Is and Ought: The Long Mile Between Douglas Murray and Brenton Tarrant

The shockwave of horror emanating from the Christchurch massacre by Australian Brenton Tarrant has become a widening circle of anger directed toward those on the right of the aisle. The alleged discovery of donations linking Tarrant to European nationalist groups, such as Generation Identity, has given rise to new waves of criticism against others on the right who have negative views about globalism and immigration.

Douglas Murray has been a central target of this outrage, particularly due to the praise supposedly given to his book The Strange Death of Europe within Generation Identity and other identitarian circles. Podcaster and democratic socialist Ryan Bell has decried Murray’s “white nationalism in a bow tie,” while the anonymous, self-appointed left-wing commentator Sascha Saeen compares Murray’s work to “a summary” of Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant’s manifesto. Some criticisms have been mild, such as that of an Oxford academic who resorted to emojis to express his distaste with Murray’s “ridiculous and cruel” proposals. Others have been extreme. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee of the UK have called Murray an Islamophobe, while flatly declaring “Yes Mr Murray you are at least partly responsible for the killing of Muslims.”

There is a modicum of logic in these arguments. After all, many factual observations made by Murray about Muslim immigration, terrorist attacks and native European birthrates can also be found in the manifesto released by the New Zealand attacker. Both men have a great deal to say about patterns of crime linked to minority groups, such as the phenomenon of Muslim pedophile gangs in British cities and towns such as Rotherham, Telford and Oxford. On the other hand, the two men have some very important differences: Murray has never conducted—or called for—a massacre of peaceful worshippers in mosques, as Tarrant tragically did. Though it may seem righteous to some, digging through Murray’s writings with a fine-toothed comb in search of gotcha opinions shared by extremist killers is clearly less than helpful when any similarities are outweighed by such glaring differences.

Murray’s critics fail to appreciate the difference between is and ought. Although this distinction has been a fundamental feature of liberal arts and philosophy curricula since David Hume, it seems to fly right over the heads of many social critics, who are often convinced that any two people who agree on what is happening must also agree on what should follow. In other words, just because you think it’s a problem that Muslims are statistically overrepresented as perpetrators of religious extremist violence globally does not mean you want to grab an assault rifle and conduct an atrocity in their local place of worship.

It’s worth mentioning that this ignorance of elementary logic is not restricted to critics of Murray. Guilt-by-association charges against right-leaning thinkers, who agree with infamous people on basic points of fact or principle are so common that they’ve become an internet meme known as Hitler drank water. This meme was recently invoked by Australian activist Avi Yemini, when responding to Jim Jefferies’ comparison of Yemini’s anti-immigration stance with white nationalism. Since Yemini is ethnically Jewish and of Yemeni migrant descent, a Hitler drank water meme is probably the most respectful answer Jefferies deserved.

What’s so deeply strange about this willingness to violate basic logic when targeting critics of Islamic extremism is its total absence in discussions about Muslims themselves. For instance, although much is shared between the judicial systems of Saudi Arabia and ISIS, both of which derive their legal principles from identical religious precepts and interpretations, it would seem bigoted and insane to call for the eradication of Saudi Arabia, as we do for ISIS. Similarly, Murray’s most furious critics, who condemn him for sharing a platform with controversial figures, have often resisted charges of collective guilt against British Muslims attending mosques which count extremist killers among their alumni. My partner’s family attended the Manchester mosque from which refugee terrorist Salman Abedi graduated, and their grief at his atrocious act of evil was likely similar to that felt by Murray after the Christchurch massacre. Yet our hesitation to rush to condemnation in a case of shared religious belief is bizarrely dissimilar from our urge to castigate those who agree on basic statistical facts about terrorism or migration.

On the one hand, in the wake of a mass killing, it is completely understandable for those hurt and terrorized to respond imperfectly. On the other hand, the inflammatory accusations being levied at completely unrelated individuals, and even racially white Australians as a whole, are precisely what Brenton Tarrant was hoping to provoke. This is perfectly clear from his manifesto, where he explicitly calls for “vilifying, radicalizing and exaggerating all societal conflicts and attacking or even assassinating weak or less radical leaders/influencers on either side.” In Tarrant’s view, attacking all sides in the immigration conflict would create the destabilized and anarchic environment in which his radical ideas might stand a better chance of success.

