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A response to The Fight about Western Might being Right

At the outset of the above article, Johnson acknowledges that her initial article was a critique on what motivated the tragic Paris attacks. It’s patently clear from the article, despite Johnson’s denials to the contrary, that she lays the blame for the Paris attacks as a reaction to Western imperialism. The title of the article says it all.  She then goes on to wrap this appraisal in what she appears to regard as her ground-breaking and unifying theory on violent conflict.

Johnson states that what is at issue here is a kind of psycho-social flaw whereby individuals align themselves with a particular perspective or world view at the expense of another contrasting perspective or world view. In so doing, she argues people create cultural and ideological silos that pit one world view against another. She labels it ‘System justification’. Johnson goes on to explain; ‘System justification is a process whereby people calibrate their perception of the world so as to maintain the belief that their social systems are good, fair, right and just.‘

An example might be groups that align themselves with liberal democracies, for which they are willing to defend, as opposed to totalitarian dictatorships. She claims this is a sort of herd mentality whereby the individual, for whom she holds little regard, follows sheep like the predominant cultural view of the society in which they are embedded. Interestingly, this seems to be an issue for Johnson if you feel aligned to a secular Western democratic state but less so if you feel similar feelings towards, and feel inclined to defend, a military dictator who shunned democratic elections for over five decades and ruled with violent suppression like Colonel Gaddafi. 

Let’s be clear. In 2011 as the Arab Spring migrated from Tunisia to Libya, beset by massive corruption graft, internal violent suppression and an unemployment rate over 30%, Gaddafi promised to hunt down each protestor house by house, wardrobe by wardrobe and kill them. In March of that year he came good on his promise, with his army opening fire on unarmed civilian protest in the middle of Bengazi killing hundreds.

Ensuing this massacre, Gaddafi, utilised his security forces to enact revenge attacks, torture and extra-judicial killings on the poorest demographics within Libya where the uprising centred. Apparently, all his violent actions are forgivable because earlier in his reign he essentially bribed his people with direct deposits into their bank accounts. Sounds like a Howard government policy to me. Oh, but that would be different! Gaddafi was ultimately killed by Libyan Misratan militia who captured his final moments on a phone camera, not by US airstrikes.

This is not the only wilfully misleading commentary by Johnson throughout her response. Her statistics in relation to deaths on the ‘war on terror’, are numbers of casualties inflicted by all sides and are based on very rubbery figures that seek to include direct and indirect casualties . She completely ignores the greatest number of these were inflicted on Iraqi civilians by a menagerie of sectarian extremists detonating IED’s, car bombs and suicide bombings in crowded public marketplaces and the like, during what was essentially an extended civil war created by the power vacuum left after the removal of the Baathists. The Baathists themselves are known to have bought about the death of over 250 thousand fellow Iraqi citizens. This doesn’t even register a blip on Johnson’s moral radar. As Johnson notes ‘Humans are wired to self-deceive in order to maintain their preferred versions of reality’.

Johnson’s is essentially an elitist view that basically holds most people in contempt by denying the fact that in most cases they have made a conscious choice to align themselves to a certain ideology or ‘ingroup’. And by definition this means there will be outgroups. If you vote Green then Liberal voters are likely seen as ‘outgroups’ and vice versa. Any casual perusal of Tassie Times will demonstrate this phenomenon.

Moreover, Johnson characterises my argument, and the argument at large, as a ‘competition’ between state-sanctioned violence and extremist-motivated violence and that I champion state-sanctioned violence as a desirable course of action. Of course I said no such thing. Nor did I champion any significantly expanded military presence in the Middle East. I believe it to be fruitless and that only those who are at the centre of the issues can find a solution. Furthermore, I do not believe that Australia or her allies such as the US, UK and NZ automatically come from the moral high ground, but note they are all democratic secular societies with rule of law. I acknowledged fundamental foreign policy over-reach right at the outset of my article.

However, what I did say was that there is a distinction between the ‘modus operandi’ of Western military forces and Jihadi militants that starts at the individual combatants and extends all the way back to their democratically-elected governments or not, in the case of a Jihadi extremist.

At present there is a debate to expand the amount of special forces on the ground in Syria and northern Iraq to enhance intelligence gathering through reconnaissance on potential targets through airstrikes and further mitigate against civilian deaths. This is always incredibly difficult with the militant IS deliberately utilising civilians as a shield against such attacks. I wonder if Johnson thinks this a good or bad idea?

In his excellent recent article in the Mercury, respected Tasmanian Islamic Studies academic, Dr Peter Jones clearly outlines the fact that ‘This puritanical form of Sunni Islam condemns any who disagree with its strict focus on the worship of Allah and no one else, labelling any who come in this category as infidels who should be killed.’ This particular branch of Sunni Islam dates back to the 14th century well before the carve up of the Ottoman empire and any modern western incursion into the Middle East. 

