Response to Paul Chilton’s “Notes”

Ron Kuzar kuzar at RESEARCH.HAIFA.AC.IL
Fri Sep 14 08:44:56 UTC 2001

Posted to the lists where Chilton’s text has appeared.
Excuse multiple posting.

Response to Paul Chilton’s “Notes on 11 September 2001”

Paul Chilton’s “Notes” is a fascinating analysis of the discursive
framing of US response to “the events of 11 September 2001”. It is
fascinating from two angles: first of all, it is a fine analysis of the
 discursive framing used by agents of the hegemonic ideology in the US
to “the events”, using the theoretical framework of cognitive
linguistics. I would have utilized a different framework to do this,
but by and large I do accept much of Chilton’s critique of hegemonic US
 discursive practices and their ominous consequences. But Chilton’s
“Notes” is also interesting from a different angle: in the subject line
 of the mailing to the Critics-L, DISCOURS, and LingAnth lists Chilton
labels his mailing a Critical Discourse Analysis response: “CDA and the
 events of 11 September 2001”. Since I find it to be appropriately
categorized as such, the “Notes” provides a good opportunity to observe
 CDA in action at the very junction which is so critical to CDA, the
meeting point of academic and political work. The “Notes” is not only a
 piece of critical discourse analysis but also a clear act of
intervention in politics. As such it is a text liable to critique, and
so are its politics.

In the cover letter to the “Notes” Chilton states: “It seems to me that
 only a radical critique, and transformation, of the discourse
environment in which powerful states operate will resolve issues of
international security and conflict”. This statement represents the
position that critical discourse analysis should be aimed at the wicked
 forces in power, and should side with the suffering underdog. This has
 been clearly stated by van Dijk (1993: 252–254):

"[Practitioners of Critical Discourse Analysis] should deal primarily
with the discourse dimensions of power abuse and the injustice and
inequality that result from it... [They] take an explicit sociopolitical
stance: they spell out their point of view... Their perspective, if
possible, is that of those who suffer most from dominance and inequality.
Their critical targets are the power elites that enact, sustain,
legitimate, condone, or ignore social inequality and injustice. That is,
one of the criteria of their work is soli~darity with those who need it
most. Their problems are “real” problems, that is the serious problems
that threaten the lives or well being of many... Their critique of
discourse implies a political critique of those responsible for its
perversion in the reproduction of dominance and inequality... The 1990s
are replete with persistent problems of oppression, injustice, and
in~equality that demand their urgent attention... They guide the choice
of topics and relevancies. Thus if immigrants, refugees and (other)
minorities suffer from prejudice, discrimination and racism, and if
women continue to be subjected to male dominance, violence or sexual
harassment, it will be essential to examine and evaluate such events and
their consequences essentially from their point of view. That is, such
events will be called “racist” or “sexist” if knowledgeable Blacks or
women say so, despite white or male denial... One crucial presupposition
of adequate critical discourse analysis is understanding the nature of
social power and domi~nance. Once we have such an insight, we may begin
to formulate ideas about how discourse contributes to their reproduction.
To cut a long philosophical and social scientific analysis short, we
assume that we here deal with properties of relations between social

While the achievements of CDA in pursuing this program are undeniable,
some problems inhere in it as well. Power elites have ideo~logies, or
as van Dijk calls them here, “perversions” of discourse, which have to
be analyzed and exposed by critical discourse analysis practi~tio~ners.
 The oppressed minorities, however, have a “perspective”, a “point of
view”, which is to be adopted. Unlike perverted ideology, the point of
view of minorities emerges either from “knowledgeable Blacks or wo~men”
 or from one’s own “understanding [of] the nature of social power and
dominance”, or from “insights” into “properties of relations between
social groups”. But how do we know that Black and female scholars have
the right knowledge of reality?  Or in the second case, how can we be
sure that scholarly insights represent reality faithfully? The ease
with which such assumptions about privileged access to reality pass in
our discipline have to do with the sociology of our discipline: with
few exceptions, linguists have often been active in progressive social

This distinction between ideology and knowledge was uncritically
inherited from other disciplines. But it can no longer be maintained.
Neither members of underprivileged groups nor progressive scholars have
 direct access to reality. The 1996 public debate about Ebonics
(Af~rican American Vernacular English) which was recognized by the
Oakland School District as a language on its own, not a dialect of
Eng~lish, cut across racial lines. There was no “Black perspective” in
this debate, no “knowledgeable Blacks” to rely on, since some of them
vehemently supported it, e.g. Maulana Karenga, Afrocentrist scholar of
Black Stud~ies, while others, notably the linguist of creole languages,
 John McWhor~ter (1997), were opposed to it. Similarly, the internal
disputes in the fe~minist camp between different schools of gender
studies, viewing gender problems through different prisms, such as
“male domi~nance”, “gender differences”, or “gender diversity”, testify
 that there is no genuine “fe~male insight” into these issues. In short,
 nobody has privileged recourse to social reality, hence the distinction
 between ideology and knowledge has to be discarded.

