Since the horrific attack on Lee Rigby, a flood of opinion has been unleashed. We have seen a truly frightening backlash in the form of Islamophobic comments, attacks on mosques, and to date two large marches by the far-right group the EDL, each attracting over a thousand people. Every day more analysis spills out, blaming the rise in extremism of various kinds on one factor or another. I’ve felt overwhelmed, not seeing where to begin. Many responses are one-dimensional, but when I try to smooth out the bumps in their carpets, new ones pop up elsewhere. This is enormously fraught, and it is hard to say useful things about it without coming out with stuff that will cause grave discomfort somewhere or other. Please bear that in mind as I look at some of the stuff we have seen.
First off, there was this article by A.C. Grayling:
Not everything that Grayling talks about here is wrong. It is quite right that a rigid attachment to dogmatic principles is responsible for people doing appalling things. It can create a sense of justification for the most cruel and bloodthirsty actions. There are huge problems with what Grayling says here though, quite apart from being pretty offensive to anyone with any religious beliefs. Firstly, there is an error in logic that I would call up a first year undergraduate on. Part of his reasoning appears to be:
1. Murders are committed by people in an abnormal state of mind.
2. Religious belief is an abnormal state of mind, therefore:
3. Religious beliefs are responsible for murder.
I don’t think I’m going to dignify that with a response, I’ll just leave it up there for you to marvel at. A second problem is that Grayling takes the abnormality in question to be a failure of rationality, and it is the irrationality of religious faith that causes the problem. I don’t know about you, but the fact that I do not go around committing bloodthirsty murders has less to do with my rationality than it does to do with the fact that I am sickened by the thought of causing grave suffering to other people, and I think this is probably the case for even the most hard line Kantian or Platonist.
Nonetheless, it would be daft to say that religion has nothing at all to do with this – of course it does – the killers themselves were obviously wrapped up in a particular religious worldview, no matter how twisted and distorted a picture of Islam it was. There are a lot of twisted pictures of the world that cause people to dehumanise other people and behave in appalling ways, including the notion of Englishness espoused by the EDL (I’ve written about this elsewhere). So what is it that leads people to adopt these pictures?
An important element of this relates to the social and economic situations that people inhabit. David Lammy wrote an interesting piece on this for The Guardian, although similar arguments are made elsewhere:
Lammy talks about an alienated and disenfranchised population of young men, who, disillusioned by having been forgotten by the societies that they inhabit, are vulnerable to bewitchment by extreme views of the world, whether those are in Islamic extremism, street gangs, or the EDL.
As Lammy presents it, this is too simplistic. It does not account, for example, for why such young men will follow one dangerous path rather than another (by leaving aside the issues of religion and of geopolitics, for example, Lammy conveniently clears himself of the charge that his vote in favour of the Iraq war was any kind of contributing factor in the London 7/7 bombings). But there is a great deal in what he says. There do seem to be a large disenfranchised group of young men, particularly working class young men, who are alienated in British society. This shows itself in membership of extremist groups, gangs, rioting and football hooliganism, but also in disproportionately high rates of suicide.
This is sometimes articulated as a ‘crisis of masculinity’. I don’t like this because it suggests a universal crisis afflicting all men and resulting from the supposed total emancipation of women. It is a small step from talking in these terms to suggest that ‘the pendulum has swung too far’ in terms of gender relations, and that now we have to look out for the poor men who are groaning under the shackles of female oppression. The rise in extreme movements of the EDL variety has gone alongside an increase in embittered men’s movements that seek to blame feminism, and often women, for all the ills of the world.
Nonetheless, when feminist issues are raised, some very reasonable concerns about male identity, particularly issues afflicting men at the very bottom of society, are often derided with ‘oh noes what about the menz’. If feminists simply turn their backs on this issue, the alienation of young working class men will be blamed on the heedless middle-class feminist movement, and the suggested solution to this will be that women need to get back to their traditional roles. This problem affecting young men is equally a problem for women, since it creates precisely the conditions under which rape, domestic abuse, and violence against women thrive. Unless we want to risk more women being subjected to living with men possessed by the clear hatred and aggression expressed by the EDL, we need to take this seriously.
The tendency here is not to make the link between gender and, say, social class and the distribution of property and resources. Where feminist goals are pursued in a way that is overbearingly middle class in its focus, with no aims to improve the general conditions of those who are least well off in society, it will mean a shift of power and resources where power and resources are scarce and hard to come by in the first place. In these conditions it is easy to instigate a ‘battle of the sexes’ that feminists didn’t want in the first place. Those who want to perpetuate the economic status quo are best off if they collude in blaming feminism, rather than having to give anything up themselves. This means that feminism has to be alive to broader social and economic issues, and yes, to problems specifically afflicting men in certain demographics. Equality of the sexes within an oppressed social group is not enough, and it is liable to lead to a lot of angry and alienated men who will seek an expression of this through violence and extremism of various forms.
(If anyone doubts the significance of social class here, it would be instructive to watch this frankly rather frightening propaganda video by the EDL, which portrays their ‘victimisation’ as the result of being ignored and marginalised by a middle-class elite:)
There is another (related) reason why gender is significant here. Recall the sinisterly polite words of one of the Woolwich murderers: ‘I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.’ Meanwhile, the EDL, in the video that I link to above, attack British Muslims on the grounds that ‘they rape our women’. The imagery and language called upon both by Islamic extremists, and by many extreme nationalist movements, treat women as the territory to be fought for. The EDL constantly present images of women in Burkas as their chief symbol of something alien to British life. Women must be fought for, defended, protected, but not fighting, active or speaking.
The symbols of nationalism and many political ideals are frequently presented as feminine. Consider, for example, Plato’s ‘noble lie’ in The Republic:
‘the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth’
The land, or the political cause in question, is presented as feminine (think about Justice, Liberty, Britannia, etc.) and those defending her are male. The feminine is passive and in need of masculine protection. These ideas are what makes it so powerful for the EDL to call upon what has been done to ‘our women’, contrasted to the Woolwich murderers’ ‘our women’. To suppose that this is only a male problem is to ignore the role of women as the inert but sacred landscape for which the ideological battles are fought. This is not a case of the pendulum having swung too far, it is more to do with a troubled and complicated set of gender relations whose roots are ancient in origin.
I am not claiming to know the answers about what accounts for the horrific murder in Woolwich, or the disturbing backlash from the political right, and I only picked out a few things here about which I think I have some sort of ability to speak. All I know is that if we are going to unite against racism, fascism, violence, terrorism and oppression, there is not going to be a simple answer. It is not going to be solved by looking only at the oppression of one group by another, or at class conflict, or at religion or geopolitics. None of us as an individual is able or qualified to see the whole way through this minefield. To do this we need a multitude of voices from all communities to try and work at this huge fucked-up tangle together. To that end, please be tolerant if I have said anything that offends.