Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Some thoughts on risk discourses

Discourses of ‘risk’ have taken on a life of their own in contemporary culture. These discourses play a key role in repatriating the social, political and economic prioritization of modernist institutions such as nation-state and the church. Risk discourses are rampant in contemporary culture, ranging from terrorism through to juvenile crime and adolescent sexualty to the internet. These depictions are not stand-alone or disconnected from other flows. We are witnessing a case in point. The careful manipulation of this discourse of risk is evident in contemporary politics. The presidency of America’s George W. Bush and the Prime Ministerships of both Tony Blair (UK) and John Howard (Australia) have been predicated on the construction of ‘risk’. But not just any old risk. Risk has been shaded in a quite specific way in these portrayals—risk from terrorists, risk of economic instability, risk of physical harm to individuals and to property. As individuals and citizens, we are told we are all at individual risk of harm from terrorists. Australia’s entry into the Iraq War was announced in March 2003 by the incumbent Prime Minister, John Howard in a speech, which took fear and menace as its baseline:
Iraq has a long history of acting in defiance of United Nations resolutions. Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and an aspiration to acquire nuclear weapons. If Iraq does not have taken from it those chemical and biological weapons, other rogue states will think they can imitate Iraq and as more rogue states acquire chemical and biological weapons, so the danger of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists will multiply. If terrorists acquire weapons of that kind, that would represent a clear, undeniable and lethal threat to a western nation such as Australia….We do live in a different world now, a world made more menacing in a quite frightening way by terrorism in a borderless world. And the possibility of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists and the need to take action to prevent that occurring is one of the very strong motivations for the actions that the Government has taken. (emphasis added - The Age 18 March 2004 Retrieved 27th October 2004)
Howard’s speech is laced with terms invoking fear and danger, describing a world at threat by weapons of mass destruction and rogue states. HIs use of "they" (rogue states and terrorists) and "we" (the innocents who are at risk of harm from 'they'). As a direct consequence of this sudden threat, governments must "take action" and more than this, they must take preventative action. This theme of fear and a world in turmoil runs through any number of political discourses, reaching their zenith in the 2004 US Presidential election. George Bush gave a speech in May 2004 to the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His speech included the following:
In the last 32 months history has placed great demands on our country and events have come quickly. Americans have seen the flames of September 11, followed battles in the mountains of Afghanistan and learned new terms like orange alert and ricin and dirty bomb. We’ve seen killers at work on trains in Madrid, in a bank in Istanbul, in a synagogue in Tunis and a nightclub in Bali. And now the families of our soldiers and civilian workers pray for their sons and daughters in Mosul and Karbala and Baghdad. We did not seek this war on terror. But this is the world as we find it. We must keep our focus. We must do our duty. History is moving and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy. Our terrorist enemies have a vision that guides and explains all their varied acts of murder. They seek to impose Taliban-like rule country by country across the greater Middle East. They seek the total control of every person and mind and soul. A harsh society in which women are voiceless and brutalized. They seek bases of operation to train more killers and export more violence. They commit dramatic acts of murder to shock, frighten and demoralize civilized nations, hoping we will retreat from the world and give them free reign. They seek weapons of mass destruction to impose their will through blackmail and catastrophic attacks (NY Times: Transcript From Bush Speech on American Strategy in Iraq Retrieved 27th October 2004).
Like Howard, George W. Bush’s choice of wording and positioning of himself as a wartime president weaves a fabric of fear and a vision of a rapidly destabilizing world where terrorism and violence are rife:
Our enemy
The return of tyranny
Death of democracy
Vile display
Contempt for all the rules of warfare
Bounds of civilized behaviour
Hope …or tragedy
Export more violence
Dramatic acts of murder
Demoralize civilized nations
Catastrophic attack
The political pay-offs of fear have been immense. In October 2004, the Howard government was re-elected to an historic fourth term in office. The divisive 2004 US presidential election was bitterly fought (between the Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry) along lines of fear and risk, with a ‘war on terror’ and new patterns of ‘risk’ much cited. Just as these ‘new’ risks and their cause are simplistically painted in political discourses and reflected in the mass media, so are the solutions – armed force, pre-emptive defensive attacks and the reduction of individual liberties in the world’s largest democracies (e.g. The USA Patriot Act with its assault on civil liberties and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security with more than 180 000 employees making it the biggest bureaucratic institution in history). The waning of many industrial social institutions such as religion, family, gender, nation-state have left a sense of unrest that politicians have been quick to capitalize upon by attempting to rebuild modernist narratives of nation-state, strong leadership and national security. Not only is this unrest seen to come from external forces such as ‘rogue states’ and international terrorism, it also comes from within and the increasing fear of young people and the ‘Other’. This fear of the ‘Other’ can be seen in the rise of fundamentalist religions across the world, in the rise of neo-conservative political parties such as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and BNP (British National Party) in the United Kingdom and One Nation in Australia, in British resistance to the notion of a united Europe for fear of inundation by hordes of Eastern Europeans and in the increasingly high profile of concerns about asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in post-industrial and developing nations alike.

There are other outcomes of discourses of risk. The growth of NGOs and internet activism are also responses to perceptions of risk. Online activism –‘cyberactivism’—has become a boom industry, with large numbers of people engaging with and/or tracking local, national and global issues via weblogs and other ICTs. For example, the “Easy Online Activism” site called “Progressive Portal” (http://www.progressiveportal.org) directs viewers to information about upcoming demonstrations, posts information on a range of issues and links to a range of related information). Greenpeace, well-known for its environmental activism has embraced cyberactivism, with discussion groups, email campaigns, information and opportunities to take part in real-world action:
They go by aliases and real names: Echo. Bluplanet. Ann Novek. Tig3933.Chris99. They stop nuclear reprocessing plants, save forests and whales, hound corporations and hold the feet of bureaucrats to the fire. Who ARE these people? They're a non-violent army, a rowdy herd of mice, hundreds of thousands of web-savvy internet inhabitants who ask the question "Why just surf... when you can make waves?"

It's the Greenpeace Cyberactivist Community. On their list of targets right now is Icelandic whaling, and the topic of discussion is which of them is going to join a Greenpeace ship later this month to carry our message direct to the Icelandic government.

Numbering more than 300,000 people worldwide, our cyberspace activists hail from 228 countries and territories, including such unexpected bastions of international activism as Monaco and the Vatican. (Greenpeace, Of mice and whales, Tuesday 1 st June 2004 Available: http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/features/
New communications technologies are a key aspect of life in Ulrich Beck’s theories of reflexive modernity, acting to both reflect and shape the practices and perceptions of individuals and groups in new and old ways. Access to information and the ability to create and distribute new forms of information to large, interactive audiences is one of the strongest and most positive responses to risk discourses we currently have.

For all the concern with digital technologies, particularly in relation to children and young people, it seem to me that the capacity to out-maneuvre institutional and mass media discourses is essential in the maintenance of strong civic societies and the encouragement of a critical citizenship. The role of digital literacies and digital technolgies is clearly going to become pivotal in the creation of skills and knowledge essential to a critical and informed citizenry. This is our ultimate goal as educators, right?

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