“Radicalisation” recently started appearing as an explanation for US high school shootings in my newsfeeds. In an article titled “Call the Florida shooting what it is: terrorism”, Teen Vogue explores the murderer’s connections to white supremacy and claims that “the source of their radicalization” is the “main question currently plaguing our society”.
This was the first time that I had noticed that the US media were using “radicalisation” as an explanation for this horrendous phenomenon. Researching the emergence of a violent discourse of radicalisation and extremism for my PhD and compiling the Prevent digest – a monthly summary of news on the UK government’s counter-terrorism Prevent strategy – tends to keep me abreast of new uses of the word. It also leaves me concerned when I see them. Here’s why.
Today, “radicalisation” may appear to be a common sense explanation for acts of political violence, but this has not always been the case. You’ll struggle to find the word in contemporary explanations for 9/11. One notable example of this is in the philosopher Giovanna Borradori’s book of dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in the weeks following the attacks on the Twin Towers. In their extensive discussion of the causes of this tragedy and of terrorism more generally, they fail to mention “radicalisation” at all. On reflection, this isn’t so surprising. This iconic event was after all Ground Zero for the War on Terror, the first war to focus on “radicalisation”.
The cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff has written extensively on why the language we use to frame political debates matters. He explains why at the opening of his book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!:
Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.
“Radicalisation” is such a common word now that it may appear as if we have always used it. But this has not always been the case – and our use of it is reframing how we see many issues. It used to be so rare in political explanations that it only appears 14 times in the UK’s parliamentary record between 1803 and 2005. Since then, it has appeared 285 times more frequently – that’s 1,355 times in the following decade.
Rather than making an eccentric appearance less than once every 15 years of parliamentary debate, the UK parliament now holds debates on the subjects of “radicalisation” and “anti-radicalisation programmes”.
The emergence and proliferation of “radicalisation” is explained by Peter Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Neumann has argued that after 9/11 “it suddenly became very difficult to talk about the ‘roots of terrorism’, which some commentators claimed was an effort to excuse and justify the killing of innocent civilians”.
In response, Neumann tells us that “experts and officials started referring to the idea of ‘radicalisation’ whenever they wanted to talk about ‘what goes on before the bomb goes off’”. Neumann shows us that the word “radicalisation” emerged as an attempt to reframe the causes of terrorism.
Since then, “radicalisation” has been used to justify the incursion of the security services into schools and hospitals by highly controversial strategies. Strategies such as Prevent, which target so-called “radicalisation”, have faced much opposition for their apparent racial bias. I have written about the possibility that they might actually promote rather than prevent violence. It has also been well documented that there is little or no evidence base for these strategies.
So what happens when we frame the many possible causes of violence as “radicalisation”? The linguist Norman Fairclough refers to describing disparate processes as a single entity as “nominalization” in his book on analysing discourse. He warns that this tendency risks mystifying the causes of and denying human agency to the phenomenon described. If we take heed of Fairclough’s warning, could this nominalization of “radicalisation” be hiding the causes of violence?
When the word “radicalisation” gets co-opted to describe a teenager who had access to an assault rifle and who was driven to mass murder by many known and unknown factors, the issue is reframed. The resulting debate enables right-wing media outlets to focus on the regulation of social media rather than controlling children’s access to assault rifles. A very real cause of the death of children, as described by their classmates, is hidden by a more abstract process.
As a fresh example of reframing, it is not hard to see how “radicalisation” might skew the gun control debate. Perhaps it should give us pause to question the extent to which “radicalisation” has led the UK government to focus on young children as terrorist threats and to also call for the regulation of social media.