upon close inspection, I find it funny that she goes for this argument. Since she does not watch any propaganda of this kind – something she made quite clear – it is certainly unknown to her, that this is precisely the argument that is used in some of the propaganda videos. Quite often you see footage of burned and maimed civilians, very often of innocent children, before the video shows the execution of accused spies or foreign soldiers. They seem to look at us in the West as those who burn and maim the innocent and therefore the evil ones.

So, does it help if both sides call the other evil? I guess not. But this is also not the question I am interested in addressing with my work. Taken the decision aside who might be more evil and just take is as a given fact that not everyone who falls for propaganda lacks a degree of higher education, what can we learn from these videos? How do they function? And what could be a societies response to counter them? These are questions the curator should not come to easily, if she is really that quick in dismissing all that is shown.

One reason for her lack of understanding might be that she has a hard time looking beyond the brutality in these videos. But while writing this, the question pops up, how this could matter, since she does not watch any of these videos. From a first-hand perspective, she has little knowledge about how brutal these videos truly are. I guess we are in the realm of the slogan-ized “decapitation video”. It is claimed constantly that these videos are so brutal that no one should watch them and therefore they are somehow removed from an open debate. Many of the videos are absolutely horrible – don’t get me wrong on that – but most are not really beyond the brutality level of Hollywood. Maybe she can not stand R-rated movies either.

To her the brutality might appear to be so outrageous that there is little left to understand. But she is, from what I see, certainly not the kind of person these videos are targeted at. Years ago, when the first Kill Bill movie came out, I went to see it with two Japanese friends. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of violence, blood and gore shown. To my Japanese friends this seemed quite normal. To them, it was a normal way to tell a story about violence. I, on the other hand, grew up with something we might call “more subtle”. Maybe “less revealing” might be a better word for it. Tell the same violent story with less blood and the story might win you an award in Cannes.

But this does not mean that one way to tell a story is the better way. Communication always has a sender and a recipient. And both sides must come to terms on the language they use. This is true for written or spoken language and it is similarly true for a visual form of storytelling.

I would guess that the curator would be amongst those people who complain about young people and the “degenerate” way they speak. The slang youth uses seems to be disturbing for every generation of adults. Languages evolve.

These violent propaganda videos, fast paced, brutal, are just not made to recruit someone like her. Once you grow up in a visual environment that contains the Internet, contemporary action movies and computer games though, you certainly understand the visual language much better. This is no argument to prohibit violent movies or violent computer games. Even without them, the world would not become a better place but rather this would merely alter the visual representation of violence. The Nazis did not share images from their concentration camps, since that was just not something you would do back then. This lack of visual PR-work did not stop them to do any of the things they did.

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