Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.

Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.

These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?

Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.

Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.

The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.

These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.

I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.

The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.

This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.

I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.

Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.

This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.

The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.

Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?

A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.

But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.

There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.

Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.

And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.

10 July 2007

Sir Alan West: Un-British Defence Of the British Way Of Life

On Sunday (8 July), Sir Alan West – Britain’s new security minister – went on record as saying that people in Britain needed to start behaving in an ‘un-British’ way and ‘snitch’ on people they suspect of involvement in terrorist activity: passing on information to the authorities about such people, who might be members of their own community or family, and who might expect not to be betrayed in this way.

No reasonable person could object to the proposition that there is an overriding moral duty to talk to the police about anyone whom one genuinely suspects of involvement in terrorism, no matter who they are. But does this constitute ‘snitching’? Could it not be seen as an act of loyalty to the people one reports on in this way, if they are part of one’s close circle of friends and family, in that one would be saving them from getting involved in criminality, and potentially from suicide?

The use of the word ‘snitching’ – admittedly employed deliberately by the minister to maximise the newsworthiness of his statement – is unfortunate in a number of ways. First, it plays into the general atmosphere of suspicion verging on paranoia towards Muslim communities, in that it feeds on an idea that these communities are full of actual or potential terrorist cells that are all busy hatching plots, which require ‘grasses’ on the inside to give them away. Clearly, one would expect the police and the security services to make use of informers in the fight against terrorism, as against any other form of crime. But the image implies that the minister is calling for something more extensive and extreme: that ordinary people in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, perhaps really everyone in mainstream society, should transform themselves into the eyes and ears of the security services. This puts me in mind of the Stasi in Communist former-East Germany, where reportedly one-quarter of the entire population were official informers. Under such circumstances, you would really have to be cautious about what you said or wrote in public about subjects such as terrorism and Islam in case someone took against you and reported you as a terrorist sympathiser.

Secondly, the minister’s remarks exemplify an important aspect of the government’s approach to the problem of extremism / proto-terrorism in Muslim communities: it attempts to drive a wedge between so-called moderates and so-called radicals in the effort to bully and enlist the moderates into becoming agents in the fight against extremism. But this approach is built on a false dichotomy between the two groups, which itself rests on a misunderstanding of the root (‘radical’) cause of terrorism. This in turn is a form of terror, which ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Muslims share to some extent: the fear – which also verges in extremis on paranoia – that the West is embarked on a campaign to destroy Islam. By dividing Muslim communities – the Islamic ummah or fellowship – internally by encouraging the more ‘pro-Western’ elements to turn against the more ‘anti-Western’ groups, would an approach such as that advocated by Sir Alan West not actually increase the resentment and paranoia felt by the ‘radicals’, while reducing the influence the ‘moderates’ could exercise over them, as the trust between them would have broken down?

And there’s another irony in the whole scenario set up by Sir Alan’s use of the ‘snitch’ word – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! The minister is inviting members of the Muslim community, who are precisely the kind of people we’re supposed to want to integrate with British society (i.e. who are to some extent un-British) to start behaving in an even more un-British way (which is also framed as being ‘un-Islamic’) in defence of the British way of life! In this way, the best defenders of Britishness are the un-British Muslims who betray their even more un-British Muslim brothers. As if to say that we all have to be more like the Muslims and the terrorists to defeat them: more intolerant and repressive, more furtive and treacherous – more un-British indeed.

Sir Alan West’s whole premise is that the British way of life is under severe threat from ‘radical Islamist’ terrorists who want to change it. (I won’t now get into a discussion of what might be meant by that phrase; suffice it to say that the whole terminology that is used to describe who the terrorists are and what they believe in is a total mess and needs a hefty dose of (British) rational clarity injected into it!) Yet in the same breath, the minister says – and these are his actual words, if not arranged verbatim in the exact sequence he used – that we’ll all need to change our way of life in order to deal with the threat. But if we do that, doesn’t that mean that the terrorists have won: that they’ve actually succeeded in changing our way of life; turning us into a less open, tolerant society; and putting us into a permanent state of fear, which is in essence the whole purpose of terrorist activity – to provoke fear and to prompt the society it is attacking into acting violently and repressively out of fear, so stoking up the conflict and resentments which fuel the terrorist effort, and allowing the terrorists to make a credible claim that they are really waging a war?

