Stephen Daisley

Forget ‘virtue signalling’ – ‘empathy patrolling’ is the new moral phenomenon

Forget ‘virtue signalling’ – ‘empathy patrolling’ is the new moral phenomenon
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I’ve had just about enough of being told how to feel about what happened last Wednesday.  I feel angry. I still feel shock. I feel a keen ache for the families of those murdered, especially the loved-ones of PC Keith Palmer. 

I feel that cold spite that works its way into your heart at times like these, vengeful cruelty passing itself off as hard-headedness. When I remember this, I feel ashamed to have given in to it.  I feel scared of an ideology that crashed into the 21st century in an outrageous spectacle but has now made its choreography more low-key. 

I feel contempt for the demagogues who seek to exploit the raw emotions of After Wednesday. I feel disdain towards those rolling their eyes at the locution ‘After Wednesday’. I feel all of these contradictory impulses, sometimes at the same time, and yet I’m not supposed to feel any of them. Simon Jenkins told me so. 

Once upon a time, the old radge was entertaining but his unpredictability is now too symmetrical, too manufactured. Intellectual incontinence is a crowded market these days and at least Brendan O’Neill believes everything he says at the moment he hits ‘send’. 

Jenkins, all too aware of his Guardian audience, announced

'Even if this was indeed a “terrorist” act and not that of a lone madman – I repeat, even if it was – the way to react is to treat it as a crime… Don’t fill pages of newspapers and hours of television and radio with words like fear, menace, horror, maniac, monster. Don’t let the mayor rush into print, screaming “don’t panic”. Don’t have the media trawl the world for pundits to speculate on “what Isis wants” and “how hard it is to protect ourselves from attack”. Don’t present London as a horror movie set. Don’t crave a home-grown Osama bin Laden. In other words, don’t pretend you are “carrying on as usual” when you are doing the precise opposite. When the prime minister stands up in parliament to announce, “We are not afraid,” the response is “why then is the entire government machine behaving as if it’s shit-scared?”’

Jenkins has form on this sort of thing and sometimes I amuse myself by conjuring his likely response to earlier events. Did Walter Cronkite have to remove his glasses so melodramatically while reporting on a firearms incident in Dallas? What was all this fuss over a few tea leaves dropped in Boston Harbour? And, really, was some Austrian aristo getting his hat knocked off by a Slavic ruffian any excuse for disrupting a chap’s G&T of an afternoon? 

Of course, no one can parody Simon Jenkins quite as precisely as Simon Jenkins: 'Goodness knows the money and jobs lost by this week’s reckless coverage,’ he wrote, and probably with a straight face. 

Virtue signalling has found its opposite number: Empathy patrolling, the need to police who may feel what and when after an event of public import. Jenkins has been telling us to calm ourselves for some time now — after Nice, Brussels, the Bataclan, San Bernadino, the Boston Marathon, Charlie Hebdo, and Glasgow Airport, to name a few. The formula is always the same: A bit of throat-clearing about terrorism being ghastly and all that, before explaining that the ‘real threat’ is ‘overreaction’ on our part. It’s never clear with Jenkins, or other empathy patrollers, what level of reaction is permissible. 

Ellie Mae O’Hagan was, like, well bummed about the public’s response to a minor skirmish in SW1.  She wrote: ‘Those who are hoping Britain will conduct itself with trademark stoicism and enlightenment may find themselves confronted with a jingoistic, authoritarian and frankly hysterical nation instead.’ The gushing Corbynista turned emotional martinet fretted that right-wingers ‘will use the events at Westminster to concoct the most frantically un-British response imaginable’. 

What is ‘un-British’ is this insidious campaign to police instinct and tether sentiment — as though all the world can be greeted with cool disdain and an ironic quip. There are fanatics plotting further outrages this very moment and their ambition is carnage on a grander scale. There is nothing histrionic about acknowledging that, nothing irrational about worrying how, or if, we can stop them. We may even permit our thoughts to turn dark or bloodthirsty. These feelings are not wrong — they are natural and will be widespread. They ought not to guide our actions or the remedies we pursue but to demand we suppress them altogether is to fake serenity at a time of turbulence. 

Empathy patrolling makes some feel better about a world they cannot predict; police patrolling, preferably armed, makes the rest of us feel much the same. Phoney solemnity won’t ‘send a message’ to the next Khalid Masood. No one sees your stiff upper lip if your head is in the sand.