On Human Rights Act repeal and preaching to the choir

In the UK, we’ve recently elected a new government, and the result was disappointing for many of us.  The Conservatives have now expressed an intention to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998), on the argued grounds that it protects criminals and terrorists.  To be fair to the Tories, they said they were going to before the election, so it can’t really be argued against on those grounds.  I have seen a number of pieces explaining the complications of repeal, generally talking about how it intersects with other legislation and treaty obligations, so to remove the HRA would require unravelling a Gordian knot.  I shan’t go into such matters, since I’m no expert in the legal niceties, except to observe what happened to the mythical Gordian knot; I’m not sure that Michael Gove won’t just forge ahead with his plan and worry about the consequences afterwards (look at Lords reform for a policy under a previous administration that was started without any idea of an endpoint).

So on the basis that, if they believe that it is the right thing to do, the Conservatives might just go ahead and repeal the Act and damn the consequences, their opponents need to make the case as to why this is the wrong thing to do.  Assuming that Her Majesties Opposition do their job (which may be over-optimistic given the last 5 years, but let’s hope the new Labour leadership is a bit more effective), and given the size of the majority currently held by the Conservatives, this looks like a matter of persuading a relatively small number of MPs, either directly or via their constituents, that to do so would be a mistake.  So far so good.

The problem is that while there are a considerable number of people, in both the traditional and new media, making what appear to be very reasonable cases as to why the HRA should not be repealed, I’m not convinced that those who either support or lean towards repeal will listen to them.  Obviously, this is at least in part because there is a lack of direct communication.  You can write as many letters to the Guardian as you like, and Telegraph readers are going to remain cheerfully oblivious.  This is even more heightened by the gap between the traditional and new media.  I love Twitter, but most of the country (certainly that part over the age of, say, 30) barely registers its existence, let alone considers that it might be the site of serious political discussion.  Of course the reverse is also true, as readers of physical media are probably relatively unaware of how irrelevant it seems to the younger generation.  But aside from the issues specific to particular media, I think the major problem is that the two sides are speaking in different languages.

The broadest issue here is that when the term Human Rights is used, different people hear completely different things.  For those of us who *believe* in Human Rights, their existence and nature is self-evident.  While we might debate their precise constitution, for us the fact is that a) there are certain rights that are common to all of humanity, and b) that these are assigned purely on the basis of being human.  For the other side, this is not the case.  At the extreme, there are plenty of people who do not recognise the existence of rights at all, only privileges.  In this case, ‘rights’ are something awarded in return for certain behaviours: paying one’s taxes, adhering to the law, etc.  Secondly, these rights or privileges may be specifically limited to citizens of a particular territory.  This is not an unreasonable position.  In fact, given the concerns over the repeal over the HRA, it is eminently logical: it appears that the rights we are talking about are created by the HRA and similar legislation.  Where we, as believers in Human Rights, diverge is in insisting that these rights exist regardless of the HRA.  For us, the law only recognises, and administrates for, self-evident facts.

So the challenge for those arguing that the HRA should be maintained, or at very least that those who wish to repeal it need to make a lot clearer what exactly will replace it (because nobody is arguing that it is without flaw), is in speaking in way that their opposite numbers understand.

Speaking across the line

So, having determined that we must talk in way that resonates with those we are trying to win over, we must begin by acknowledging who they are.  The first, small, group is ministers and senior members of the Conservative party who find themselves directly frustrated in their plans by the existence of the act.  I suspect persuasion here is a waste of everybody’s time.  The vast majority of people who support, or at least ambivalent to, appeal have far less personally invested in this happening or, more pertinently, believe this to be the case.

To appeal to this large body of people, I think we must make the case in terms of self interest.  To be clear, this is not to say selfishness, as they are as concerned with the good of those around them as are any of us.  But we must explain how the law benefits (and repeal would injure) people like them.  We’re broadly dealing with tribalism.  There opposition is based on what they believe to be right for their family, friends, and the country at large.

