Assad Speech: Lost in Translation
Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Mainstream media coverage of Assad’s Sunday speech has surpassed its usual level of distortion, bias and disinformation as exemplified by the following two excerpts from the news wires.
Associated Press: “In a speech delivered Sunday, his first since January, Assad appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response to the 15-month-old revolt against his rule, which has killed up to 13,000 people, according to activist groups.”
“Syrian President Bashar Assad has defended his government's crackdown on opponents, saying a doctor performing messy emergency surgery does not have blood on his hands if he is trying to save a patient.”
Reuters: “Assad has rebuffed criticism of the carnage in his country.”
Both news agencies then followed both of their interpretations with this quote from Assad’s speech: "When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?" Assad said in a televised speech to parliament. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
Noteworthy, is how Assad is described as being “unmoved” by criticism of his “ferocious response” in the first quote above. The subtext, is that Assad’s refusal to respond to charges that his regime was behind the Houla massacre with an emotional outburst of indignation, must mean that he is guilty by way of emotional aloofness. Needless to say, had Assad engaged in the required show of self-righteous rage, he would have been psychopathologized as conspiracy-minded, delusional and paranoid as he usually is.
Also striking is how both the AP and Reuters reports depict Assad’s surgery analogy as his attempt to rationalize his bloody “crackdown”( presumably on innocent protesters) and “carnage” (the Houla massacre), respectively. Such terminology is particularly insidious when one considers both Assad’s choice of metaphor and his very evident intent.
In drawing an analogy with the performance of surgery on a wounded patient, the Syrian leader was clearly alluding to the surgical – as opposed to random or chaotic – nature of the violence that his regime was compelled to resort to, in order to treat a body-politic infiltrated by hostile external forces. How this was misconstrued to mean that he was justifying brutal massacres and repression of his people, defies the most elemental logic.
The message could not possibly have been lost in translation considering that terrorism and the need for a security solution to root it out were leitmotifs in Assad’s speech. Nor could the discrepancy between original intent and interpretation be attributed to a misunderstanding on the part of the media. No, this was nothing less than a deliberate misinterpretation of an otherwise unequivocally straightforward defense of the regime’s war against the foreign sponsored terrorists and insurrectionists.
In that sense, the relationship between the Syrian regime and the information warlords, is not merely a case of what French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, would call “mésentente” (political disagreement) which presupposes “two speakers who either use the same words but in different senses, or with the same word do not designate the same thing as referent.”
Here, the debate is the “most radical misunderstanding” that occurs between two different “genres” of discourse, what French thinker, Jean-François Lyotard calls “differend”.
As defined by Lyotard, “differend [is] the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim. A case of differend between two parties takes place when the regulation of the conflict that opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom."
In other words, the dominant power not only defines the terms of the debate, but also the language or jargon in which it will be articulated, thereby leaving the weaker party both figuratively and literally speechless and incapable of defending itself. Unlike the “subaltern” subjects of western liberal “tolerance” who are allowed to speak but not be heard, those subjected to “differend” are not even “given voice” with all the vertical-power connotations implied by the term.
Although these concepts have customarily been applied to weak and oppressed communities, they easily lend themselves to gross imbalances of power governing international relations. As with individuals and communities, depriving subaltern states and political actors of the right to speak and be heard obviates the need for dialogue or debate with them.
“Differend” is further defined as a case “when the first [speaker]cannot understand the second because, according to him, words do not belong to articulated language, to logos, but rather to an inarticulate voice, to phôné. That voice, which, according to Aristotle (in Politics), humans have in common with animals, can only express feelings, pleasure or pain, in the form of a cry, contentment or hate, and by cheers or booing in the case of a group. If some people cannot consider others as speakers, it is simply because they do not see them, because they don’t have the same share within the political partitioning of the sensible”.
It is important to recall in this context, the surprise (or disappointment) implicit in AP’s claim that Assad “appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response..” Like phôné , Assad’s voice is one which isn’t entitled to speak let alone be heard, it is only permitted to cry or rant or yell, but never to reason or persuade, or even to own a narrative which can be retold, as in the case of the subaltern.
Assad has no narrative to begin with, his enemies hold the sole right to a narrative and a discourse in which to frame it. If and when he communicates, his words will be heard as an incomprehensible utterance which will require filtering through the medium of the dominant idiom and then re-communicated as a confirmation of the meta-narrative, even if the original content was a rejection of that narrative.
The reasoning is circular: if his regime is accused of repression and war crimes, then even the counter-argument which asserts that it is merely fighting terrorism, will only be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement of this on his part – that he is indeed committing war crimes and repression.
The state of “differend” which characterizes the relationship between the Assad regime and the Western media, not only serves to deny it its place in the “international community”, but also to deny its supporters – who constitute at least half the Syrian population – the right to speak and think, and hence, to be.
Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is an independent Lebanese academic and political analyst. She is author of the book, “Hizbullah: Politics and Religion”, and blogger at ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.