This is a post I’ve thought about a little while, but was slightly delayed in the writing for mundane logistical reasons. Nearly a week after the 7th July bombings, my Sharpener brother Phil wrote a very thoughtful post here, ‘The value of defiance’. There were many sensible things Phil said in this post – he was clear on what terrorism is (and perhaps more importantly, is not) and there was a strong argument made against those in power using the ‘against terrorism’ argument to stifle political debate and try to smear reasonable opposition by associating it with (if you will) the baddies. But the main thrust of Phil’s argument, eloquently expressed although it was, left me appalled.
I think the differences between me and Phil (to whom, incidentally congrats) are probably very deep-seated here, and so I don’t hold out much hope for persuading him – but surely the hope of The Sharpener is to enlighten through debate, and maybe some of you on the fringe between us might be moved a bit more in either direction. In what follows, I want to set out what I think Phil’s position is, then why and how I disagree, and then follow up with a couple of points about the bases and implications of Phil’s position as stated in that post.
First, a bad allegory
Imagine the scene: you’re a kid – let’s say you’re 12 years old – and you’re walking to school one morning. You see a boy you sometimes see around the estate walking across the street towards you. You don’t know him, but some of your friends do. You look up to greet this boy – you think his name is Al* – only to see him throw his first punch. You stagger back as he kicks you, and punches you again. You end up on the pavement, bruised and beaten, as he puts away the mobile phone he’s videotaped it all on.
A little later, having recovered your composure enough to do so, you finish that walk to school, and you find your friends in the playground and tell them all about it. You’re very shaken, not to mention very sore. You feel frightened and alone. Your friends, of course, are there for you. They’re angry about what the boy did to you, and comfort you by agreeing how bad it is. You’re a bit disconcerted when one of your friends says that this shouldn’t happen to anyone (er, hang on, you think – it actually happened to you, not anyone), but you figure you’re just a bit sensitive.
Come lunchtime, the bell rings and you go to the dining hall to get your Jamie Oliver-approved school lunch. After this highly nutritional (but potentially quite dull) sustenance, you go out into the playground and see all of your friends gathered around Al. You walk closer and realise that they’re not sorting him out, but talking, laughing, and joking with him. You turn away and decide to keep to yourself for the rest of the break.
After lunch, you talk to one of your friends in class and, more shaken now than ever, what was going on – were they scared of Al? Your friend laughs and tells you “oh no.” So why, you ask, were they his friends, after all the strong words this morning and yet . “Well,” your friend explains, “obviously what Al did to you was awful, and unforgiveable – he shouldn’t have done that to anyone.” That’s better… “But,” – hang on, what but? – “life goes on, doesn’t it?”
This stops you dead in your tracks, but another of your friends leans in and offers his view: “Look, obviously we condemn what he did – but what purpose would it serve to condemn Al and cast him out? After all, he has his own reasons to work out, doesn’t he? While you might take a more partial view given your experience, we weren’t there and so, while we can say people shouldn’t do that, it’s not for us to judge his motives, or what outcome there should be; it’s not for us to take sides. He’s quite clear that he likes doing this happyslapping stuff and that he thinks we’re ripe targets, but that’s his view, and all we can ask is that he doesn’t act as he did this morning.”**
These are your friends.
Phil’s argument (or my interpretation, anyhow)
The position Phil set out in his post is that we should “oppose terror in the name of humanity,” and more specifically, that “opposing terror [is not] the same thing as opposing the terrorists.” “The constituency you rally against terror need only be defined – and should only be defined – by its resistance to terror.” Phil is concerned to contrast his view with that of the Prime Minister, whose
“argument seems to spring from a certain kind of communitarian thinking, which holds that people can only be mobilised by appealing to the values of their communities – and that the bonds and symbols defining those communities are pre-political, if not pre-rational.”
