Here are two strong pieces on the appalling killing of Jo Cox MP and what (they say) it tells us about other things, including ourselves. They are by some chance related.
The first by Alex Massie at the Spectator:
So, no, Nigel Farage isn’t responsible for Jo Cox’s murder. And nor is the Leave campaign. But they are responsible for the manner in which they have pressed their argument. They weren’t to know something like this was going to happen, of course, and they will be just as shocked and horrified by it as anyone else.
But, still. Look. When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’
When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.
Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.
The webpage tersely notes This blog has been updated to incorporate recent developments. The precise line of argument here seems to have been edited several times. (++ Update ++ now with what look like tracked changes)
The second is by Polly Toynbee at the Guardian:
This campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics. The justice minister, Michael Gove, and the leader of the house, Chris Grayling – together with former London mayor Boris Johnson – have allied themselves to divisive anti-foreigner sentiment ramped up to a level unprecedented in our lifetime. Ted Heath expelled Enoch Powell from the Tory front ranks for it. Oswald Mosley was ejected from his party for it. Gove and Grayling remain in the cabinet.
When politicians from a mainstream party use immigration as their main weapon in a hotly fought campaign, they unleash something dark and hateful that in all countries always lurks not far beneath the surface…
Democracy is precious and precarious. It relies on a degree of respect for the opinions of others, soliciting support for political ideas without stirring up undue savagery and hatred against opponents. “Elites” are under attack in an anarchic way, when the “elite” justice minister can call on his supporters to ignore all experts.
Something close to a chilling culture war is breaking out in Britain, a divide deeper than I have ever known, as I listen to the anger aroused by this referendum campaign. The air is corrosive, it has been rendered so. One can register shock at what has happened, but not complete surprise.
These powerful and uncomfortable Massbee pieces share an important but complex idea: that ‘sooner or later’ we should ‘not be surprised’ if ‘someone snaps’ amidst all this ‘corrosive air’. In other words, our old friend the Slippery Slope:
We all use metaphors to make a point. Speechwriters adore a good metaphor: get the right one and the speaker sounds wise, folksy, sassy and astute all in one go.
The trouble with such metaphors is that they capture your imagination but deaden your brain. Take the idea of the ‘slippery slope’. It conveys the idea that once you have gone beyond a certain point and started to slide downwards, there’s no way to stop until you crash at the bottom. There’s no safe and maybe better perch along the slide, or any way to control your slide. You lose control.
This metaphor gives a phoney sense of immediate inexorable dangerous momentum which in fact may not be there. Pick another popular metaphor. If you enter a swamp (or the more fashionable ‘quagmire’) and start to get stuck, you are not doomed to stagger on into the middle and sink without trace. You may well make it back to the side safely, albeit malodorously and unhappily.
Likewise the ‘thin end of the wedge’ metaphor. Does it mean that by accepting A you logically have to accept B and C and so on? Or rather that if you accept A it is very likely (or quite likely, or more likely than not) that in practice you’ll end up getting B and C and so on, even if these results in logic and in policy terms can be distinguished?
The whole problem with such language (and we all like to use it because it is so vivid and pseudo-persuasive) is that it displaces Logic in favour of Emotion.
Take the killing of Jo Cox (‘killing’ rather than ‘murder’ because we the public do not know anything about the mental state of the person arrested for killing her and so don’t know what degree of legally recognised mental responsibility he had, if any).
There are some 60 million people in the UK. So if the atmosphere is so ‘corrosive’, why is this sort of thing not happening all the time or at least fairly frequently? What if it turns out that the killer was in some sense or other ‘insane’? Does their whole argument therefore collapse? Won’t it be as clear as anything is that even if there is dense ‘corrosive air’ and all-out ‘culture war’, no sane person has resorted to violence, so things are in fact unambiguously stable and sensible as most of us always believed?
Polly Toynbee quotes a piece of paper left on a car windscreen:
“This is a lave [leave] area. We hate the foriner. Nex time do not park your car with remain sign on. Hi Hitler. White Power” – accompanied by racist symbols. The car’s owner had passed it on to the police.
Rude, crude, Nazi-style extremism is mercifully rare. But the leavers have lifted several stones. How recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned.
No, they haven’t. These ‘sentiments’ remain both unacceptable and unaccepted. Whereas plenty of people including the Labour Party top brass themselves variously worry about the implications of mass immigration into the UK, only a vanishingly microscopic proportion of UK citizens are irredeemably mean-spirited and revolting enough to resort to abusive Tweets and anonymous messages and so forth.
But, you cry, there are LOTS of them! Yes, there are ‘lots’ compared to one, namely you. There are not ‘lots’ compared to 60 million. According to my calculations, 60 million people in a close line where each person occupies 30cm stretches across the globe from London to Wellington in New Zealand. How many of them send nasty messages? A line stretching down a few streets? How many of them resort to political violence? A line stretching 30cm?
