Reflections on political violence and its aftermath

Has there ever been a violent act that had a single cause? I doubt it.

Last Saturday night in Orlando, Omar Mateen took an automatic rifle into an LGBT nightclub, slaughtered 49 innocent people and left a similar number grievously wounded and maimed.  The next evening on Sky TV, presenter Mark Longhurst caused a storm by repeatedly insisting that the murders had nothing to do with the victims’ sexuality or the killers’ homophobia but was purely in the modern tradition of Islamist terrorism, and that this was not an attack on the LGBT community but on ‘humanity.’. One of his guests, the (gay) Guardian columnist Owen Jones walked off the set in disgust. The next morning the UK set about enthusiastically dividing itself into one or other camp. As the days have gone by, various other jigsaw pieces have emerged: Mateen had a history of abuse; his father is close to the Taleban; he was a closeted homosexual; come on everyone, pick your horse and flog it.

This morning the same country is reeling in shock at the brutal killing of Jo Cox, a member of parliament and much-admired champion of human rights, asylum and refuge and international development, not to mention mother to two small children. Initial reports suggested her killer had shouted ‘Britain first” during and after the fatal fracas, leading to the instant assumption that was an act of fascist terrorism inspired by the increasingly ugly and racist tone of the EU referendum campaign. Within a few hours a second explanatory narrative had emerged that insisted the alleged killer Thomas Mair had no interest in politics but was, surprise, surprise, a “loner with a history of mental health problems.”

Mair is alive and in custody, so presumably we will eventually get reasonably informative answers to these questions. I have no stomach for adding to the speculation beyond pointing out that ‘mental health problems’ is not any kind of an explanation for a violent act. Yes, there is a minuscule subset of psychiatric conditions which can cause people to behave violently under certain circumstances, and there are various so-called personality disorders which provide a convenient label for other seemingly irrational or destructive acts. From what little we know thus far, there is little to suggest Mair fell into either category.

The truth is I don’t know why Mair might have felt motivated to go to his MP’s surgery with a refurbished vintage pistol and a knife and right now, neither do you.

We have been here many a time before.

Was Richard Reid a disturbed delinquent, shuffling from prison to criminal lifestyle to cause to cause, desperate for validation or a religious fanatic radicalised by murderous hate preachers?

Was Elliot Rodger a rich young white man driven by rampant entitlement and violent misogyny or a deeply damaged, mentally ill, autistic victim of bullying, loneliness and isolation?

Was Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Guardsman Lee Rigby an Islamist fundamentalist terrorist or a borderline schizophrenic on a narcissistic suicide mission?

Was Dylann Roof a violent white supremacist intent on murdering as many African-American people as he could or (again) a disturbed loner with a history of mental illness?

Was Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam a devout Muslim intent on establishing a global caliphate or a jobless stoner drifting in search of an identity?

Was Aileen Wournos a cold-hearted serial killer or a terribly damaged victim of exploitation and male violence who finally cracked?

And so on and so on and so on.

If and when we are honest with ourselves, the answers to all of the questions above are yes to all of the above and much, much more and no to all of the above and much, much more. Human actions, particularly those with potentially profound, life-changing consequences, are never taken because of one reason. Even when we consciously decide to do something for specific and discrete reasons, our decisions are made within personalities that have been forged by an entire lifetime of influences. Deeds of deliberate and extreme violence often erupt out of a raging internal volcano of anger, frustration and bitterness which long predate the immediate trigger or conscious motivation for the act.

In a very astute post this week, written after Orlando but before Birstall, the blogger Carter wrote:

If I have learned anything about understanding anger it is that the first step in helping myself, and others, is understanding that anger is not a first order emotion; anger exists, and flourishes, because of something else we feel or have experienced.

Learning to say not ‘I feel angry’ but ‘I feel angry because…’ is essential.

I cannot complete that sentence for Omar Mateen. Beware anyone who tells you that they can. Responsibility for that could only have rested with Omar Mateen, and he is not going to complete the task.

We can never know how Mateen would have finished that sentence. It is likely we will never know how Thomas Mair would finish that sentence, because it is likely that even Thomas Mair doesn’t really know. So where does this leave us?

Personally, it leaves me with a claggy, gnawing disgust at the reactions to political violence on all sides. I am certainly not immune to the instinctive, kneejerk reaction that seeks to hold someone or something responsible for horrible crimes, and the more horrible the crime, the stronger the urge to extend that responsibility wider. A powerful bit of my soul wants to blame online neo-Nazis like Britain First or even Nigel Farage and the racism of the Leave campaign for the murder of Jo Cox.  The same bit of my soul wants to blame global geopolitics, fundamentalist religion and homophobic social mores for the murders in Orlando. I have realised this instinct is something I must resist.