For the above group, the apparent effects of the act can be summarised in two broad categories: it protects and privileges criminals and terrorists, or at least people suspected of being such; it has no positive effects for ‘hard-working’, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens such as themselves.  That the former is, at least partially, the case is unarguable (the protecting part, not the privileging – if it gave rights to the accused that were not general to the population, it would indeed be flawed).  This is part of what it is supposed to do.  The idea that it does not do the latter, though, is attached to the notion that there are two distinct classes of people, which we might just call ‘criminals’ and ‘citizens’.  (by the way, I’m fully aware that I’m doing the dividing thing myself by talking in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but this is merely regarding temporary positions on a single argument, not a lasting classification)

So, I think the case needs to be built, or restated, given the fact that it is self-evident to many, that the division here is false.  That by committing a crime, still less by being accused of one, one does not suddenly move beyond the pale.  That a criminal, a protestor, an asylum seeker, is not in any way a different *sort* of person to any of the rest of us ‘law-abiding’ types.  As long as you can accept, or even self-construct, a narrative where there is the sort of person who this happens to, and the sort of person you are, it’s only a small step to believing that they deserve different treatment.  It’s not as naked as self-interest vs. not caring what happens to others, but the fact remains that we find it hard to empathise with people without a strong personal connection.  And that can be manipulated by those who control the narrative.  I think much of it is actually driven by our need to believe in natural justice.  We know we live in a world where some people are treated badly, and the idea that we are somehow complicit in that is deeply troubling.  So we listen to those who tell us that those who are in trouble must have done something to deserve it.

I think the case that needs to be made to save the HRA is based on asserting its benefits for all of us.  It doesn’t help that if you are, say, a white middle class professional, you do generally get treated well by the authorities if you should happen to come into contact with them.  You think, for the most part, that they are fair.  Your day-to-day experience shows you this.  And if they are fair to you, why wouldn’t they be fair to everyone else?  But while an unchecked state may start by treading on the smallest of us, it will see no reason not to extend the practice.

The case needs to be made that a state and a people that does not respect and protect the least of us, the disadvantaged, the criminals, those who do not have citizenship, does not in the end respect or protect any of us, except maybe those who are rich and powerful enough to buy their own way.  Only by showing that we are all the same, that Human Rights are exactly what they are called, are we going to be able to win over those who see the HRA as unnecessary or even bad.


Today, walking through Wood Green high street, I saw a guy putting on what appeared to be gardening gloves.  Slightly odd, as he didn’t look like he was about to garden.  But then gloves are always a bit odd.  Mainly because they’re usually worn by criminals*.  You can tell a lot from somebody’s decision to wear gloves, which I shall elaborate upon:

  • Latex gloves – convenient for the murderer who needs to blend in quickly after the crime.  Easily disposed of.  Also possibly useful for medical types.  Who may also be murderers.
  • Tight leather gloves – murderers only.
  • Big leather gloves – murderers and chauffeurs.   Who may also commit murder for their employers.  Or be inexplicably murdered themselves.
  • Wooly gloves/mittens – acceptable on children.  Although really disappointing in snow, as any attempt to produce projectiles with which to bombard siblings leaves them soggy in seconds.  Since they are for children, on adults they must immediately arouse suspicion.  Although not really of a potential killer (too much risk of leaving fibres in the wound?).  Probably a barrator, then.
  • Furry gloves – makes me think of puppets.  So some form of fraudulent.
  • Gardening gloves – friend of a killer.  Useful for helping to dispose of the bodies.  Or possibly a gardener, but this does cover for access to a wide selection of weapons.

    Anyway, in summary, you should be extremely suspicious of anybody wearing gloves, as they may attack you at any moment.  Then again, so might somebody not wearing gloves.  And that’s an even scarier prospect, since you can’t spot them.  Basically, assume that anybody you don’t know is up to something.  And *know* that anybody you know definitely is.


I don’t know why I harbour such suspicion of the wearing of gloves, but there you go.  Don’t wear them myself, unless necessary.  Like when I’m actually gardening.

*this may not be strictly true.

The Novelty of Extremism

Another week, another attack attributed to ‘extremism’.  At least in the West – the rest of the world expects these things far more frequently, to the point where the lack of coverage by the (Western-owned) news media is actually kind of logical: news is defined by novelty.  In this sense, it’s not ‘news’ that another car bomb, attack on a rival sect, or the like , has occurred in Iraq or much of the surrounding region.  Of course it’s pretty fucking important to the people living there, but as far as the West is concerned, this is awful business as usual.