A society in which moderate critics of migration are deplatformed, ostracized and politically assassinated is one in which avenues for peaceful resolution are closed off and radical action becomes a first resort. Tarrant would be delighted to see figures like Douglas Murray, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson become politically obscure, since this would leave his radical faction the only participant left standing in the market for solutions. Seen in this light, the discord which partisans continue recklessly sowing into our discourse through weaponized collective guilt simply amplifies the reverberations of Christchurch by increasing the likelihood that someone closer to Brenton Tarrant, rather than a right-wing moderate, will hold an intellectual monopoly among conservatives troubled by migration.

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Articulating the correct response to Christchurch is not the first collective action problem those of us in the west have had to face, and it will not be the last we get wrong. But, with so many blindly fulfilling Tarrant’s aims, letting the terrorists win ought not to be an acceptable solution. After any atrocity, our ideal scenario should be a grand unification of both left and right to condemn the perpetrator, his methods and goals wholeheartedly. Instead, we see a backlash against white Australians and an attempt to silence and deplatform the very thinkers who promote alternatives to the killer’s terrible solutions. With western societies as divided as they are, it seems not only illogical, but truly dangerous for us to keep responding in this way.

Finding good solutions to even the most complex collective action problems often comes down to simple things. We need more nuance: that long-lost casualty of the culture wars. Our public discourse has sunk to new lows in the wake of the mournful demise of that quality and the resulting tendency to falsify preferences—to simply lie about our political or social goals—has left us blind to threats lurking within our own societies. To force anti-immigration sentiment further underground in the wake of a tragedy like Christchurch is not just uncouth, but unsafe.

Fixing our public discourse requires a stepwise approach, which begins with differentiating is from ought, and people from ideas. Most critics of migration are as far from Brenton Tarrant as critics of US imperialism are from Osama Bin Laden. Deplatforming everyone sharing Tarrant’s concern about Rotherham, the Paris attacks or even immigration in general ought to seem as sensible as calling someone a Neo-Nazi for sharing the round earth hypothesis with David Duke. When we learn to drop terms like far-right enabler and alt-right adjacent from our lexicon, we can perhaps begin to reach across the aisle and begin the dialog necessary to resolve the divisive social issues that threaten the integrity of our societies. The only alternative is more of the same: a logic-free status quo where those who most revile Brenton Tarrant continue doing his dirty work for him—and driving us apart.

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  1. Well there is diversity amongst ‘far right’ idealogues just as their are divergences in thought between Islamists, Nazis, Liberals, Socialists, Conservative etc etc and every other ism. You can’t derive an ought from an is but applying that to Douglas Murray and Brenton who agree on the ‘is’ but not the ‘ought’ is irrelevant and those who are making the argument are ideologically opposed to the ‘is’ – that Muslim immigration is inherently bad. Its like blaming Marx for Stalin, we need to stop playing games by calling it ‘unfair’ – who even cares? I can be nuanced about it as well, of course supporting ideas of Sam Harris or Douglas Murray is not a one way linear path to acting like Brenton Tarrant or Anders Breivik, but they draw inspiration from the same cesspit of ideas – most of which are despised by the same people who criticise both of them. That’s the main point of contention, no one is brushing anything under the carpet.
    You are clutching at straws, most would just retort they’re a necessary but not sufficient condition.

    1. “supporting ideas of Sam Harris or Douglas Murray is not a one way linear path to acting like Brenton Tarrant or Anders Breivik, but they draw inspiration from the same cesspit of ideas”

      No doubt you draw your inspiration from the “cesspit of ideas” that was responsible for the estimated 100 million dead from the USSR, China and all the other countries run with a totalitarian cult equivalent to Islam (submission). NO OTHER “religion” has this totalitarian psychosis.

  2. 1.5 million Armenian Christians were systematically murdered and raped 105 years ago by Muslims in the name of Islam. There is the saying: those who forget history are domed to repeat. The west needs to remember what happened to the Armenians and make sure it does happen again.

    1. I agree we should remember the Armenian genocide, but what has that to do with this?
      Were there any 105+ year old perpetrators hanging out in Christchurch?

    2. They were killed by Turkish nationalists who despised and later deposed of the Ottoman caliphate who had semi-protected them prior to the genocide.