I made the point that modern Western democracies have a very imperfect model of self-regulation and legal oversight – including democratic elections; the other was entirely unrestrained and that it was intellectually negligent if not dishonest to compare the two as indistinguishable from one another. Johnson is now on record as saying there is no appreciable difference between the approach of military forces from Western secular societies and that of violent extremists (although she is a player in her own democratically-elected government, who she claims enacted the atrocities she cites) and I’m on record as saying there is. She champions Gaddafi’s military dictatorship. I do not. I’m entirely happy to let history now be the judge of those respective positions.

One would hope that Johnson votes at all the relevant elections if she values the democratic process. Each time she does she identifies with an ideologically aligned ‘ingroup’ and rejects an ideological ‘outgroup’.  Now the fact is every time our aligned ingroup fails to prevail in secular Western democratic elections we don’t descend into violent conflict. Ask yourself, is this a function of our secular democratic society that Johnson rallies against, and insists is as violent and unrestrained as Jihadi militants. Australians are largely a mix of social and economic conservatives, small ‘l’ liberals and social democrats who as a collective can sniff an ideological extreme from a mile off and generally reject it. Perhaps that accounts for Abbott’s recent downfall.

What Johnson fails to appreciate, through a kind of self-righteous elitism, is that she is as likely a perpetrator of taking sides, creating an ‘us or them’, a ‘black and white’ -  forming a view at the expense of another, as any other mortal on this planet. And if she or anyone else for that matter doubts that, they only need refer to the fact that she has taken a clearly defined position here in which she is deeply invested and at pains to defend, as opposed to mine which she rejects outright, to confirm it. I for one, am Ok with that. For Johnson it seems to be a classic case of do as I say not as I do.

In her above article she implies a kind of perverted moral ‘pancake’ whereby all the peaks and troughs in the moral landscape are ironed out, so that when expanded to its logical conclusion, says for example – Your euthanasia is the same as my malicious murder because the outcome was the same – death. It’s a world where the old adage, ‘the devil is in the detail’ does not apply.

As I stated in the comments from the previous article, ‘It seems to me that some wish to apply a form or moral relativism that suggests all we need to do is give a contextual narrative (whether factual or otherwise) to the barbarous actions of Jihadis’ that once understood should allow us to accept their actions as justified. Imagine if we applied the same test to the perpetrators of mass shootings in US High Schools and in the congregations of African Americans. Again, it is simply obfuscating those who are at the centre of such actions from their essential responsibility and farming it out to anyone and everyone who may have crossed paths with them.’

However, according to Johnson, I have succumbed to that most egregious manifestation of the human condition –siding with a purported ‘ingroup’, and by definition rejecting the ‘outgroup’. Perhaps most egregious of all, rejecting Johnson’s view.  She essentially diagnoses such a position as pathological and simply explained by ignorance.

But Johnson with her ‘cool head’ is above all that. She rejects a ‘system justification’ model that sees individuals form alliances with group ideals and value systems. As is the practice of many a self-appointed elitist, the language used is designed to be obscure in order to elevate the author to a perceived position of authority. Johnson’s thesis seems like a classic example whereby the bleeding obvious - people form opposing groups based on cultural and value-based identifiers (hello to a run-of-the-mill political system) – is confabulated into ‘ingroup’ and ‘outgroup’ jargon to try and invest it with a façade of originality it doesn’t otherwise have.  Johnson proudly beats her chest ‘In the interests of honesty I declare my own information processing bias to be one of low system justification. (Which, incidentally, is associated with low self-deception). Just saying.’

The above commentary forms perhaps the most delicious irony in Johnson’s rationale. In supposedly debunking the ‘system justification’ model, Johnson has invoked a ‘systems’ model of her own to replace it. Indeed, so invested in it is she, she has gone so far as to enshrine it in a PhD thesis. A model that sees the ‘system justifiers ‘such as me as the malevolent ‘ingroup’, whose outmoded and wrong-headed ideas are to be rejected and those who sympathise with her world view as the ‘outgroup’, enlightened and righteous. Or should that be the other way around? Depends on one’s own perspective I guess.

