“The interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil”

Mike Phipps reviews Violent Ignorance: Confronting Racism and Migration Control, by Hannah Jones, published by Zed

Hannah Arendt, reflecting on the trial of a senior Nazi leader who expressed horror at the result of the policies he had himself ordered, remarked on “the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil”. 

It’s an extreme example but for Hannah Jones highly relevant to contemporary politics. Take, for instance the aftermath of the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far right fanatic in 2016.  “Jo Cox was killed by hatred” was the acceptable explanation following her death, but we forget at our peril that it was a particular kind of hatred, stirred up by politicians’ words and deeds.

Using perhaps less extreme examples, this thoughtful book applies the idea more widely. The author mentions Conservative MP Heidi Allen, “wiping away tears and unable to speak in Parliament on hearing of the destitution and desperation of fellow MP Frank Field’s constituents living without food or hope.” Yet she had consistently voted to reduce financial support for people in need that led to this situation.

More structurally, others writers have described “white ignorance” and “white innocence” to refer to the erasure of the aggression of certain dominant cultures by those who seek to claim on their behalf a victim status. Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Triouillot identified a similar pattern where certain areas of ‘what happened’ are systematically forgotten – or might never be considered worthy of record in the first place.

Class is another area. How could the Grenfell fire happen in one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the world, when all the information that would have prevented it was readily available?

Despite the inflammable cladding that had been responsible for previous tower block fires, despite concerns raised about it by residents, “no action was taken – because Grenfell was only visible to decision-makers as an eyesore that needed covering with cosmetic cladding, not as a home for hundreds of people who deserved safety and decency.”

As Ben Okri wrote in his poem about the event:

“They did not die when they died; their deaths happened long

Before. It happened in the minds of people who never saw

Them. It happened in the profit margins. It happened

In the laws. They died because money could be saved and made.”

These are moments when the ignorance is punctured and the reality is revealed for what it is. But these moments themselves are often contested. The image of a dead Syrian toddler on a beach in 2015 was profoundly affecting for many.  But the photographer was still accused by some of ‘staging’ the image.

The horrified reaction to the photograph forced the prime minster to concede that the UK would take 20,000 Syrian refugees. Later the government would backtrack, but the announcement did the job at the time, closing down further discussion.

The idea is particularly insidious when applied to immigration policy. In the UK, more and more people are being made into border guards. This occurs in everyday interactions, such as checking documents before being able to rent a house, get a job, receive healthcare, open a bank account or drive a car. Elsewhere, the issue is rendered ‘invisible’.

One of the ways Australia attempted to promote ignorance about its policy was through ‘offshoring’. Immigration detention centres were outsourced to sovereign territories of other countries and also from the state to private companies. Once out of sight, secrecy could be enforced through non –disclosure agreements that applied to all charities, social workers, doctors and medical personnel working there, which prevented staff from making public any abuse or malpractice they saw during the course of their work.  In 2015, the Australia Border Force Act threatened a jail term of up to two years for anyone working within the detention system who revealed what happened there.

As Jones notes, “It was in this context that those held in the detention camps – including children – could be subject to physical and sexual assault by guards that were recorded, but not reported.” Unsurprisingly, detainees were routinely driven to suicide attempts and self-harm.

As UK prime minister, Tony Blair proposed a similar system for the EU.  But in 2016, the EU adopted something more sophisticated – and brutal – when it made a deal with Turkey to send refugees back there in return for easing visa restrictions for Turkish citizens, and other incentives. The following year Italy came to a similar financial arrangement with Libya.

The concept of ‘violent ignorance’ is also a useful framework for understanding the Windrush scandal. The ‘thoughtless’ decision to destroy crucial records, which for those in power were of little significance, combined with Conservative legislation to create a ‘hostile environment’, created a colossal injustice that has still not been fully addressed. Again, what is interesting, once the scandal became public, was the drive by politicians and the media to wall off this story – the unfair treatment of ‘genuinely’ British people – from the ‘legitimate’ callousness of broader immigration policy.

Campaigns to decolonise education and interrogate the colonial legacy of contemporary institutions can also be seen as part of a struggle against ‘violent ignorance’. Accusations of rewriting history overlook the extraordinary lengths that those in power go to in order to ensure that the ‘right’ history gets written in the first place.  When British imperial forces left Kenya, three and a half tons of documents were destroyed to conceal all traces of the inhuman methods the authorities had used to govern the country.

These discussions are thought-provoking. But the book is less successful when it explores the psychology of employees in brutal and unjust systems and their rationale for operating within them. The ‘manifesto’ of solutions is also framed in terms of individual choices, which is disappointing, but also strange, given that it is collective action that has been effective in challenging official narratives  in so many of the examples explored here.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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