Because this is basically what Sir Alan West’s language implies: that he wants Britain to go onto a permanent war footing and to believe that, and start acting as if, it is facing as severe a threat to its way of life as it did in the Second World War or at the height of the Cold War. The rhetoric of the War On Terror may have disappeared; but the underlying thinking is the same.

But does terrorism really pose the same level of threat to the British and Western way of life as did Nazism or Soviet Communism? While not wanting to underplay the seriousness of the specific terrorist plots that the police and security services are working so hard to foil, and have indeed succeeded in doing so on a number of occasions, how many people really believe that we have already entered into an all-out war with Islamism upon which the whole future of our way of life depends? Look around you; do you see a nation at war? What you see is a nation that is still intent on living the life that Sir Alan wants us all to renounce in favour of a sort of total war against the terror that lurks round the next corner – the enemy within our communities.

Who’s to say that the nightmare vision of a Britain laid waste by a series of utterly devastating terrorist attacks could never happen? I personally was sceptical about the warnings of imminent terrorist outrages ahead of the 7/7 bombings two years ago; and it seems from today’s news that I was wrong to suggest in my last blog entry that the 21/7 bombers might have deliberately bungled their attacks. But even if this nightmare came to pass, would that mean the ‘Islamists’ had succeeded in destroying the British spirit and British values, if by that is meant our love of freedom and respect for justice? Change our way of life, yes; such a scenario would inevitably bring about an impairment of our standard of living, new constraints to the way we lead our lives, and a great deal of life-changing suffering and pain. But would they change us, our commitment to democracy and our culture? Is it at all remotely conceivable – in the real world – that the ‘Islamists’ could impose Shariah law and Islamic faith on this nation; and, even if this one-in-a-zillion eventuality arose, would they succeed in altering our hearts and converting us into true believers?

Because there is a true war going on, and it is – as the political establishment so fondly likes to call it – a battle for hearts and minds. But the Islamists are never going to win that battle over us; nor are we going to win against them if we think we can overcome their commitment to the ideal of a world united under Islamic law through the sheer, British power of moderation and liberal reasonableness.

This war is indeed playing itself out in our hearts and minds, which are in danger of succumbing to a bunker mentality: nice, safe, moderate Britons and moderate Muslims on one side; and the vision of a radical-Islamic hell on earth on the other. But this is just a nightmare scenario, not the reality – not yet, and most likely not ever.

We have time – still – to prevent the nightmare from becoming a reality. But to do so, we must stop demonising the terrorist and start engaging with him as a human being. It’s when society dehumanises the enemies it fears that it itself becomes most like them: intolerant, hate-filled, un-British – united with the terrorist in the very fear that their world and culture is in peril.

8 July 2007

Are Suicide Bombings an Attack On ‘Our Values’?

At the time of the 7/7 bomb attacks, whose grim two-year anniversary was marked yesterday, it was said that these atrocities constituted an attack against ‘our values’ to which we had to show defiance. Similarly, during the recent wave of largely bungled bombings, the last of which – on Glasgow Airport – had a distinctly suicidal component, the terrorism that they exemplified was also characterised as an assault on our values.

Leaving aside for now the issue of what exactly ‘our values’ might be, are suicide bombings primarily intended to destroy them? Or, if that is indeed one of the avowed intentions of the suicide bomber, should we in a sense dignify that intention by building it up as a serious assault on our whole value system and way of life?

