There’s been uproar in the world of Twitter this week following the arrest of a Tory councillor, one Gareth Compton, for suggesting via that website that Minority Champion columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown should be stoned to death. He’s been bailed by the Filth and suspended by his party leadership, she’s appeared on BBC News to explain in great detail exactly why she is not cool with this and the whole world has been looking on agog. There are exactly two good things to have come out of this sorry saga – firstly, I can now spell Mrs Alibhai-Brown’s surname, something which eluded me when I first described her as a Minority Champion, and secondly, we now have conclusive evidence that Twitter is the ideal medium for idiots with no filter between brain and (electronic) mouth, although that was accumulating anyway.
Clearly, Mr Compton has behaved like an irresponsible plonker and entirely merits the wrath of his party and electors. You can’t broadcast written death threats to the world, even as a joke, and not expect consequences. Whether he truly deserves arrest and prosecution, I doubt. Frankly, the police and courts have more serious matters to deal with, not least the kind of people who would genuinely like to assassinate high-profile Muslim journalists. Mrs Alibhai-Brown has some impressively hateful haters, as you can tell from even the most casual scan of a few of the 1.3 million hits (count ’em!) her name threw up on my search engine. Apparently popular searches involving her include “Yasmin Alibhai-Brown racist” and “Yasmin Alibhai – Brown husband”. I only hope the latter results merely from annoyed male readers wanting to check whether she’s married before e-mailing the Independent with the standard line about all feminists being bitter because they couldn’t get a man.
In all the furore, no-one seems to have remarked on the comments that originally roused Mr Compton’s wrath. Mrs Alibhai-Brown apparently stated on the radio that no politician was morally qualified to comment on human rights abuses, including the stoning of women. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the programme in question and can’t seem to find any source stating why she considers this to be the case. About the only argument I can think of that would support such a statement would be that politicians are themselves too morally compromised to take a stance on such moral issues. Whether or not Mrs Alibhai-Brown believes this, it is an argument worth addressing, as it also came up recently in discussion of David Cameron’s visit to China and whether he should roundly denounce his hosts’ record on human rights. Actually, something similar tends to come up whenever our approach to some dictatorship or other is discussed – the “we’re really no better” argument.
Basically, the argument runs that we are in no position to criticise X country for human rights abuses, since we ourselves are guilty of human rights abuses – to do so is sheer hypocrisy. The precise abuses of which “we” are guilty will vary according to when the argument is made. In the 50’s and 60’s, Jean-Paul Satre would be pointing to the evils of Western colonialism to defend the Soviet Union from criticism, in the 70’s British actions in Northern Ireland might be cited, today it tends to be the alleged excesses of the US or Britain in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. However, although it is such an old warhorse, there is an obvious flaw in the “we’re really no better” argument, which is that there is really no logical connection between the strength of an argument for someone having behaved immorally and the moral character of the person putting this forward.
When we criticise another country for violating human rights, we are essentially saying that they have breached our moral standards regarding how you treat people and/or the rules of international law that embody these. There are only two ways to refute this logically – either you show that they haven’t actually breached our moral standards or the law or you explain why our moral standards and the law are misguided and other standards should apply. Saying that we ourselves have committed similar breaches may be relevant to an assessment of our moral character or indeed a judicial decision in an international tribunal on a case against us, but it doesn’t logically refute the argument against the other person. Essentially, calling a person or country a hypocrite in this context is an emotional argument that may work because Judeo-Christian culture takes a dim view of hypocrisy – see the impressive passage in St Matthew’s Gospel where Christ rails against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (ch.23, v. 13-27). However, as an argument, it’s the last refuge of a scoundrel; you’re really just name-calling because you have no defence.
If Mrs Alibhai-Brown was indeed putting this kind of argument, then Mr Compton’s tweet should have been the Spock-like: “Can someone please point out to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown that her position, whilst interesting, is highly illogical?” However, I suppose that would have just been too sensible for the kind of Twitter-twit who feels it necessary to tell the world whenever they have a cup of tea.