Monday, July 11, 2005

The Public Sphere And Particularity

As I am sure most people have noticed, and is totally understandable, there has been rather a lot of discussion of the bombings in London last Thursday. Having repeatedly re-written what I said on the day, I don't really want to add anything to my initial reaction. However, this does offer an opportunity to make some, unashamedly general, reflections on the ethics of reactions to outrages like those four days ago, to consider, in the light of the various public reactions to those outrages, how we ought to react, in the immediate aftermath, to such events. I do not mean here the public policy reactions – Lord Hoffman’s remarks on detention without trial, I think, capture the proper reaction in that sense quite perfectly – but our public pronouncements, the manner in which discourse should be conducted.

This is not a subject which I have thought much about, until relatively recently, at least in this particular way, and so the remarks will be mostly meant tentatively, and in the spirit of the kind of deference which I will try and defend as central to initial reactions to such events. I should emphasise before I begin, I think, that the reactions in this sense to the events in question have been generally excellent: careful, considerate, and measured, striking quite the right tone of sympathy and bloody-minded defiance. I merely wish to point out that there is a ‘right’ tone, and that it can be characterised in quite general terms, terms which are, I hope, illuminating as to the kind of tone public discourse should take more generally, a topic I’ve had a fair bit to say about recently.

The kind of deference I mentioned earlier and mean here is a deference to the particularity of whatever it is that has happened. This is, I suspect, a more general injunction, connected, through a respect for persons, with the claims of tolerance of difference. The kinds of points I will be trying to make though, I hope, offer up a particularly powerful insight into the moral foundations and implications of that claim, of the importance of respect for the particularity of a purposeful agent, of their projects and their commitments, where those projects and commitments do not inexcusably threaten others or themselves. Well, maybe not all that, but hopefully something on the way to it.

The first thing to note here is, I think, that whilst expressions of sympathy, messages of support, are of course welcome, as is pointed out here, the kind of ‘Ich Bein Einen Berliner’ claims of empathy that echoed around the internet on Thursday are, however well-meant, if anything, slightly insulting. I can’t really imagine what it must have been like to awaken in New York on that day, and see some of the largest and most famous buildings in the city burning, and then crumple down and in on themselves, like a matchstick tower burning from the inside out. I can’t really imagine what kind of damage that does to the sometimes intrusive, sometimes unconscious, but always present background against which one lives one’s life, how it shifts, uncontrollably, the setting in which a life is conducted and in part premised on. Neither, I think, can those who have not lived through the quiet panic of waiting for replies to texts or emails, or hearing a phone ring unanswered, nor understand the growing horror that accompanies these actions as they are repeated with ever more urgency.

I cannot, even if I can begin to share in the sense of social space one understands and is attached to being under threat, the sense of one of the constituent parts of your way of life, for no good reason and in no remotely justifiable manner, coming under threat. Yet to claim empathy with those undergoing such an experience is to claim to be able to share in that experience, as it is undergone, a claim which foists a kind of ersatz version of the lived experience on those have had it, since it is part of their social universe, not yours, which has been attacked, which is being threatened. To claim that an as significant part of your social universe is being wrenched out of sync in the way that a successful terrorist attack does wrench such things out of sync is to undermine the significance of the social world which is being harmed by positing a false equivalence. This was Londoners’ city, full of their family, their friends, their offices, their routes to work, their bars and pubs, their streets, not anyone else’s, and to pretend that they are not theirs in a way that they cannot be those of others is to demean the hurt that harm to them properly causes to those who inhabit and know it and them.

A much more egregious sin against the particularity of the experience of these attacks is, I think, that committed by one of Fox News’s presenters and by George Galloway, the first when they said that this would drag British public opinion closer to the views of the American Right, and thus be to America’s advantage, and the second when he blamed the attack on Blair for invading Iraq. I’ve already commented on what Galloway said, and I stand by that: it was shameless self-promotion, shameless because it basically took the suffering of some people and saw it as a means to a prior end. Whether what Galloway said is true or not – in the sense of the causal link – is irrelevant, I think, and irrelevant however many people thought it, or said it in the pub that evening.

It is irrelevant firstly because of the failure to understand the facts of moral agency that it quite clearly displays, which mischaracterises the harm by identifying someone other than those who perpetrated it as the principal actor. That mischaracterisation does an injustice both to the victim of the accusation, and to those who were the victims of the attack, by denying them rectification from the proper source, and hence rectification at all. Secondly, it is irrelevant because by making a partisan political point at the expense of the victims of the attack, he tried to strip them of the suffering that attack created, to reduce an undeniable, raw piece of phenomenology to mere evidence to support an attack on public policy. That reduction, had it been successful, would have failed to acknowledge that suffering qua suffering, qua what it was: it would have not given the particularity of that suffering anything like its due, would have denied that it should be treated as suffering, suffering which needed to be given comfort.

The appropriate public – in the sense of that given by public figures – response was that given by Livingstone and, to a lesser extent, Blair, who both acknowledged the character of the attacks, the malign purpose of them, and promised, with varying degrees of success, to stand firm against them, as well as praising those who had dealt with them bravely and generally well. If Blair had mentioned ID cards, as I think he did not, he would have been straying into the territory of Galloway’s infraction, by committing the second of Galloway’s sins. However, he didn’t. Perhaps his political advisors are better than Galloway’s, perhaps he thought it would be wrong – make of it what you will. Still, in what Blair didn’t say, and what Galloway did, there are lessons, I think, for how to react to events like those of last Thursday, and more generally for the conduct of public discourse.

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