I think it was Carl Jung who first labelled such psychological justifications as projection psychology. In so doing, Johnson demonstrates a profound lack of personal insight. To give a clear example from her most recent article, she confounds a mere observation of mine that many Middle Eastern regimes have practiced cultural, religious and ethnic cleansing as ‘lecturing’ said regimes. She then spends a large part of her overall response on a tangent outlining an ’ingroup’ (although I’m sure she thinks it’s ‘outgroup’) appraisal regarding Indigenous Australians, which I never cited.  Johnson’s link of the Paris attacks with the 2003 invasion of Iraq was clearly implied. Why else cite George W Bush and his rhetoric at the time. Where is my implied link to Indigenous Australians? Talk about a straw man! 

And as if to highlight her own contradictory thought processes and the lack of internal integrity in her argument, in relation to her appraisal of Bin Laden she demonstrates typical conspiracy theory psychology by citing one poor reference, which in her mind demonstrates it must be true.

Johnson is quick to demonstrate a clear bias against US-mediated foreign policy and associated inequities but is conspicuous in her neglect in mentioning other modern atrocities such as Indonesia’s unilateral annexing of Timor, Aceh and West Papua, China’s similar annexing of Tibet, and Russia’s recent incursions into the Ukraine, Crimean peninsula and Georgia. And what of Boko Haram, Joseph Kony and the LRA, and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tutsi by Hutu rebels that would have been even worse if it wasn’t for some level of Western military intervention and peacekeeping.

Furthermore, how do we reconcile Johnson’s equivalence argument between sectarian extremists and modern secular governments across the full gamut of foreign policy, such as international aid and crisis assistance. Did we see Gaddafi and other sectarian states and militias at the forefront of international assistance after the Pakistani earthquakes and the Indian Ocean tsunami that costs hundreds of thousands of lives? Almost inevitably, the first boots on the ground with large logistical support are the military apparatus of Western secular democracies.

Surely the above examples highlights the whole point. Ideological and cultural adherence by people willing to go to extraordinary lengths to defend it is endemic to the human condition.  As I look back through history, all I see is a litany of violent struggle as the human species maintains an unblemished record of intergroup violence that reaches right back to our primate ancestry. No political, cultural or racial tradition has an exclusive patent in that regard.

However, perhaps where Johnson and I differ is that I firmly believe the greatest hope humanity has against the inherent disposition towards conflict is through successful secular democracies that stand steadfast against ideologies such as Nazi fascism and fundamentalist religious theocracies. Clearly a large portion of the Syrian and Iraqi populace agree as they focus on advanced secular Western democracies as a desirable place to seek asylum bypassing many other jurisdictions along the way.  It would appear Johnson prefers Gaddafi’s totalitarian rule instead for which she clearly holds a strong system justification, so therefore high level of self-deception. Just saying.

It is not an irrelevance that Johnson practices such freedom of ideas from a middle class egalitarian society that has unfortunately been arrived at after many conflicts over ideologies. A democratic society, the foundations of which she wishes to debunk, a society that provides Johnson with an opportunity to ‘live off the fat’.  An opportunity that would almost be certainly lost to her under an Islamic Caliphate. For that reason alone I oppose openly the ideology of IS as an ‘outgroup’ as it would deny freedom of speech to Johnson. I am open and honest about that, Johnson is not.  Her rhetoric is ‘IS is vile’, but her clear reasoning throughout her article/s is that they are victims of Western foreign policy. This view completely ignores the fact that the territories at the centre of the IS Caliphate have been the hotbed of Sunni, Shi’ia and Kurdish conflict for centuries.

So not only has Johnson debunked the foundations of the modern secular democracies, dismissing the political polarities within as ‘system justification’,  with her own brand of moral equivalence and declared the former as ethically bankrupt and indistinguishable from sectarian extremism, she has replaced it with a psychological construct of her own, via her oft-referenced PhD. Having created her elaborate moral framework, as a psychological construct, she then goes on to be judge, jury and executioner of all who fall outside her self-perpetuated framework. Having then thrown it out to the world on whatever electronic media platform she can, she has the hide to claim victim status when her thesis is challenged.  You might have come across it yourself on social and electronic media. Nice self-promotion.


*Shane Humpherys is a Freelance Journalist and member of the MEAA.

Guardian: WikiLeaks cable reveals secret pledge to protect US at Iraq inquiry Ministry of Defence told US that UK had ‘put measures in place’ to protect American interests during Chilcot inquiry

• Lissa Johnson in Comments: Dear Mr Humpherys, Thank you for your response to my article. However, you do not seem to have understood it. My article does not seek to promote or endorse any kind of violence as you claim by stating that I encourage “a ‘competition’ between state-sanctioned violence and extremist-motivated violence’.  I find both kinds of violence equally heinous. That is the point. This does not make me a ‘champion’ of violent dictators who ‘rallies against’ democracy, as you also claim. Once again these rhetorical attacks are a grotesque distortion of my arguments so that they may be demonized in the spirit of all group-based conflict …