But beyond the epistemological issue, I find this approach anti-intellectual
 and politically damaging, and I think that Chilton’s text is a glaring

In “the events of 11 September 2001”, tens of thousands of people were
killed, people whose direct contribution to the wicked acts of American
 wickedness (be it capitalism or global-imperialism) at most amounts to
 as much as being a professor in an American university, thus part of
the American ideological state apparatus (a definition which nevertheless
 doesn’t cover by any extension the lives of the passengers of the
planes used as live bombs). Chilton expresses his “sincere sympathy” to
 them, but he does not condemn what he calls in an elegant circumlocution
 “the events of 11 September 2001” as a brutal act of unjustifiable
terrorism. Although we do not know for sure who these terrorists are,
it is quite clear that they also have a discourse that justifies such
acts. Should this discourse also be subjected to critical discourse
analysis, or should we ignore it, since it is the “perspective” of the 
“knowledgeable” victims of the wicked. Note Chilton’s (covert) take on

It is almost trivial to speak of discourse analysis in the circumstances.
 But remember – what happens next will be the outcome of talk and text 
(cabinet meetings, public statements, media representations, individual
), and the text and talk will be governed by cognitive and
interactive habits. Under stress pre-wired patterns of thought come
into their own. Policies and the orders to execute them are linguistic
acts with psychological, social and ethical underpinnings. These we can
 at least try to be aware of as potential impediments to just and
effective response. 

In other words, the future will depend on what governments and their
agents do (“cabinet meetings, public statements, media representations,
 individual utterances
”), therefore they should be subjected to
discourse analytic critique, but what terrorists do and say is of no

This brings us to the delicate issue of political and social forces
“harboring terrorism”. Chilton says:

"The other, and extremely dangerous, conceptual strategy is another
essentially metonymic mental and discursive move. President Bush already
on 12 September stated that the US would “make no distinction between
the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them”. This is
a discourse move of the utmost significance, one that seems designed to
adjust conceptualisations. It was repeated by several spokespersons,
including Colin Powell, during the day of 12 September."

If the premise is the metonymic mapping of perpetrator onto person(s)
harbouring the perpetrator (the latter notion awkwardly lexicalised
during the discourse as "harborer"), then the entailments are very

The issue is complex because this critique and warning is first of all
valid. Slipping into an overextension of “harborer” is very easy under
the current discursive atmosphere. But does this mean that harboring
does not exist, both physically and discursively? And if it does exist,
is it still to be ignored, just because these organizations or political
parties, or states are the victims? Don’t these harboring factors share
some of the responsibility for giving the US government the opportunity
to implement the discursive practices the Chilton is right in critiquing?
And doesn’t our future also depend on a critique of the discourse of the
underdog? Or do we only have to understand the metonymic processes by
which buildings are targeted, and human beings are ignored?

I have to admit to some provincialism. My more immediate fears and
concerns – as an Israeli –  are centered around the fate of the Middle
East. We don’t know yet, to what extent and how exactly the two arenas
are related. However, in our region here, the issue of terrorism is not
new, and it is much more complex than the kind of terrorism that we
witnessed in the US. It is more complex, because in the
Israeli–Palestinian context we are looking at a real struggle for
liberation from occupation, whereas in the US context, if there is a
connection between the two, we are talking about the global framework of
the struggle, about the role of US policies in the local dispute (unless
the two arenas are totally unrelated). In what way does this make a
difference? It does, because of the question of legitimate and
illegitimate practices of resistance. The discursive battlefield over
the terms “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” covers the exact same acts.

The Western world hastened to make a connection between the two arenas,
to the detriment of the Palestinians. Everything that Chilton is afraid
of as a potential US behavior has already been under way in the occupied
territories, with Israel taking advantage of both the shift of focus
away from our region and the discursive atmosphere supportive of the
struggle against terrorism. A report of Gush Shalom, a radical Israeli
peace organization, describes this as follows (Internet 13.9.2001):

"This night the Israeli army continued the invasion and penetrated
deeply into the  town of Jenin and destroyed the local police station.
In this and other attacks by the IDF (and in one case by settlers) a
total of eleven Palestinians were killed - one of them a nine-year old
girl. Israeli forces still impose a strict siege of Jenin with its tens
of thousands of inhabitants, preventing even the passage of medical
crews and patients, and in the process violating the "A" areas which
according  to Oslo should be under exclusive Palestinian control. At any
other time, all of the above would constitute a major news item on CNN
and BBC, and international diplomatic initiatives would already be afoot
to ease the crisis and get the army out of the Jenin area. Now, the
world looks elsewhere and Sharon feels himself to have carte blanche. We
face days of unchecked rampage, with bloodshed unnoticed by the world."

On the same day Sharon called Arafat “Bin Laden” and the implications
are clear. On the 13.9.2001 Ma’ariv, an Israeli tabloid, pointed out
“the rare opportunity to turn international public opinion Israel's way”,
since “The world is horrified by the ideological alliance between Arafat
and Bin Laden”.  This, the paper believes, makes it possible for Sharon
“To seize the moment and use against terrorism the kind of means which
hitherto he did not dare to use for fear of international reaction”.