Instead, I try to fall back on two truths. The first is that in every single case I have listed in this post, the killers who committed the crimes are entirely responsible for their own deeds. They cannot and should not be excused or mitigated far less justified. Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox because he wanted to kill Jo Cox.

The second truth is that every single one of us is the product of the society we create and tolerate. A society which tolerates or foments racist bigotry and hatred will, at its fringes, tolerate and foment racist violence. A society which tolerates or foments misogyny and homophobia will inevitably include misogynistic and homophobic violence. A society which considers civilian casualties to be a price worth paying as collateral damage in pursuit of political ends cannot be surprised when individuals take this to heart and put it into practice.

It is in the nature of political violence that the perpetrators want to make us complicit in their crimes, by noticing, by reacting, by debating, by responding. Of course we cannot just ignore crimes like these, nor can we simply ignore the politics in political murder. We can, however, resist the temptation to slip into pat solutions that do nothing to enlighten or explain, but merely bolster a pre-existing ideological position.

Man mansplains that men also mansplain to men. Another man mansplains why


There is an entertaining piece on the Economist’s blog site this week, about how gender affects conversational styles. It was neatly summarised by the mag’s own Twitter-feed as “man mansplains that men also mansplain to men.”

The post raises a couple of really interesting points, I think. The first is alluded to but not spelled out by the author, and perhaps should have been. It is that “But men do this thing to other men too!” is a completely bloody pointless defence to any charge or complaint about sexist or patriarchal behaviour.

It’s amazing how often this comes up. Where women complain about harassing and intrusive behaviour on the streets or public transport, you can always bank on some arsehole piping up “But that’s not sexism, men shout random abuse at each other too!” It’s true, they do. So it is not always sexist. Sometimes it is racist or ableist or homophobic or just plain, simple bullying. So can we cut all that out too while we’re at it?

Where women complain about feeling the threat of violence when walking outside at night, Mr Bloke can be banked on to respond “What are you complaining about? Men are much more likely to be randomly assaulted by strangers than women are.” This is also true. So can we please join with those women who are quite keen to see an end to such behaviour? Sooner than later would be good. 

Or in the case in point, men use conversational exchanges not (just) to communicate, bond or exchange views and knowledge, but as a competitive sport, a test of dominance and status. It is quite true that this becomes an opportunity to establish social dominance over women (aka mansplaining) but also over other men. This is not an especially healthy trait. I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings (whether in work, politics, voluntary societies or whatever) which are dominated not by the person with the best ideas or the greatest knowledge, but the one with the most regard for the sound of (usually) his own voice. I’m dreadfully guilty of this myself, and am quite happy to acknowledge it and try to catch myself on.

The second point that occurred to me while reading the Economist blog is a bit of a leap of disciplines. (I’m thinking out loud here, so bear with me.In discussing the ideas of psycholinguist Deborah Tannen, the author says:

In Ms Tannen’s schema, men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

Reading this, a little lightbulb came on. For a few years I have followed with interest the work of Michael W Kraus, both as an applied social psychologist and an engaging blogger (and all-round good guy). Kraus researches the interaction between social status and empathy, so for example, among his more intriguing findings is that if you manipulate someone’s sense of social status upwards (ie making them feel more important) their capacity for empathy diminishes, or vice versa. The suspicion is that empathy is, at least in part, a trait with evolutionary survival advantages for those lower down the (literal and metaphorical) food chain. It kicks in more the more it is needed.

(When I’ve written about this before, a lot of people reply by arguing that it is the lack of empathy and consideration which helps people attain power and status in the first place. While undoubtedly true, it is important to note this is not the point. Increase someone’s status, and their ability to empathise diminishes even when they want to empathise and actively try to empathise.)

What occurred to me today was that when we discuss male and female communication styles, we tend to argue about whether they are innate or socialised. As a broad rule of thumb, feminists tend to argue that boys and girls are taught or trained to be dominant or submissive respectively, while anti-feminists are perhaps more likely to argue that these are natural and immutable differences between the sexes.

What I am now wondering is whether it is possible that this aspect to conversational style is neither learned nor innate but is, at least in part, a consequence of a (self-perceived) social status? If it were true, we would expect to see that as individual women achieved greater power and status in the boardroom, politics or wherever, their capacity for empathy and the urge to co-operate and network would diminish. I can offer no objective evidence, but I have to say that this does pretty much tally with my experience.

The other implication would be that it wouldn’t be enough to teach men to listen and teach women to have confidence, as the Economist suggests. We would actually need to smash the surrounding social context of structural sexism and all vestiges of patriarchal hegemony before men’s and women’s communication styles equalise. That may be slightly beyond the editorial remit of the Economist.

Anyway, I repeat, the above is really just me thinking out loud. I’m not aware if there is any kind of body of research that proves or disproves what I say, so feel free to argue back from a position of considerable knowledge or, like me, enthusiastic ignorance.

Any thoughts?