It began soon after Jo Cox died. Quietly at first, and then you saw and heard more and more about it. This murder represented something about our culture: not something about the political motivation of the crime, apparently, but something about the way we treat our politicians. We’re too mean to them. We all killed her, by being beastly about our MPs rather than patting them on the back for a job well done.
At first, I found this distracting, but understandable. Someone was dead, and there was a rush on to get the hot takes out. The best and worst thing about the instantness of our culture is the demand for an immediate response to something baffling and emotional, like the murder of a politician, but there it is: keen to share something, write something – anything – or provide a sliver of insight into the perplexing and demoralising, writers prepare their words.
(I was no different when I was doing it for a living, merrily blundering into the world of geopolitical assassinations or identity politics for the sake of something to write about, and – let’s not be shy about this – there are precious numbers to be had in the aftermath of something huge. I wonder now, though, how useful any of that immediate response is, other than just crystallising a particular feeling on a particular day.)
And it seems on the face of it to be a noble enough sentiment: why do we dehumanise politicians, who are real people with real lives and families? Why do we demean ourselves, the people these professionals represent, by assuming they have anything other than benign intentions? Why do we cheapen their humanity by making out they’re all on the take?
But then I started seeing and hearing this over and over again. I started reading so much about the general public’s unpleasantness towards MPs (it was usually framed as something done by plebs at laptops, rather than professional writers at slightly more shiny laptops) that I wondered if a point was being missed, or an opportunity wasted. Why were so many people focusing on this, rather than the more important issues about what this awful event said about our culture? The climate of fear and hatred towards minorities, particularly immigrants? The labelling of the “Left” as traitors and terrorist sympathisers? Those last two things perpetrated by the mainstream, by the way, not the keyboard warriors. Why was the most important thing to say that we aren’t deferential enough towards our superiors and betters?
(Yes yes, I know about the laws of contempt, by the way. I may have been kicked out of journalism a few odd years ago, but the faint memories of media law are still in my memory. It isn’t about that. If the Lee Rigby killers received a fair trial, given the words written about them in the immediate aftermath, I reckon this guy’s got a pretty decent shot of getting one. Besides, he hadn’t even appeared before a magistrate while all these pieces were being written. No, that wasn’t the reason.)
And then you start to see how tragedies like this become co-opted and twisted into opportunities. I’m not saying any of the thinkpiecemongers have been part of some kind of deliberate movement, because they write what they want and it’s not part of some bigger push, but it just so happens that their allegiance is towards the powerful, not the weak. I think they see in the murder of an MP an attack on the powerful and the political – an attack on their class.
So you hear things like, we may not have agreed with Jo Cox’s politics (and her left-wing thinking has been largely marginalised in favour of a more woolly “community MP” portrait to ensure we don’t dwell on the politically troublesome aspects of her life that might have brought her to the attention of those who would call her a traitor), but all MPs are doing a difficult job and they’re all, just like her, trying to make a difference in the best way they see fit. All MPs of all parties are basically on the same team, just with slightly different methods of doing that. An attack on one MP is an attack on all of them.
And that’s where I have the biggest problem, because that just isn’t true. It wasn’t an attack on all MPs – it was an attack on one in particular, apparently because of the compassionate and passionate support for minorities and immigrants. If you try and delete that from the crime, it makes no sense at all. The reason it happened was not because we’re cynical about politicians; it didn’t happen because people are mean and sometimes nasty on social media, and sometimes carry over that behaviour into real life. It isn’t evidence that some kind of enhanced civility towards our rulers is necessary. That isn’t why it happened. You need to look at why extremism has been courted, stirred up, fluffed and admired by politicians for over a decade now, and what the mainstreaming of extremism by the media and politicians alike has done to embolden people who have gone from the fringes to front and centre.
Sure, it wouldn’t hurt if we were nicer to each other, but this isn’t a wake-up call about that. There is some hard thinking to be done, but it’s not by the masses. This tragedy didn’t come out of nowhere. It wasn’t made by allowing people to be rude and unpleasant towards public figures. It was created elsewhere. And to examine that means to examine a culture that has tolerated intolerance for too long, that has said it’s OK to be borderline racist because that makes for a lively debate, it’s OK to be a troll if you’ve got a photo byline, it’s fine to dehumanise people as long as they’re foreign or different, it’s conversely expedient to brand people who aren’t extremist as extremist and as a threat to our family’s security. That’s where it came from. But to answer that requires some hard thinking, because that would mean looking inward rather than out, to the articles themselves rather than the comments underneath, to writers rather than readers. And that just wouldn’t do, would it.