The Rhetoric of Necessity

Wednesday July 19, 2006


It was good to turn on the radio this morning and hear the dulcet tones of my friend Vishvapani on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. I’ve always imagined that presenting Thought for the Day must be a particularly thankless task. On the one hand you’ve got two minutes to say something thought-provoking and intelligent. On the other hand, it needs to be unchallenging enough to ensure that half of Middle England don’t choke with rage on their cornflakes and send a barrage of outraged complaints to the BBC.

Anyway, I thought that Vishvapani did a elegant job, responding to current events in the Middle East, this “complex, intractable, anguishing conflict spread with apparently inexorable logic” with thoughtfulness and perceptiveness, but gently enough to prevent any incidents of cornflake-choking. Here is an extract from the piece this morning:

[W]hile there’s a pattern of events from which escape seems impossible, nothing is inevitable. What happens is affected by external conditions – which we can’t control – but also by our own responses. When we experience pain we usually respond with anger. That leads to violence, which causes pain for someone else. Then comes their anger and their violence, and the cycle continues.

But we don’t see things that way at the time. At each stage we believe our reaction to be natural and justified. Each side in the present conflict feels they’ve been hurt and each is applying a long-prepared strategy designed for such circumstances. Israeli actions have been accused of being disproportionate but – as with the actions of their opponents – there is a rationale. Each side is doing what they believe will lead to happiness, security and eventually peace. (Source: BBCOnline © 2006 BBC)

This chimed in with something I have been thinking about recently – the rhetoric of necessity that is used almost universally as justification in situations of conflict. Behind this rhetoric there is the flimsiest of logics. To say, for example, that a certain event demands a response may be true. But it is all to easy to move from this to the claim that the event in question demands this particular response, that this particular response is the only one that is ‘natural and justified.’

Justified by what? one may ask. To which the answer, inevitably, is: by the event itself. But this circular argument is embarrassingly inadequate as a justification. It rests upon the assumption that given event x, there is only one possible response – y. This is an assumption which closes down all possibility of creativity, all difference of viewpoint, all possibility of discussion. It is an assumption that seems to lead only to the possibility of further conflict. According to the ancient Greek traveller Pausanius, at a temple at Corinth the goddesses Ananke (necessity) and Bia (Violence) were worshipped together in the same shrine.

Vishvapani ended his thought by saying that ‘after half a century in which conflict has replicated itself, it’s surely time for old strategies, old reactions to be radically reviewed.’ This is no doubt true. But the question of how we begin to review these old strategies is a more difficult one. Perhaps a start would be the courage to point out whenever this particularly pernicious rhetoric of necessity is applied, and to recognise that such flawed logic can lead only to flawed judgements and to the perpetuation of misery.


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