Yet even under these circumstances I feel that as a discourse analyst I
am obliged to observe and critique all discourses relevant to the
situation. If changing the discursive environment can change the world,
then all participant in a debate are subject to critique, in order to
most effectively change the world. This includes the need to make a
clear ethical distinction between acts of liberation and acts of terror.
Of all the Palestinian political and military organizations actively
involved in the struggle against Israeli occupation I know of only one,
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by Naif
Hawatma, that has a straightforward policy: the active forces of
occupation, i.e. soldiers and settlers in the territories, are justified
targets in the struggle. This is both stated and practiced by this

Palestinian society is very diversified, and I know many Palestinians
who would condemn the suicidal attacks on Israeli citizens inside Israel
proper. But Palestinian society is also no doubt under siege and under
brutal attacks by Israel, a condition which is not favorable for
internal debates and struggles for democracy. Nevertheless, within
Palestinian society there are journalists, intellectuals, and human
rights activists who risk their lives trying to democratize their own
society, although they operate in an oppressive, despotic, and corrupt
environment of the Palestinian Authority as led by Arafat. I would never
put myself in the position of judging Palestinian intellectuals for not
being able to publicly voice their views. I prefer them alive and still
teaching in universities in the West Bank, do quiet educational work
with their students.

But this cannot be said about the Palestinian Authority. The strategic
decision to blur the distinction between terrorism and a struggle for
liberation (despite occasional re-statements of this distinction)
amounts to a governmental decision to harbor terrorism. The result is a
constant erosion in the relatively ethical discourse that accompanied
the Palestinian Authority in earlier phases of the struggle. An
immediate result of this policy is the behavior of the masses. Inciting
or controlling the masses depends on the general atmosphere in a
particular society. The Palestinian mob celebrated the attack on the US
while the Egyptian mob did not, although fundamentalist Islamic forces
are active in both societies.

The Palestinian Authority’s attitude to fundamentalist Islamic terrorism
against civilians within Israel proper is in this respect identical to
Afghanistan’s attitude to Bin Laden, even if the former is involved in a
just struggle for liberation. The policy of turning a blind eye to
terrorism is not only morally deplorable but also ineffective. It has
distanced Israeli public opinion from the just cause of the struggle,
has strengthened national unity, and has given Sharon the opportunity to
carry out further atrocities. On the other hand, the struggle against
soldiers and settlers in the Occupied Territories goes hand in hand with
a growing movement of conscientious objection within Israel. It is
effective in that some settlements are reported to have been deserted by
30-50% of their inhabitants.

But within the Israeli peace forces there are many who have the same
kind of blind eye attitude, which is an honest bur inexcusable outcome
of their solidarity with the suffering of the Palestinians. While it is
understandable, I still find it wrong.

 Chomsky’s response to the events (Internet 12.9.2001) is a little more
honest in that he calls the events “atrocities”, but observe the quick
shift to discussing the US:

"Today's attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims
they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton's
bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its
pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people
(no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one
cares to pursue it). Not to speak of much worse cases, which easily come
to mind. But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt. The
primary victims, as usual, were working people: janitors, secretaries,
firemen, etc. It is likely to prove to be a crushing blow to
Palestinians and other poor and oppressed people. It is also likely to
lead to harsh security controls, with many possible ramifications for
undermining civil liberties and internal freedom.

"The events reveal, dramatically, the foolishness of ideas about
"missile defense." As has been obvious all along, and pointed out
repeatedly by strategic analysts, if anyone wants to cause immense
damage in the US, including weapons of mass destruction, they are highly
unlikely to launch a missile attack, thus guaranteeing their immediate
destruction. There are innumerable easier ways that are basically
unstoppable. But today's events will, nonetheless, be used to increase
the pressure to develop these systems and put them into place. "Defense"
is a thin cover for plans for militarization of space, and with good PR,
even the flimsiest arguments will carry some weight among a frightened
public. In short, the crime is a gift to the hard jingoist right, those
who hope to use force to control their domains. That is even putting
aside the likely US actions, and what they will trigger -- possibly more
attacks like this one, or worse. The prospects ahead are even more
ominous than they appeared to be before the latest atrocities."

Conclusion: by using an anti-intellectual framework which only critiques
the power elites but chooses to side with the victims, no matter what
they think or do, Chilton’s text in fact supplies an academic umbrella,
under which these acts can go on uncriticized. This is defective
political practice that leaves out important contributors to the debate,
and therefore is not likely to be socially transformative.
For an alternative progressive discourse analytic framework, go to:
For a case study based on these principles, go to: (Written in 1999. Politically somewhat outdated).
For a fuller critique of CDA, see:
Kuzar, Ron. 2001. “Sorry Prof. Sokal, but You Have Missed the Poststructuralist Train”. RASK 14.
See abstract at:
                 Dr. Ron Kuzar
Address:   Department of English Language and Literature
                 University of Haifa
                 IL-31905 Haifa, Israel
Office:       +972-4-824-9826, fax: +972-4-824-9711
Home:       +972-2-6414780, Cellular: +972-5-481-9676
Email:        kuzar at

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