  3. You do realize that radical Islamic imans preached at the Christchurch mosques, which is why they were targeted.

    1. By that logic, anyone with a MAGA hat is fair game, no? Or does collective guilt only apply to people with whom you disagree?

  4. “Muslims, like any other immigrants, move to escape violence and poverty, to improve their lives,
    to find opportunity for their families, etc., not as a plot to “destabilize” the places they move to. ”

    Nevertheless they bring their cultures with them. As I like to say, if you want your country to be more like Somalia, then bring in Somali migrants. Conversely, if you bring in Somali migrants, they you should expect your country to become more like Somalia.

    1. ‘If you want your country to be more like Nazi Germany, bring in Jewish immigrants.’ I hope you can see the problems with this kind of thinking.
      Of course immigrants bring their cultures with them, they also adopt the cultures of their new homes. Reality is complicated. My point wasn’t, however, to argue
      that immigration is an unalloyed good, but that it isn’t driven by conspiracies and ill intent. Whatever the impact of immigration in some parts of the world, it is no excuse
      for the murder of innocents in New Zealand.

  5. Very important comment on nuance. My sense is that every event reported in media for the past few years must be branded and marketed to get readers attention. My observation is that every event is distilled down to a single, binary value variable based purely on emotion that can be easily sold to the target market. Individual thought, reason and exploration of ideas takes effort and will likely feel discomfort at times if you’re doing it right. A very good read. Thank you.

    1. Nothing is ever nuanced in the media. How else can you tell/sell a story when there is a never ending stream of sides and angles to take – even when it comes to massacres and terrorist attack? It is far too politicised. Even this article which shines light on shades of convergences and differences amongst commonly thought on the “far right”. Being more nuanced about things doesn’t mean jack shit or avoiding being swayed by ’emotion’ and ‘bias’..

  6. I think the answer is simple. Muslims have created an atmosphere of fear and loathing.The slaughter of non Muslims as a goal of Jihad coupled to the migrant Muslim invasion of western societies with the expressed purpose of destabilizing those societies and demanding Sharia law has created a real atmosphere of fear and loathing of all Muslims in many western minds therefore, what occured at Christchurch is a reactionary event many simply call “PAYBACK.” i.e. “what goes around, comes around,” ” The chickens are coming home to roost.”

      1. Those are people afraid of being accused of Islamophobia. Phobias are based on baseless irrational fears, fear of Muslims is neither baseless nor irrational therefore Islamophobia is BULLSHIT. I’m too centrist to shout “we need a FINAL SOLUTION,” but eliminating Muslim citizenship and / or Muslim residency in America and also eliminating illegal aliens too is the ONLY SOLUTION.

    1. This comment is disgusting and exactly the kind of bigotry the sensible left and right have to push back against. I’m quite critical of Islam,
      but the victims at Christchurch in no way deserved to die as some sort of revenge for atrocities committed by other Muslims. Bad ideas have to be addressed
      with good arguments, not braindead fear-mongering and certainly not with amoral violence. There is no reason to think the people of Christchurch are guilty of
      violent Jihad, nor is there a Muslim “invasion” of western societies. Muslims, like any other immigrants, move to escape violence and poverty, to improve their lives,
      to find opportunity for their families, etc., not as a plot to “destabilize” the places they move to.

      People can make a measured critique of immigration policies, or Muslim society, without descending to barbarism and ignorance like this.

      1. There is a big difference between saying the Muslims at Christchurch deserved to die and saying what goes around comes around. Something worse than what you call bigotry is the constant denial of truth. Here’s a dose of truth, Islam is NOT a religion of peace no matter how hard some people try to insist that it is. Islam does NOT respect free speech, freedom of religion, unalienable rights of all people and Islam is not interested in assimilation into western society yet fools will continue to blind their eyes and stop their ears to just plain truth and choose instead the temporary comfort of political correctness.

    2. I think the answer is the opposite of simple, ie. it requires *more nuance*. Most people who emigrate do so just to have a better life, to look after their families, and so on – it isn’t their ‘express purpose’ to destabilize societies. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some discussion around the effect of importing the culture with the immigrant. Identitarianism is simplistic, and a problem, as this article argues. Also, this one:

      1. Your nuanced approach misses the two most important nuances of all. Immigration and migration are separate issues and the baseline principal of Islamic encroachment into western civilizations isn’t for the purpose of individual improvement.

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