On Bullshit - that British foreign policy causes terrorist attacks
The idea that British foreign policy somehow caused Salman Abedi to go and kill children in Manchester is so stupid that on one level it seems offensive to even discuss it.
Yet this idea is strongly present in our public life, promoted by Islamist organisations like CAGE and recycled by countless left-wingers, including – in diluted form – by Jeremy Corbyn in a speech he is to deliver today.
As Corbyn will put it, “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.”
It is a fair point to make that there is a difference between causation and blame. That basic distinction applies also to immigration, for which we can say runaway housing costs and pressure on public services are partly caused by increased numbers of people but this does not mean that incomers are in any way to blame.
The trouble is politically, whereby figures like Corbyn highlighting this link feeds into a widespread narrative that takes foreign policy is the cause, a single cause, rather than a contributing, motivating aspect (or excuse) in some cases. Coupling this with saying that attacks like Manchester are ‘nothing to do with Islam’, you end up with a situation in which terrorists’ religious justifications for doing what they do are discounted, except as a form of determinism, of provocation and response. Their agency is pushed to the margins in favour of an account of causation in which Britain or the West or non-Muslims always appear as subject while Muslims are objects simply doing what the subject causes them to do.
This explanation is a negation of morality and ethics. It also barely qualifies as a truth claim. Indeed, it seems to me that addressing the truth isn’t the point to it. The 'foreign policy' explanation not a lie so much as bullshit, intended to deceive and draw people towards a certain way of seeing the world. It is political.
As Harry Frankfurt put it in his wonderful little essay, ‘On Bullshit’,
“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of disinterested and austere discipline.”
He added, “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth - this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit . . . the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”
People using the ‘British foreign policy’ explanation are playing politics rather than attempting to tell a truth. With sometimes admirable motives, albeit in the process sacrificing concern with the truth, they are attempting to draw attention away from the religion and the religious group and towards something that treats both of those things as victims and as virtuous.
This is also what Islamist politics and Islamist organisations are trying to do of course, though with not such admirable political motives.
It is concerning the way that other major institutions, including large parts of the Labour Party, have fallen into recycling the same bullshit that they do.