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Artillery Row

Giving noticing a bad name

Observing factual differences is not the same as leaping to conclusions

When reports emerged of a stabbing spree in Sydney, Australia, it was reasonable to suspect that a jihadist was behind it. We remembered the mass stabbings in Arras in 2023, and in Nice in 2020, and on London Bridge in 2019, and in Melbourne in 2018, and in Paris in 2018, and in Turku in 2017 (needless to say, this is not a comprehensive list).  

Had someone said “I suspect a Sikh is behind this” it would have been downright inexplicable. A jihadist though? There was a good chance of that being the case.

Still, there is a difference between a suspicion and an assumption. A suspicion is when you think something is probable. An assumption is when you leap — without rational cause — to believing that this is true. 

Alas, this is what several commentators did in the aftermath of the Bondi Junction stabbings. “Another day. Another terror attack by another Islamist terrorist,” posted Julia Hartley-Brewer. Tommy Robinson recorded a video saying that the attack was the result of “fucking JIHAD”. (Several alt-media influencers also named a completely unrelated Jewish man as the assailant. I hope he has a good lawyer and a long bucket list.)

Yet it was always possible that someone else would be the cause. We have seen mass stabbings, and within recent years, in America, Canada and elsewhere that had nothing to do with Islam. As it turned out, the stabber was a 40-year-old Australian man named Joel Cauchi — mentally ill and potentially misogynistic. No connection to Islam, never mind jihadism, has been reported — most probably because it does not exist.

Again, it was not unreasonable to suspect that a jihadist was involved. Nor should we act as if any of us are above mistakes. But the kind of thundering certitude that Hartley-Brewer, Robinson, Paul Golding and many others flaunted gave “political incorrectness” a bad name.

In his fine recent piece on “the war on noticing”, Mark Solfiac wrote:   

In today’s Britain there is more to notice than ever before, while simultaneously the taboo against it keeps growing stronger. What this means is that people’s natural perceptiveness about the patterns of human behaviour they observe is dulled, either subconsciously, by their own self-censoring mechanisms, or deliberately, by those of the institutions they inhabit. 

A key word here is “patterns”. If someone arranges red and blue balls in a line, with three red balls to every blue ball, the average ball will be red. But at the risk of being eye-wateringly obvious, it doesn’t mean that every ball is going to be red. Some will be blue.

This does not mean that it is always illegitimate to act on the basis of patterns. Far from it. If a woman, walking home in the evening, crosses the street to avoid a man talking to himself, no one should blame her. Perhaps the man is speaking through a bluetooth headset about his latest charitable donation. It’s possible. But there is no particular benefit to walking near him and there is a certain amount of risk.

Yet there is no benefit to presumptuously identifying the motivations of a violent attacker — or, at least, no benefit if we disclude Twitter engagements and the ability to say, I was right. The ID will come out either way, and probably within a few hours. If you are correct then all you have is a few extra likes and RTs. If you are wrong, you have inflamed feelings and turned them in the wrong direction — a potentially dangerous move — and you have also validated hostility against the concept of group differences. See, our rivals on the left can say, I told you they were just mindless bigots.

This is not to say that someone like Julia Hartley-Brewer — who has since apologised — was being consciously presumptuous. I’m sure that she just had a silly moment. None of us are entirely above them, especially given the dynamics of social media. But this remains a useful opportunity to remind ourselves to think before we post. “Noticing” should be based on observation and assessment — not knee-jerk conclusions. 

Yesterday, another stabbing took place in Sydney. A teenager attacked Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel while he was preaching at an Assyrian Orthodox Church. The police have called it a “terrorist attack” and observed that the young man made comments “centred around religion”. A witness claims that he was screaming “Allahu Akbar”. I don’t need to tell you what probably happened here. But there is no harm in waiting until it has been confirmed. We shall succeed, if we succeed, because we have the facts.

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