Updated: Apr 20, 2020
So many people have spoken of shock, anger and sadness at the pointless death of a mother of two, murdered in broad daylight in a Yorkshire village, that I am not sure there is anything left to say. But I believe we have to stand together and speak up against terrorism. People have paid tribute to Jo Cox and what she stood for and believed in. I didn’t know her, but I find two key messages in her work about inclusion and making the world a better place which match my reasons for entering teaching.
We are haunted by the question: What is it that enables someone to make a homemade gun, take it and a knife and then attack two people, killing one? There was an interesting divide in the newspaper headlines on Saturday between those that emphasised Thomas Mair’s links to right wing extremism and those that emphasised his mental health. Thomas Mair may have been mentally ill, but that alone does not explain or excuse his actions. To focus solely on his mental health is dangerous: it continues and perpetrates the myth that it was his mental illness alone that led him to this particular action in this particular place. It is a world view that that regards other humans; those with mental illness’ as ‘other’, as ‘different’, as ‘not like us’; people capable of inhuman acts. It moves towards excusing his actions as he ‘couldn’t help it, he was ill’ and so removing responsibility from wider society and the current political dialogue. But possibly even worse, it demonises those who are mentally ill as dangerous. It makes them ‘other’.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem in any given year. This is not ‘other’, it is us. But the message that those with mental health issues are killers is continued and impacts on the self-image, treatment and ability to access treatment of millions of innocent people. There are murderers with mental health problems, but we must be clear that not all murderers are mentally ill and not all of those who are mentally ill are killers. In schools, we need to challenge the negative language used to describe those with mental illness. We must open the conversations and build the understanding that those with mental health issues are every day and like us. We need to describe them as ‘us’ and ‘we’, and not as ‘other people’ who are to be feared, as they are not like us. We need to build the understanding that mental illness should be regarded the same as physical illness. It is something people suffer with, and in most cases it can be treated and will get better, though it may return. Further, it is not catching.
In the last week Steve Mullen, the father of Edward Mullen- a student who was failed by mental health services and committed suicide as a result- spoke movingly and with great courage saying:
“It’s my understanding that our brilliant and lovely son, in protecting his family and protecting his friends, was essentially trying to cover up a disease from which he could never really get better without proper intervention which he obviously never received.”
Edward should not have felt the need to cover up or protect his family from his mental illness, but without proper discussion and in a world where the mentally ill are portrayed as dangerous and killers, that is the position so many are driven to. Mental health services, particularly those for children, are in crisis. As I wrote some months ago, we are establishing an assessment system that is threatening children’s mental health and wellbeing and so pushing them to seek a sense of self-worth and validation through radicalisation, gang involvement and increasing their risk of sexual exploitation. This is making matters worse. The political language of ‘taking control’ and a distrust of experts pushes those with mental illness to extreme action as a cry for help. Even worst those services, including bereavement services for children, are so often simply not there, so there is no-one to help, even for those able to ask for it.
But to return to the case of Thomas Mair. Regardless of his mental health, what led to the death of Jo Cox was right wing extremism. So much of the right wing press focus, and even the discussions and training connected with the PREVENT strategy has focused on the threat of Islamic extremism that this risk has been buried. This was a man who had been radicalised. He saw those who did not share his beliefs as ‘other’, as a threat and a danger. They were not fully human and they could and should be killed. His political belief and fear of ‘others’ meant that in his mind his actions were not just justified, they were right.
The excellent Channel PREVENT training describes 22 indicators of radicalism. The ‘psychological hooks’ leading to the engagement with a group, cause or ideology include:
feelings of grievance, injustice and threat,the desire for political or moral change,a need for identity, meaning and belonging,susceptibility to indoctrination,a desire for status, excitement or adventure,mental health issues.
Clearly, this describes Thomas Mair. A man who in court gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”
The Channel training then continues its list of indicators with those connected to ‘the intent to cause harm or readiness to use violence.’
Over-identification with a group or ideology ‘: Them and us’ thinking.Dehumanising the enemy.Attitudes that justify harm and offending.
Again a clear description of Mair, but also of so much of the language that has been used by Farage, Johnson and Gove, particularly, during the Referendum campaign. I am not suggesting that the mainstream Leave campaign have justified harming, but they certainly have been willing to offend and see it as justified. Nigel Farage’s revolting anti-refugee poster, shown in the news just hours before Jo Cox’s death, epitomised the ‘us and them’ thinking of so much of this campaign.
Channel’s final set of indicators are about the capability to cause harm: the knowledge, skills, competencies and access to networks, funding or equipment. For Thomas Mair, this was provided by right wing extremism and the internet. It is worth considering how quickly Farage, the right wing press and their supporters would have been to label Thomas Mair a terrorist, rather than mentally ill, if he had not been white. But because he is white, he is excused. Nevertheless, Mair is a terrorist. The Terrorism Act 2000 tells us terrorism is:
‘Violence/property damage/endangerment of life/disruption of electronic systems designed to influence government or intimidate the public to advance a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.’
This certainly describes Thomas Mair. The use of inflammatory language to demonize ‘the other’ is shaped to promote fear of the ‘other’ in whatever way it can. All too often, this is linked to the colour of the perpetrator and/ or victim’s skin.
Like so many others, I became a teacher to make the world a better place. When I started teaching, one of the key themes was multi-culturalism. This like so many trends in education faded, to be replaced by new trends and demands. But much of the belief in the need to represent ‘all’ in education and see all people as ‘us’, and not as ‘them’ has remained embedded in education, the concepts of inclusion and the legislation of the 2010 Equalities Act. In schools we need to continue this. To focus in Jo Cox’s words on
“that which unites us not which divides us”.
We need to challenge the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking propagated by so many politicians.
Children are born without prejudice. It is something they learn from families, from society and from fear. We need to ensure that they continue to understand that we are all human, regardless of where we come from, our political views, the colour of our skin, our sexuality, the way we worship or don’t worship or our mental health. It is OK to be scared of others, but you need to talk about it and find out about them, not harm them. If we can continue to embed this in education: challenge the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking, we can pay tribute to Jo Cox, Edward Mullen, those murdered in an Orlando night club and all those killed by people who feared them whose names we don’t even know. As Nelson Mandela said,
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Pastor Martin Niemöller’s First they came for…