In our Western-centric way, we tend to forget that suicide bombings have become one of the tactics of choice in other conflicts: that between Israel and the Palestinians, and the de facto civil war between Muslims in Iraq, for instance. In these cases, the suicide bombing is not obviously intended as an attack on the values of the West per se, although it indirectly expresses opposition to Western policy and actions in the Middle East. Similarly, you could see the suicide assaults on targets in Western countries as intended, on one level, to make a political statement and achieve political objectives, albeit that this dimension does involve an element of opposition to Western values and ideology.

In this respect, the 9/11 and 7/7 incidents were extremely eloquent: in the former instance, an awe-inspiring assault on some of the most potent symbols of Western power and, in particular, the US superpower in the shape of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The fact that such a horrific action gave rise to so much jubilant celebration in many Muslim countries should not lead us to rush into condemnation of Islamic barbarism and blood-thirstiness but should – and perhaps was intended to – give us pause for thought about what the West collectively had done to give rise to such hatred and despair. Not that this exonerates the actions of terrorists. But it certainly made people sit up and start to pay attention to the problem, and in that respect, it was a powerful and successful act of communication.

Similarly, the 7/7 outrages could not have been timed for greater effect. The government, Tony Blair, the media and the official representatives of the city of London were all basking in the self-satisfied glow of Live8, the Gleneagles summit (and its promise to tackle global poverty) and the award of the 2012 Olympics to London the day before. The horror of 7/7 and its aftermath threw all of that into question, as if to say ‘enough with all your fine words; but this is the horror you’ve inflicted in Iraq and Palestine, and what are you going to do about it?’. This at least was one of the messages that seemed to come out of those attacks in the context in which they arose, even if the underlying thinking was twisted. The knee-jerk, indignant reaction to the bombings that they were an assault on ‘our values’ merely served to make us deaf to that message once again.

So what of the recent, mercifully ‘unsuccessful’, attacks? A new Scottish prime minister had just come into office without, as yet, any indication of a change in the policy on Britiish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so an Iraqi doctor, working over here as part of our liberal, global, tolerant market society, attempts to carry out two massive bombings in London and one in Glasgow, Scotland – the first terror attack in that land. The political intention appears clear: to whip up public demands and personal pressure on GB [Gordon Brown] for a British withdrawal from those two countries. This is more the message from these failed attacks than that they are an assault on our values per se, although the ideological motivation is undeniably also present.

And by the way, isn’t it rather uncanny that London seems to have experienced more than its ‘fair share’ of bungled bombings: the supposedly attempted bombings of 21/7 and now these latest episodes? The 21/7 would-be bombers have claimed that they didn’t actually intend for their bombs to work, that they were just trying to wreak terror without the carnage – achieving the desired communication impact of terrorism minus the bloodshed; martyrdom for the cause without the ultimate martyrdom of death. Is it possible that the latest attacks were also not fully followed through for the same purpose: to provide a warning of what could happen if British policy didn’t change, rather than actually provoking a further wave of support for the British military presence in those countries, which might well have happened had the bombs gone off? Perhaps we should take it as a warning even if it wasn’t actually intended as such.

Ultimately, I’m speculating about the intentions of the suicide bombers, failed or successful. But we need to pay more attention to the message that these incidents are conveying if we really want to do everything to avoid a repetition, and one which this time could have massively deadly effects. The terrorists are wrong in their assumption that their actions can sway the policy decisions of Western governments, i.e. that policies will be amended in direct response to the threat that terrorism poses. However, they are correct in thinking that their attacks have a huge impact on our hearts and minds. The extremely cleverly conceived and executed attacks of 9/11; the brilliantly timed and co-ordinated bombings of 7/7; and the possibly calculated botched attacks of 21/7 and last week speak powerfully to our emotions and our imaginations. And this is perhaps the only language the terrorist feels is left to the people in whose name he misguidedly carries out his atrocities.

It shouldn’t have to take shared suffering and a common experience of suicide bombings to that of the Palestinian and Iraqi people for us to show compassion towards them and listen to their despair. We may not believe that we are directly responsible for the suffering in those lands; but we do have a duty and the opportunity to do something about it.

If only for own protection.

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