Stop calling it a false flag

[Content note: discussion of Manchester bombing and responses to it.]

It happened again. It took all of ten minutes after I saw news of the Manchester bombing online for some anti-authoritarian dickhead to start musing whether this was a “false flag” engineered by the UK Conservatives in response to Jeremy Corbyn being up in the polls.

It’s very tempting to just type “fuck off” and finish this there, to be honest. But this was already a trope that annoys me – a bad habit the left really didn’t need to pick up from the alt-right. And having seen it a few more times since, and gotten progressively angrier, and then found people getting self-righteously defensive about being called out as conspiracy theorists as they theorise about a conspiracy and gotten even more angry … well, it was write this post or rant some more at my guinea pigs, and they’re way too cute to deserve that.

What frustrates me about the intellectual chin-stroking about “false flags” – besides the extreme callousness it must take to see news of dozens of young people and parents being killed or injured and decide “now’s a great time to show off how politically cynical I am” – is that it makes, or should make, literally no difference to the way we respond to what happened in Manchester, or its political consequences.

The targeted mass murder of teenage girls at a concert is fucking appalling, whoever did it, for whatever reason.

The exploitation of this crime to push a conservative political agenda, to double down on the stigma and bigotry levelled against Muslims and immigrants, is fucking appalling, whoever’s doing it, for whatever reason.

The increased militarization of the police force and constraining of basic civil liberties in the name of “national security” is cynical garbage and must be opposed – whoever’s doing it, for whatever reason.

Let’s say it’s true, though. Say we live in a bizarro alternate universe where Theresa May* actually decided to orchestrate public mass murder to foment xenophobia and hatred in order to inspire voters to re-elect her party.

Are we – lefties, progressives, liberals, pick a label you like the look of – going to be more opposed to those things? Less opposed to those things?

Don’t we stand against violence and bigotry? Don’t we stand for compassion and community? Don’t we see the role of the state as supportive and social, not controlling and run for private interests?

Do not get me wrong, on the 0.00005% chance this was all an orchestrated political play straight out of Glenn Beck’s ghostwriter’s handbook, anyone even vaguely involved should be arrested, prosecuted, and locked up for the rest of their lives, at which point their ashes should be fired into the sun and their names scrubbed from human memory.

But until then? I’m baffled. What purpose does it serve to pontificate about abstract fringe hypotheses when there are parents in Manchester who still don’t know if their kids are okay? What incredibly weird need does it fulfil to play guessing games about “the real cause” of this, or “the real reason” why a repressive social conservative government is acting like a repressive social conservative government? Is it like when you’re watching a detective show and everyone’s trying to be the first who guesses who the killer is? Are you hoping your smug superiority to keep warm after society collapses?

It’s irrelevant intellectual masturbation, comrades, and no one wants to watch it. Let’s stand in solidarity with the people of Manchester, and hold fast against the forces of oppression, and challenge conservatism and xenophobia wherever it treads. Let’s react with love, not hate, because that is exactly what all those who use terror as a weapon do not want.

~

*Someone is going to respond to this saying either sincerely or “ironically”, “LOL as though Theresa May would have ordered it herself! MI6 deep state Snowden bitcoin Project Orion” and whoever you are you can sod off.

Watching our language on mental illness and disability

[Content note: ableist language]

It was probably inevitable that in a post on The Standard about the differences in commentary style between leftwing and rightwing blogs, someone would come along and start saying things like:

Kiwiblog’s comments threads feature a great many angry retards, who mistake the laying out of their prejudices for thinking about a subject and presenting an argument on it. This topic attracts them more than most, and the thread was accordingly psychotic in tone.

When I pointed out that using words like “retard” and “psychotic” was unfriendly to people with mental health issues, it was probably also inevitable that I would be called a member of the “volunteer word police”.

The thing is, ableism is a serious issue. And I’m not ashamed to point it out when I see it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the word “ableism”, this is a good introduction.

There are two very good sets of reasons to not use that kind of language.

The first is the harm it causes. The way we talk about people with disabilities or mental illnesses contributes to how society treats them. We can use language which accords people some basic dignity and agency – like “wheelchair user” – or we can use language which pigeonholes them and defines them purely by what they “can’t” do – like “wheelchair-bound”.

And when we talk about judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, callous people like the standard commenters at Kiwiblog as “retards”, we’re saying that people who have severe mental disabilities are judgemental, vindictive, aggressive, and callous. Do you think that’s going to lead to anyone saying “gee, maybe I should be more open-minded and accommodating to people with mental disabilities?”

There’s a lot of highminded progressive principles which liberal/lefty people subscribe to, about treating people equally and not tolerating oppression. And we extend our analysis of power and exploitation to language all the time. We can all see the harm caused by referring to workers as a “resource” or telling sickness beneficiaries that “the best path to recovery is paid work.”

But when it comes to ideas like “don’t use ableist language” or “stop calling Paula Bennett fat” those progressive principles tend to fall down. Suddenly, we refuse to see the harm we cause with our language.

The second reason to avoid ableist language is, sadly, probably more persuasive.

That’s the idea that when we write off threatening, bigoted hate-speech as “retarded” or far-right and religious extremists as “nutjobs”, we’re downplaying the real threat they pose and cut ourselves off from being able to challenge their ideas or the people who propagate them.

Calling Kiwiblog commenters “angry retards” basically lets David Farrar off the hook for providing a platform for bigotry and hate. Talking about Cameron Slater’s mental health all the time mitigates the fact that he has built a following on deliberately destroying people’s careers and trying to threaten their lives. Writing off people like Anders Breivik as “crazy” stops us from examining and understanding the huge community of people who think, say, and may be planning similar violent actions. (And writing off that entire community as “crazy” is a great way to let them organise further acts of terrorist violence right under our noses.)

It’s easy enough to see why this language has a lot of currency. It’s so satisfying to be able to write off whole groups of people as being beneath us, isn’t it? But really it just hurts everyone else, including ourselves.

If that makes me a member of the Volunteer Word Police, I can only hope that the job comes with a shiny badge.

If you’re having difficulty figuring out how to stop using words like “retard” or “lame” in your day-to-day life, here’s a handy guide.