In a comment reply to Jarndyce, Phil goes further:
“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not entirely sure I understand what youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re saying, but I think I may disagree very strongly. Ã¢â‚¬Å“That community being Ã¢â‚¬ËœBritainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ or Ã¢â‚¬ËœLondonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ or Ã¢â‚¬ËœEuropeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢, and the strand being a basic understanding of and agreement with liberal democratic values, on which membership is contingent.Ã¢â‚¬Â What do you do if you get talking to someone down the pub and you judge that they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t meet these criteria? Shop them as a suspected terrorist? I would really hope not.”
Further, and rooted in Phil’s commitment to ethical humanism, is the view that:
“[the] appeal to resist terror is a statement about how people should and shouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t act – whatever social situation they occupy, however much or little power they wield, whatever cause they espouse. It suspends any consideration of motives and outcomes – any consideration of ways in which the social world should change.”
Phil’s argument, then, is that solidarity against terror should be focused on revulsion against terrorist acts, without regard to either the actors or the motives which drive them. More practically, the argument is that any notion of community outside of a universal humanity, is inherently exclusive and divisive, and is more likely to be part of the problem than any solution. The argument then comes back, because the same faith in universal humanity means that all people can join in that revulsion against terrorist acts, regardless of their agreement with the motives. British liberals can join hands with Afghan Taliban sympathisers, as long as they agree that the means employed on the 7th July are wrong.
No such thing as society?
The heart of the argument is this: the real problem is in our use of exclusive categories that divide people, each assuming their own superiority and attempting to dominate others. If only we would recognise that at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and appeal to the common (ethical humanist) ground we all (or very nearly all) share, then we’d have a whole lot less trouble in the world.
It probably won’t be a shock that I think this is bollocks; and dangerous bollocks (syphilitic, perhaps) at that. One doesn’t have to be a de Maistre to see that, as much as there might be some part of the human experience that is universal, we only understand it through our particular, historical circumstances, living in community with others. Further, these communities are, by their very nature, exclusive, divisive. Attempts to build the universal society hardly inspire confidence that this element of the human condition is easily escapable…
These communities we live in, and to which we declare and live our loyalties, are not simply confluences of people around a common emotion, provoked in a moment but limited to an objection to, or some advancement of, an element of an ethical humanist code. I know my little corner of existence isn’t like that: in it, I have friends with whom I share more than just a feeling over justice, but shared experiences, interests, and practices. My family matters to me too; the welfare of my niece matters more to me than a random five-year-old girl from elsewhere in the world, and will remain so regardless of how little she and I share the same ends – we are bound together. I’m quite sure that your world is very much the same; that the community into which life’s vagaries have thrown you creates connections more valuable than a random, universally human case can ever be.
Now, that means that we are partial to those immediately around us. But it’s worse. Our immediate friends and family spread out into ever-decreasing-circles, to form a much larger community – primarily within an identifiable community, even if with messy borders. A random Englishman will, on the whole, have more in common with me than a random Frenchman. And within these ever-decreasing-circles, the clusters of relationships between people with common experiences, interests, and practices, also shape common norms and values. Because our experiences, interests, and practices differ between our communities (the life of a devout Buddhist in rural Thailand being somewhat different to that of atheists and lite-Christians in urban England), it’s probably not unreasonable to assume some differences in the norms and values so shaped, even through such seemingly harmless activities as the way we talk about the world.
Universal for whom?
There are, it should be said, values common across these traditions, because although the specifics may differ, there are similar elements – we all want for food, for friendship, and so on; we’re all human, after all. This is true, but potentially trivial. The Pareto principle applies here – it’s not the width of our agreement that counts as much as the depth of our disagreement. Yes: we’re all human, but then so too was Pol Pot – we could probably have had a conversation with him on a whole range of subjects and found him to be a very sensible chap, but if we were to chance him on to the subject of spectacle-wearing as a sign of bourgeois corruption and the appropriate response, we might soon sense that he was a (to put it mildly) nasty piece of work. (And, from a distance, massive struggles really can look like covering tiny differences – try this.)