ISIS (or IS, ISIL, etc.) and their ilk have apparently broken through this apathy by apparently raising the brutality to another level.  I’m not entirely convinced by this notion, not least because it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something to do to another human being that hasn’t been done before.  Burning alive?  While not perhaps as common as certain tales about witchfinders might suggest, the practice dates back millennia, was in the playbook of the Catholic church – and others – for centuries, and was still on the statute book of European nations well into the 19th century.  Of course we don’t do it now (at least not as a directly-mandated method of execution – incendiary weapons are still in use), but when you’re in a state of war – something that various of the involved parties seem to agree on, if not the implications of this – you don’t get to choose exactly what methods and techniques are permissible to your opponent.

Rather, the outrage seems to be at the particularly public nature of the crimes.  This again is not, in itself, a novelty: every historical nation appreciated the (apparent) value of making executions public.  The difference here is the nature of publicity.  Rather than making everybody head off to the town square to watch a hanging, we can now sit at home, click on a few links, and be exposed to the horror.  And the nature of the web is such that it is ISIS who are largely in control of this process.  Of course it is the choice of an individual to watch, or to decide that being aware of the crime is sufficient without requiring first-hand viewing.  But the role of the formal media, literally to mediate between the public and the world, has been reduced.

This presents a problem for the media establishment, and thus for the state, of which it is a part.  This is not to suggest that the mainstream media is under direct control in the Soviet style, or even in the more subtle fashion of the BBC (I am not attacking the BBC here , as I think it’s fantastic for all sort of reasons, but the nature of the licence-fee funded system is such that it works under certain constraints).  Nor is this to confuse the state with the government of the day.  But the variations between the press in different countries show how each nation tailors its own media.  In the greatest part this is determined, if unconsciously, by the public, but the powerful are able to steer more deliberately.

Given the fact that they (and by ‘they’ I mean both the mainstream media and the wider state) can’t control the release of these videos, of the wider news of atrocities and killings, they are seemingly left with two options.  Either to ignore them, to try and distract by focussing on other events elsewhere, to make their own bigger, better news.  Or to try and make more out of these horrors in an effort to regain control of the narrative.  You might think of it like their being the driver of a vehicle that has been forced out of control and is skidding.  either they try and fight against it and return to the normal course, or they turn further into the skid (which is apparently what one should do in the actual situation, although I guess it requires a certain level of cool and concentration).  And in the most part it looks like they’ve chosen the latter; these atrocities are a ‘new thing’, and worse than anything we have seen before (and therefore require an equally unprecedented response).

One of the problems with this tactic of escalation is that it’s never enough.  Each new act needs to be (or be seen to be) worse than the last, just to require our attention.  Once one expects novelty, the same just won’t do.  So the tag of extremist needs to be attached to ever more items.  If terrorists are threatening our very way of life, why should the police be bothered about environmentalist activists?  Perhaps these people are also extremists, albeit of a less immediately frightening ilk.  Soon, any person or organisation outside the mainstream risks being branded as extremist.  And this is not entirely inaccurate, if extremism is only ever defined against a notion of the ‘moderate’ that is hyper-conservative.  Which is what seems to be happening over the last few years, with the result that the label of ‘extremist’ has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Placing the blame

The nature of the term extremist is such that it requires more specification.  One could be an extremist knitter, or stamp collector, but this is unlikely to make one a threat to the public.  However an extremist Muslim, or even atheist – as belatedly reported by some in the case of the Chapel Hill shootings – is a different matter.  This could expand to political and other ideologies.  However the effect in all these cases is to definitely locate the individual within a particular group.  Muslims have long been aware of this – the way that every attack is followed by the demands for ‘moderate’ Islam to express its regrets, to apologise, and above all to own the crimes of its extremist adherents.  Much of the response (at least on Twitter, as the mainstream media initially saw a non-event) to the Chapel Hill shootings was to turn this expectation onto atheism.  I entirely understand why this happened, but I’m afraid that two wrongs do not make a right.  There may be cases when a wider group needs to be held responsible for the actions of one of its members, but to cast the net so widely is not only a mistake, but is ultimately extremely negative.

