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The rise of the far right is something that must concern any civilised society. Even before the horrific terrorist atrocity in Christchurch, there have been signs that racist extremists are becoming more active. In the UK, four of the 18 terror attacks prevented by the intelligence agencies since March 2017 have come from the far right. Although, thankfully, the far right is still a fringe phenomenon, it is futile to deny that such groups are steadily growing in influence. How sad, then, that the debate about how best to stymie this disturbing trend has been reduced to facile and baseless finger-pointing.
Often seen as ‘a sideshow to the serious business of governance’ (to borrow Stephen Heuser’s phrase), what has become known as the ‘culture war’ has been brought into sharp focus through the reinstatement of tribal faultlines in politics. This week we have seen David Lammy doubling down on his ludicrous comparison of the European Research Group with the Nazi party, and Chris Key in the Independent calling for UKIP and the newly formed Brexit Party to be banned from television debates. It is clear that neither Key nor Lammy have a secure understanding of what ‘far right’ actually means and, quite apart from the distasteful nature of such political opportunism, their strategy only serves to generate the kind of resentment upon which the far right depends.
The blame game after Christchurch was a similarly scattershot affair. Australian senator Fraser Anning blamed Muslim immigration. American videogame developer Brianna Wu implicated Tucker Carlson. A student at a vigil in New York City harangued Chelsea Clinton, saying the attack had been ‘stoked by people like you’. A chain of bookstores in New Zealand stopped selling Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life on the supposition that it had inspired the killer, which would suggest that they are not remotely familiar with its contents.
Those who seek to narrow the Overton window of acceptable thought, to restrict free speech as a means to prevent the ‘normalisation’ and ‘legitimisation’ of certain forms of discourse, are doing more harm than good. But the cultish nature of the social-justice movement – with its combination of utter self-certainty, a reluctance to debate, and a belief among its most vocal proponents that they represent the underdogs – means that it will be difficult to stem the momentum.
After events such as Christchurch, it is important to reflect on the circumstances that have somehow produced a human being so lacking in empathy that he would commit such an unfathomable act of violence, but in doing so we must exercise caution. The instinct to apportion blame to anyone other than the perpetrator is understandable, but it only really serves to mitigate his own responsibility. All of us are open to persuasion and influence, and the effects of propaganda are well documented, but we also have individual autonomy and should be held accountable for our choices. The leap of faith it takes to blame the right-wing commentariat for the murder of Jo Cox, for instance, is as myopic and distasteful as those who seek to demonise all Muslims for the behaviour of a violent minority.