Thursday, July 15, 2010

False choice of the week

I've always had very mixed views about Tommy Sheridan, but he certainly spoke for me and millions of others when he responded to an infamous false choice in the following simple terms -

"I'm not with the terrorists, and I'm not with George W Bush either."

The false choice of this week appears to be - are you with the tens of thousands of people on Facebook who apparently believe that Raoul Moat is somehow "a legend", or are you with David Cameron, who believes that Moat was "a callous murderer, full stop, end of story"? My answer is neither. There is no such thing as a three word summary that can be regarded as the "end of story" for any complex human being, no matter how wicked his actions. But I suppose for many politicians a three-word soundbite will do for just about any occasion.

What is it with people? Why do we have this unquenchable urge to characterise anyone who commits a serious crime as either a hero or an irredeemably evil monster (usually the latter)? Indeed, it's not uncommon to hear about criminals self-righteously "taking the law into their own hands" when sharing a prison with a certain type of serious offender - can't they spot that there's just a slight touch of irony there? In the case of Moat, they would almost certainly have gone to the other extreme and welcomed him as a hero. Why? Because he had a vendetta against the police and his girlfriend, something they could easily identify with. It doesn't matter that in lashing out he took and wrecked the lives of innocents - simply because they could understand the impulse, the actions became heroic, regardless of their devastating consequences. I hope that the idiots who've joined Moat's tribute page on Facebook recognise that they've now sacrificed any trace of credibility the next time they feel like pontificating about how the likes of Maxine Carr - someone who behaved appallingly and heartlessly but did not, unlike Moat, actually take a life - should "rot in hell".

The truth is that Moat's actions were a manifestation of his own weaknesses, and an inability to rationalise his rage - a peculiar type of "heroism" for anyone to fawn over. Ironically, we now discover he was aware of his problems on some rudimentary level, and asked to see a psychiatrist. I'm not suggesting for a moment that he wasn't responsible for his own wicked actions and that he shouldn't have been severely punished for them had he lived, but I am saying that his actions were not his whole being, as the Prime Minister seems to believe. I think we like to demonise certain people and regard them as utterly beyond redemption mainly because we're frightened by the fact that, deep down, we recognise that they are not as different from us as we'd care to imagine, and that we all started life with some kind of potential for evil within us - had circumstances provided the trigger. We have to turn serious criminals into "inhuman" non-persons to convince ourselves that isn't really the case.

Or, occasionally, we can turn them into "legends" and bizarrely lionise the end product of their mental illness. Either course is equally irrational. Indeed, such a black-and-white worldview makes it extremely hard for someone like Moat to stop once they've started - a hero has no reason to stop doing exactly what he's doing, whereas a "monster" knows he's been left with no conceivable way of reconciling himself with the world, and feels he might as well go out with a bang.


  1. Everyone has the occasional "amygdala moment" but some folks make it a lifestyle.

  2. I think it is precisely because every person can always made a judgement between right and wrong - even people like Moat - that it is indeed possible to make a black and white judgement about their choices; ie, Moat could have chosen not to behave in the way he did, therefore the fact that he acted as he did can legitimately invite an absolute judgement that he is a bad person.

    Paradoxically and conversely, if people like Moat were somehow like automatons who couldn't help themselves then a more nuanced way of looking at things would be called for. We could then debate whether or not people like him were truly responsible for the actions or whether other causes might be at fault. (This seems to be the starting point for many on the left).

    Obviously, my opinion is an old-fashioned conservative point of view on human nature, one that says everyone is equally responsible for their actions, and therefore equally accountable for the decisions they make. It isn't interested in excuses for why someone might have behaved the way they did, such as the way society is structured, etc, or how "disadvantaged" a person might be. By considering those kinds of things, one is actually taking away from the responsibility that everyone possesses, no matter who they are. It is an infantile and paternalistic way of regarding other people that says they're not truly responsible for their decisions in life.

    I don't expect it to be a popular point of view on this particular blog, needless to say.

  3. Andy, I categorically don't believe Moat was like an automaton - I went out of my way in my post to state that I thought he was responsible for his actions, and that he should have been subject to severe punishment had he lived. My point really is that it's his actions that can be meaningfully subject to black-and-white moral judgements, not his whole person - and I strongly felt Cameron was doing the latter at PMQs for populist reasons. You only have to look at Moat's background to realise that neatly putting him in a box as some kind of 'spawn of the devil' just isn't good enough.