On the Fragility of Goodness

The dreadful murder of Jo Cox has left me pondering the fragility of goodness. Let’s not get bogged down in trying to define it, whether goodness is a ‘thing’ in itself, a metaphysical entity, or a property of a human being, or an act, or a mental (or neuronal) state. We all know through our upbringing and induction into our different cultures what goodness is, whether through religion, myth or fable. Consequently as moral beings we understand and readily identify the gulf that separates good from evil.

Jo Cox was loved because people saw the goodness in her. This is clear from her life’s work; her commitment to equality and justice as she worked with some of the most oppressed and disadvantaged people on the planet testify to this. She was greatly loved by her family, friends, colleagues and especially her constituents. It’s rare to see such spontaneous and genuine sorrow expressed by ordinary people on the death of a politician.

We don’t know why the man who committed this terrible, evil act did so. There are reports from witnesses that he shouted “Britain first’ or ‘Put Britain first’ as he murdered her. Much has been made of an emerging narrative that he may have had mental health problems in the past. The media portray him as an isolated man, a loner who kept himself to himself. How much of this is true we simply don’t know, and early speculation says much more about our own biases and prejudices than it says about the perpetrator.

That said there are some broader issues worth speculating on. Polly Toynbee has written a thoughtful Guardian opinion piece [1] arguing that this tragedy has occurred in the midst of a political debate about our future in Europe in which the electorate has lost whatever respect it once had for politicians. We live in a highly polarised political culture that is intolerant of difference, whether this be political, ideological, racial, religious or cultural. In such an atmosphere it is now shockingly mundane that female politicians in particular are subject to dreadful and threatening abuse on social media.

On the same day that Jo Cox was murdered a political party (UKIP) released an appalling poster which resonated strongly with one used by the Nazis in Germany before the Second World War [2]. Muslim women have their veils torn off their faces on our streets and mosques are fire-bombed, Jewish graves are desecrated and synagogues daubed with anti-Semitic slogans. Hate crime against disabled people is at record levels, the long-term unemployed are reviled as spongers, and only a week ago fifty gay people were murdered in Orlando.

Whether or not Jo Cox’s murderer is mentally ill, no human act occurs in a cultural vacuum. The political context in which we live has fostered and encouraged hatred and intolerance of human difference; hatred breeds such dreadful acts. Remember Anders Brevik

And here we find the most terrifying insight to be gleaned from yesterday’s events. Human evil so easily eradicates human goodness. Evil (and I use the word in a moral, not religious, sense) erases good, whether through the click of a trigger, a plunging knife, the gas oven, the systematic excision of a people’s history and culture by an oppressor, the blinding flash that vapourises innocent people. But goodness and innocence are so precious and fragile, that the only response to evil, time and time again, has to be to cherish and nourish goodness as best we can, and use it as our inspiration as we strive for a better world.

The finest and most noble response to Jo Cox’s death came from her husband. In it he said that their two young children now had to be ‘bathed in love’. The strength of goodness is its ability to endure the worst that we are capable of, and to bring us together in solidarity to resist the evil that the destroyers, bigots, racists, bullies and intolerant are capable of. For this reason, Jo Cox, we will never forget you.