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.”
Islamophobe Douglas Murray says Islamophobia is not the fault of Islamophobic journalists.
Remember he said that Europe must make life hard for Muslims.
Yes Mr Murray you are at least party responsible for the killing of Muslims. https://t.co/RqsJ2Fji4j
— MPACUK (@MPACUK) March 20, 2019
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.
Look! Both Trump and Hitler have both drank water pic.twitter.com/Jdy3klJdKB
— Michael Keyes (@michaelkeyes) January 29, 2017
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.
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.