Misogyny, madness and terror: the language around the Plymouth murders

Reading about the horrendous murders in Plymouth yesterday, I instinctively wanted to close my eyes, or shut my laptop or think about something else. Nothing can ever make sense of these murders, including the killing of a three-year-old child. No amount of discussion can begin to fill the void in the lives of the victims’ loved ones.

If this incident is nauseating for those of us reading about it, it must be a million times more so for the friends and relatives of Maxine Davison, Lee Martyn, Sophie Martyn, Stephen Washington and Kate Shepherd; and for the two unnamed people who were injured and remain in hospital.

I tend to avoid commenting on these sort of incidents. I don’t feel that I have much to say that cannot be said better and more helpfully by others. I am commenting briefly now because I am alarmed by several things that are already being said by people who seem to think that it is possible to make sense of such a tragedy – or who by their language seem ready to damn groups of people who are not responsible.

Madness?

Words such as “mad”, “psycho” and “insane” have appeared around social media in connection with the murders. This all adds to the impression that people with mental health problems are likely to shoot you. They are not. Nearly all people with mental health problems are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else. The many mentally unwell people who harm and kill themselves receive far less attention than the tiny number who tragically kill others, having been failed by a state that routinely underfunds mental health services and a society and economy that seem set up to make people ill.

But as yet we have no evidence that the Plymouth murderer, Jake Davison, was mentally unwell. He was wrong – more wrong than it is possible to say – and engaged in vile and unimaginable acts. If that leads you to assume that he was mentally ill, you might want to ask why you associate such things with mental ill-health. We will find out more in time about the state of Davison’s mind, although we will never know enough to understand it.

Terror?

“Defence” Secretary Ben Wallace said, “We can rule out terrorism”. Tory MP Johnny Mercer, whose own attitudes to murder are extremely inconsistent, said that the murders were not “terror-related”. Such phrases are often used as if they were supposed to be reassuring. If they are meant to mean that Davison was not part of a group who are about to launch another attack, then I suppose that it is reassuring to an extent. It does not make the killings any less horrific or evil.

“Terror” used to refer to an emotion. Then we had the “war on terrror” – war against an emotion – that began with an invasion of Afghanistan to remove a group who, 20 years later, look set to take it over again (showing what a failure the whole “war on terror” has been). If “terror” is just short for “terrorism”, then we might say that it involves political killings carried out by organised groups designed to frighten populations into worrying about further attacks. But this definition does not apply to many of the incidents routinely described as terrorism. Take the murders on tubes and buses in London on 7th July 2005. People were murdered for political reasons and their killers were understandably described as terrorists. But they were scarcely an organised group and were not part of any organisation planning further attacks.

Does “terrorism” then simply refer to politically motivated violence? If so, I don’t see how Ben Wallace or anyone else can rush to say, so early in the day, that the Plymouth murders were not terrorism. Unless that is that our language has been so debased that “not terror-related” simply operates in a racist way as shorthand for “not committed by a Muslim”.

The chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, Shaun Sawyer, seemed to confuse the issue when he said that the police are “not considering terrorism or a relationship with a far-right group or any such other group”.

At least Sawyer and his officers seem not to be equating terrorism with Islamic terrorism. They recognise the existence of far-right terrorism. What is not clear is why they are so keen to rule out Davison’s possible connection with it. It may be that they have concluded that he was not acting as part of a group (even though it seems early for such conclusions) but it seems pretty clear that he did have some far-right views. I have no idea whether he held racist or fascist views, but he certainly expressed extremely sexist and misogynistic views associated far-right attitudes to gender and sex.

Davison was linked to the misogynistic “incel” movement. “Incel” is short for “involuntarily celibate”, combining a misunderstanding of the nature of celibacy with an assumption that men are entitled to expect sex from women. It is often linked with extreme “men’s rights activists” who argue that feminism is about women gaining superiority and that men face discrimination because of their gender. I don’t think I need to take up space here by explaining why this is obvious nonsense. Davison is also reported to have followed the “blackpill” movement, which involves a degree of self-loathing that would be pitiful if it were not so linked to hatred and bitterness towards women.

Blaming women for your problems – rather like blaming migrants, or Muslims, or Jews or the man next door – is a simplistic and inaccurate alternative to looking at how the structures of society serve to promote cruelty, selfishness and isolation and undermine the chances of love and meaningful community. Misogyny is a political position, and if “terrorism” means political murder than it is far too soon to say that yesterday’s horrendous events in Plymouth were not terrorism.

The situation has been well described by the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, who put it better than I can:

While it is too soon to say what motivated this man to commit murder, we do know that the incel ideology can be dangerous and radicalising. It is built on misogyny, and a twisted, desperate world view.

“We do not know what motivated this horrendous incident, however those who consume incel content have engaged in violent attacks. Whatever happened in Plymouth, the hatred of women – and the communities of men who engage in a celebration of that hatred online – must be taken seriously, in schools, by social media firms and by government.”

In this blog post, I have focused on the dangers of the language used to discuss the Plymouth shootings. That’s why I haven’t even discussed how Davison was able legally to obtain a pump-action shotgun.

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