A tale of two stabbings

There was period at the start of the period of lockdown when there was hope that something good might follow all of this. People noticed the clearer air, the reduced traffic noise and smog, they discovered aspects of family life that had been lost to the daily grind of work, and noticed that many things which had once been seen as important were in fact frivolous and wasteful. But as the lockdown progressed we started to chaff against the restrictions and to desire top get back to our “old world” and its ways. It seems that, alas, we are rapidly doing this. The last days have seen the return of mass stabbings to our cities with killings in London and Glasgow. Horrible as this was to hear of the return mass murder; almost as depressing has been the realisation, in its telling of the events, of how debased and partisan our news media has become.

Throughout the lockdown the media has performed poorly. It was outraged and shocked when Dominic Cummings seemed to break the lockdown rules and warned that he was almost single-handedly creating a second wave of deaths. They lost this concern about the breaching of social distancing rules when thousands demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter campaign, only to rediscover their shock and horror about such behaviour when working-class city dwellers went to the beach, and just in time for Trump’s disastrous rally. At a time when we need to be given facts and details we can trust, when literally our lives depend upon it, we have a media that spends more energy in ensuring the correct political spin on a story than on its value for public health or safety.

The stories of the stabbings were unintentionally revealing. When the news initially broke in both cases the media’s call was initially for silence. The initial responses from the Scottish Government and the London Mayor’s office was to advice people to say nothing. There is always an awkward period just after an atrocity when the victims are not known and the intentions of the perpetrator are unclear. During this time, the media doesn’t know if this story fits the narrative or not. The range is horrifying to the media; it could range from “Islamic fundamentalist slaughters gays” to “White supremacist slaughters black men”. The media doesn’t know if the killers are the kind of people we are encouraged to hate (right wing, racists) or not and whether the victims are the right sort of people. There is during this time the great worry that killer could be one of the folk from ‘your team’ and it is best for everyone to be quiet until the correct story has been decided. Really there is no need for this. There is never a situation, outside of war, where the person doing multiple killings is the good guy, and, even in war, those killed are clearly the victims and deserve our sympathy.

Our initial responses should simply be our natural one’s; shock and horror that people have been killed and anger and outrage at the person who did it. We don’t need politicians to tell us to wait until they know the details so they can tell us if we are angry or not. It is our anger which worries them. They are worried that the conclusions we draw may lead us to be angry with the wrong people. We might be angry that our communities are breaking down, that our police force is underfunded, that our involvement in foreign wars has brought echoes of these wars to our high streets, or that there are groups promoting intolerance and division with impunity. These might not be the story as it is meant to be told, so we should shut up and wait.

The media wants to keep to its narratives, and this can prove awkward. What if the man killing the asylum seekers in Glasgow was another asylum seeker and not a rabid local bigot? Where is the story then? What if the killer in Reading did kill the three gay men in the park because of his own Islamic intolerance of homosexuality? What about the view of the religion of peace then? To control the narratives the media must either alter the attacker or the victim. It will either convert the attacker into a “madman”, so that insanity is the cause of their evil, or remove the features of the victims (“The police report that the victims were not attacked because they were gay”). Anything to remove discordant facts that might make the overall stories being told less consistent. In London the gayness of the victims was less important than the refugee status of the attacker (as they were also white, middle-class men) so it is more important to avoid the possibility of increasing islamophobia than it is to avoid appeasing homophobia. This is intersectionality at work; weighing up our value on the victimhood scale and seeing where we sit – sometimes our victim status is too low to be worthy of attention.

Thankfully, most people can see past this. Most people know that every person has the right to life and that any ideology which results in hatred and killing is shameful. We see past the reports that we receive to the truth behind the headlines that groups exist which wish to divide us up and control our lives. Sometimes we only see it “through a glass darkly” and it takes us time to appreciate what is going on. In difficult times, like the present, we need facts and open discussion so we can grope our way out of this dreadful situation. The same old stories that got us into this mess do not help.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.

This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and  Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.

Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other  tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.

Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.

This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings,  inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous  activity by individuals  and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.

Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.

The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.

Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals.  Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions.  Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority.  Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.