After the massacre: Thomas Hylland Eriksen on possible causes and consequences

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

The horrific bomb attack and massacre by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway is sure to generate a lot of commentary over the coming weeks.

Some useful reflections have come already from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo and author of numerous acclaimed books on anthropology including Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology.

Writing on Open Democracy Eriksen describes how he was at home in Oslo when the attacks began:

In the afternoon, as I was working in the garden and my son was practicing with his football, we heard a loud crash, as if lightning had struck. Dark clouds began to loom nearby. We didn’t think any more about it. Only half an hour later, however, I was rung up by a friend who asked me to turn on my computer. From then onwards, events took an increasingly dramatic turn as the afternoon gave way to evening, evening to night, and gradually the full extent of the atrocities became known.

Eriksen comments on the politically motivated nature of Breivik’s target:

Utøya, a tiny island on a picturesque lake about forty minutes’ drive from Oslo, has for decades been the summer camp site of the youth wing of the Labour Party. To target this camp, a gathering of several hundred politically engaged youths from their early teens to their mid-20s, suggested a connection with domestic politics rather than a link to Norway’s participation in the wars in Libya or Afghanistan.

Eriksen argues that the time has come to challenge the dangerous culture of Islamophobia which has gained legitimacy in Norway in recent years and which formed a core part of Breivik’s ‘ideology’:

The fact that Mr Breivik was associated with right-wing, anti-Islamic currents in Norwegian society ought to lead to consequences. The recent years have seen a proliferation of hate-speech against immigrants, and Muslims in particular, on certain websites; some defenders of cultural diversity (myself included) are routinely attacked in vaguely threatening ways for betraying Norwegian culture and western values by taking an inclusive and liberal stance towards minorities and immigration.

Mr Breivik was an active contributor to at least one such website, http://www.document.no, which is itself strongly influenced by the so-called “Eurabia” literature – the cluster of publications based on the assumption that Islam is incompatible with western values, which and sometimes also intimates that Muslims are plotting to achieve political dominance in western Europe. Persons who hold such views have until now been treated respectfully by the establishment media, and have often been given ample space to present their views. There have been attempts to rehabilitate racist pseudo-science (also publicised by leading media); and it is common to see (especially on the web) crude generalisations about Muslims, as well as aggressive denunciations of politicians and other defenders of the new Norway.

Visit Open Democracy to visit the article in full.

Writing in the Guardian Eriksen focusses on the role of the internet in the Norwegian events, highlighting how it can distort information flows and community life:

The moment we cease to speak to each other, something serious is under way. This is exactly what happened with Breivik and many of his co-believers: they developed a parallel reality on the internet.

The role of the internet in fragmenting the public sphere has been the subject of some scholarly and journalistic interest, most recently in Eli Pariser’s excellent The Filter Bubble, which shows how Google, Facebook and other major actors filter our web searches, updates etc according to our user profiles and previous cyberhistories. So if I am an environmentalist typing “climate change” into Google, I get a different set of results from you, if you are an oil executive. The filter bubble operates on Amazon by giving personal recommendations; in its more insidious ways, it tailors our web searches to confirm our pre-existing world view without us noticing. Eventually, we may drift apart and end up living in different worlds.

Visit the Guardian to read the article in full.

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Thomas Hylland Eriksen

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