Read all the fevered Guardian pieces bewailing the ‘rise of the far right’ and then compare them with actual votes in actual UK elections. What counts when we look at Big Policy issues? The overwhelming even-handedness and decency of the many, or the ravings and maybe even sporadic horrendous violence of a tiny few?
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The Massbee argument also skews causality and responsibility. Why exactly is rhetoric (in this case against ‘migration’) supposedly urging people to be ‘as mad as hell’ in fact having at least some effect? The implication seems to be that the great British masses need to be fatalistically grateful to the ruling elite for allowing millions of foreign citizens to come and work/live here, no questions asked. And, indeed, that asking any questions is a purposeful stride down the slippery slope towards ‘racism’ and ‘intolerance’.
What if Polly Toynbee is in fact right (on the basis that sooner or later that improbable event can happen)? Maybe democracy is indeed ‘precious and precarious, relying on a degree of respect for the opinions of others’.
But where is the respect shown by the Massbee journalistic elite and the ruling political classes as a whole over the past twenty years or so towards British people anxious about the implications of mass immigration, including from the European Union? Ooops, sorry. You can’t call it ‘immigration’ let alone ‘illegal immigration’ (even when it’s illegal). Plus that question assumes that there is a category of humankind called the ‘British people’ and is therefore ipso facto exclusivist and almost certainly racist.
* * * * *
Politics has three modes:
Extremes stay marginalised by the robust Middle.
Extremes and Middle have fluctuating borders, but keep uneasy equilibrium.
Extremes expand to squeeze (out) the Middle.
Let’s face it. Extremes are now making gains. We are moving to a world of Binary Politics. Everything has to be polarised into This, or That. No common ground even in theory exists. Everywhere you look issues are being framed in this way:
There is no common ground between people who think that an unborn baby is an unborn baby and deserving of some rights and respect, and people who deny that.
There is now in the USA no common ground between those who support extensive gun control, and those who think that it is not the state’s business to deny citizens the right to defend themselves. While the Orlando blood was still fresh, the battle exploded over what this event signified: Yes, it shows that GUNS KILL and MUST BE CONTROLLED. No, it shows that PEOPLE SHOULD BE FREE TO DEFEND THEMSELVES.
Politicians on either side of this divide cynically play with Slippery Slope arguments. Those who want to see guns largely banned propose inconsequential measures aimed at edging in that direction. People who champion the right to own guns push back against almost any further control measure even if they might agree with it, as they think that it is a small move as part of a wider gun-banning strategy. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.No side has any confidence in the good intentions of the other. On the contrary, it’s vital to clamour that the other side has nothing but BAD intentions, so that one’s own intentions look pure and noble.
The UKinEU v Brexit debate of course is another binary issue with some pretty damn big ramifications, and so necessarily divisive. You’re either In, or Out. There is No Alternative (apart, perhaps, from the position of my old FCO colleague who says that he’s not voting on this one: “It simply encourages them”).
The Orlando massacre also showed that even when the killer is proclaiming his motivation to be Islamist and the blood is still flowing, many people will jump to insist that the killings were essentially not about that at all, but rather driven by homophobia. Why did they die? Why indeed?
Here again, those Massbeeists insisting that ‘we should not be surprised’ when amidst divisive rhetoric and corrosive air caused by the Leave campaign ‘someone snaps’ typically will be to the fore when it comes to insisting that it is illegitimate (nay racist) to ask whether Islam as such has some inherent tendency to produce violent extremism. Their deeper argument is that Leave in itself is a form of extremism: your side has obviously extreme supporters, so you must be extreme!
On the other hand, those rejecting any link between the Leave campaign and Jo Cox killing may well be spotted warning darkly against the ‘threat’ posed by migrants in general and Muslim migrants in particular. Some Muslims have blatantly and unapologetically extreme views: how to draw the line between ‘moderate’ Muslims and the others?
What counts when we look at Big Policy issues? The overwhelming even-handedness and decency of the many, or the ravings and maybe even sporadic horrendous violence of a tiny few?
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Very broadly speaking, there are two great binary tensions in politics at this gloomy stage of human evolution, all boiling down to unanswerable existential identity issues that have some sort of Right/Left political form:
Capitalism v Socialism (the borders between individual v collective in economic activity)
National v International (the borders between individual and collective in organising communities)
Libertarianism tries to elbow its way into the debate by calling this a false choice, but struggles to make operational headway.
Hence the underlying trend is a Grand Compromise between Right and Left: National Socialism. The Right get ‘national identity’, the Left get to impose a heavy state. See eg Russia.
The real Brexit political battle comes down to a stark choice that is painful and divisive, as it is at root about identity. Identity is personal, unspoken, confusing and just difficult for all of us:
Will a UK identity outside the EU be outward-looking and positive/inclusivist, or introspectively negative/exclusivist?
Will a UK inside the EU prosper as a free country, or see its identity diminished and diluted towards irrelevance?
Who and what, really, are we?