Further, the ethical humanist code hardly seems a minimalist common-ground prospectus. Take the point touched on above: about community as an exclusive, divisive phenomenon, tied into conceptions of friendship and family – most of the world’s religions, and especially the likes of Islam or Hinduism, take that view, against the implied ethical humanist position. Many on the Right might go overboard on the whole world-of-peace / world-of-war division in Islam, but for most Muslims it is an important symbol of the division between those in the faith and those outside (and is hardly unique among religions in differentiating the elect). Another example: Phil’s ethical humanism would, I assume, work on the assumption of human equality; where would that leave the caste system in Hinduism? Is the whole of Hinduism thereby in defiance of the ethical humanist code? How can we then appeal to them to join with us in opposing terror on the basis of a code that condemns them also? Doesn’t this ethical humanism smack of western liberal predilections? Doesn’t that tell us something about the limits of any such universal doctrines?***
Home is where the heart is
But back to the proper response to terror. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling far more revulsion and consequent resolve in response to the 7th July bombings than I would to, say, a news report of a bombing of some villages by M-19 or FARC (take your pick) in Colombia, with civilians killed with the same abandon. Ok, it might be said that that’s a natural psychological response, borne of proximity; but it might also be because they’re people with whom I have a sense of ongoing solidarity in a way that Colombian peasants simply aren’t.
Does that mean I feel nothing for those Colombian peasants? Of course not; as I say, we are all human beings, and to that extent, we can all be sad and angry and revolted. But to say that it matters as much as it does when my own community – let me say it again, my own community – is attacked would be a pretense; it doesn’t. The 7th July bombings were an attack on my people and my country; we were all attacked. For the 7th July terrorists, ultimate success is the end of this community – let me call it by (one of) its name(s), Britain. So should I “suspend any consideration of motives and outcomes – any consideration of ways in which the social world should change” when those motives mean the destruction of my community? This is where the humanity-wide community against terror doesn’t – because there will be some revolted by the means but in agreement with the ends; whereas for most Britons (most westerners, I imagine), the ends themselves are deeply offensive.
It might be said that the allegiance of people such as myself to particular nations is as much the problem here, and that human freedom subsists in allowing people to have their choice over the ends of life, as long as they pursue them through ethical means alone. That might or might not be fine, but at what point are we to stop worrying about others’ freedom and start choosing and pursuing our own ends? There’s a very strong whiff here of that old joke about liberals not being able to take their own side in an argument. But political liberty only survives in the context of a mature, stable, and plural polity, the survival of which should not be taken for granted.
Happily, the current terrorist problem looks likely to be No Big – a flea on an elephant’s back. So we are at liberty to play our way, and quite possibly those like Phil, arguing for a different view, will help us to discover some truths that will help us in future. We can, for example, all smugly nod along with Lord Hoffman’s oft-quoted lines from last December’s Lords judgement, and not force ourselves to wonder how far we would be willing to go without “laws such as these.” But, if the terrorists can’t win, my concern is that we could lose along the way.
To listen to some discussion over the response to terrorism and the current political debate, you might be forgiven for thinking that we are day-by-day Slouching towards Sparta, a land of repressive patriotic militarism; that a Right-wing creep is the real enemy. Yet I don’t think I’m alone in worrying that, beneath the surface activity of more intense policing, this mentality creates an instinctive cringe, a nobly-intended wish to ensure we’re offering forgiveness and the hand of friendship (turn the other cheek, even), that fails to tackle terrorism, while all the time draining our own country of its purpose and solidarity – we don’t stand together against our enemies, but instead seek always to welcome, and include them. But maybe we’ll be so busy trying to include that we’ll lose a sense of who and what we are; much as these terrorists can’t defeat us, in those circumstances, maybe we lose ourselves.
* Nobody ever said I was that subtle.
** It goes without saying that the kids at this school are quite precocious and more than quite annoying. Maybe it’s in Dawson’s Creek or something.
*** None of this should be taken as my holding a morally relativist position; I don’t. But our access to moral knowledge is always partial, because our position is always historical.