Most obviously this is a Bad Thing in that large numbers who are entirely innocent of the original crime are drawn into its wake.  And this can lead to waves of retaliation and escalation.  One of the saddest aspects of the Charlie Hebdo attack was the moment I realised that not only was the response seemingly inevitable, but that it would only lead to further innocent deaths.  As many in the West, including its leaders (seeing obvious political capital, if you’re feeling cynical) praised the idea of a new issue collecting yet more offensive images related to Islam.  Now I’m not questioning their right to publish these, or weighing it against the offence felt by many Muslims entirely innocent of the shootings, but I knew that this was going to lead to more deaths.  I’m not sure of how these numbered, not least because they didn’t fit the narrative, but at least ten people were reported killed in Niger at protests against the new edition.  Without wanting to go into further detail on this matter, I’d note that the reason I’m broadly against the likes of Charlie Hebdo is that it seems so indiscriminate in its targets: for me, satire is meant to be directed solely at the powerful; kicking those worse off than you is bullying, not free speech.

Anyway, returning from that tangent, I’d suggest the other problem with locating specific extremisms is that it leads to looking for the causes – and hence the place to begin preventative activity – in the wrong place.  If Islamic extremists are responsible for x, then we must go to the mosques.  If an atheist extremist shoots some believers, we must demand that Richard Dawkins explain himself.  And so on.  And this means that we miss, possibly wilfully, any possible common causes, and also significant differences.

We ignore the fact that, even if we do pretend that the Chapel Hill shootings were over a ‘simple’ parking dispute, Craig Hicks appears to have been a singularly angry man in a country that permits such people easy access to lethal weaponry.  And we ignore the backgrounds of those involved involved in attacks such as those in Paris this year, London in 2005, and even 9/11, beyond that they were extremist Muslims.  We may think that we are exculpating other ‘moderate’ Muslims, but in fact we are further locating the blame within their community.  And I’d like to look more closely at this.

In describing someone as an Islamic extremist, we don’t question their belonging to the religion.  Other Muslims may be quick to point out that they can’t be ‘real’ Muslims and commit such crimes, but we all too easily brush this aside as a formula, and one that is really just a variation on No True Scotsman (an informal fallacy, where one modifies an assertion on an ad hoc basis to suit emerging data or claims).  But this is to, crucially, miss the importance of the assertion.  To put it bluntly: many of those involved in ‘Islamic’ terrorist acts are rubbish Muslims.  Plenty of accounts have noted that, contrary to what one has been led to expect, they don’t become especially devout, start attending mosque more frequently, or studying the Koran.  Rather, they drink alcohol, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex.  Now I might regard it as possible to be a Muslim while failing to adhere to every requirement (I’m afraid my knowledge of the specifics is lacking), but I’d be hard pushed to describe these people as devout.

Rather, these behaviours have more in common with gangs and drug dealers.  And wouldn’t you know it, it appears that quite a few of those involved have exactly this sort of history.  A little reading around suggests that it’s far easier to find people already on the edge of society, already engaged in criminal activity, give them a dose of a highly distorted version Islam, and persuade them to focus their already extant rage at disenfranchisement, than it is to get ordinary Muslims to attack anybody.

To cut a long argument short, focussing on Islam (or atheism, or any other broad ideology) in the wake of a terrorist attack by those claiming affiliation is not only counterproductive in various other ways, but it is a complete waste of time as regards trying to identify the cause.  And we won’t prevent further attacks by treating Islam (even if we tip-toe around our point by attempting to differentiate ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ varieties) as the root cause.  Terrorist attacks, for all of the scale and horror, are criminal acts, and share the same broad source: poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, exclusion, and the rage that results from these.  The fact that religion or ideology may help to direct, to choose targets, is to misunderstand its role.

And on that note, I return to the Chapel Hill shootings.  Craig Hicks may have shot three people because they were Muslims.  He may even have done it over a parking dispute (although I would be extremely suspicious of anybody who tried to claim that there was nothing more to it).  But to attribute his actions simply to his professed ideology is to miss the point as much as it is to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on Islam; he was as far as we can tell, an angry, angry man with a gun.  And one of those is just waiting for a reason to kill somebody.  Any reason.


Having laid out in my usual roundabout fashion, I guess I’ll offer my idea of a ‘solution’.  Firstly, terrorism is a criminal act or acts.  Nothing more.  The moment we treat it as such, not only do we cede power directly to the terrorists, but we degrade our ability to prevent it happening further.  Secondly, you don’t deal with crime without dealing with the causes of crime.  Of course this sounds worryingly like an early Blair soundbite.  But for me this means, most simply, trying to reduce inequality, and lack of employment, education, and political engagement.