Edward Siddons on Cologne [with an UPDATE on Gaby Hinsliff and Maajid Nawaz]

As has often been noted, here and elsewhere, anxieties about racism and a wish to avoid bigoted generalisations can make it difficult to discuss certain patterns of crime or of unwelcome thought and behaviour.  This does a disservice to victims. It also leaves the field open for the far right to muscle in.

Edward Siddons is very alert to the dangers of scapegoating a community in the wake of the recent violence in Cologne (and there are reports of similar incidents in other European cities). As he notes in his article:

German authorities report that around 100 complaints of sexual assault, threatening behaviour and robbery have been received, including allegations of rape. The men were predominantly of North African and Arab descent.

He asserts that the Far Right have whipped up tensions – I am sure this is true, but they might have been less easy to whip up if details of the story hadn’t emerged so slowly.  The picture is still unclear.

This paragraph is confusing:

Condemnation is an act of distancing, or signalling one’s own moral values in relation to an event, or in this case, a people. The North African and Arab perpetrators are not like us: they are symbols of misogynistic cultures in which the routine sexual assault and rape of women is normalised. Ultimately, they are different.

Is there anything absolutely wrong in condemnation, if not of a ‘people’, at least of one particular aspect of a culture at this present time? And, in the sentences which follow, is Siddons simply ventriloquizing the thoughts of his far right opponents?  The statements that they are ‘not like us’, that they are ‘symbols’, imply that he is indeed distancing himself from his own words.  Yet in other cultures the attitude to sexual assault and rape is different.  The events of Tahrir Square are one example, and it’s easy to find articles about the worst places to be a woman, and broad agreement as to which these might be.

I’m not sure whether it’s his intention but he seems to be putting virtual quotation marks around the idea that in some countries ‘routine sexual assault and rape of women is normalised’, almost overegging the point in order to imply that this is the kind of suggestion only PEGIDA supporters might engage with.

Siddons then moves on to his main point, which is that the real problem, the ‘common thread’, is men.  Whereas he refuses to generalise about other cultures or countries, men, as a sex, are fair game.

There is a common thread throughout these assaults and the vast majority of violence against women throughout the world. The perpetrators are men.

Cologne should act as a wake up call to attack the gender violence that pervades all societies.

He suggests that those who look at one possible pattern (culture/ethnicity) are racists who aren’t interested in women’s rights except when they can be weaponised for their anti-immigrant agenda – and that’s bound to be true of some. Yet he is happy to identify another pattern linking men to violent crime.

It is true that the male sex is not a target for hate in the same way immigrants, Muslims or Arabs can be, so it’s perhaps understandable that he is confident addressing the relevant statistics about male crime but hesitant to engage seriously with any possible cultural factors.  In his final paragraph he implies that anyone who does so is indifferent to the plight of refugees, and thus reduces a complex and difficult issue (and it’s hard enough trying to sort out the facts, let alone one’s moral compass) to a Manichean binary.


Gaby Hinsliff’s recent article in the Guardian begins with a rhetorical manoeuvre which reminded me a little of Mehdi Hasan’s piece on antisemitism:

On New Year’s Eve, something happened that I don’t really want to talk about. It happened not to me but to about 100 women in Cologne and other German cities, some of whom probably didn’t want to talk about it either; it often takes a while for victims to report sexual assault to the police.

I’m not sure what is gained from connecting two quite different reasons for reluctance to speak on this topic.

She makes much of the fact that this is fuel to anti-immigration campaigners, and does so rather tendentiously:

Just watch the misogynistic dinosaurs defending young women’s right to party, now that it’s a legitimate way of attacking immigration.

Having less that fully liberal views doesn’t make you ‘misogynistic’ – she seems to forget that many of those opposing mass immigration will themselves be women.

She goes on to say that such stories mustn’t be left to the far right – that we mustn’t self censor – fair enough.

For me this was the most problematic section:

Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to ask hard questions. Young German women thankfully enjoy historically unprecedented economic and sexual freedom, with their expensive smartphones and their right to celebrate New Year’s Eve however they want. The same isn’t always true of young male migrants exchanging life under repressive regimes, where they may at least have enjoyed superiority over women, for scraping by at the bottom of Europe’s social and economic food chain. It is not madness to ask if this has anything to do with attacks that render confident, seemingly lucky young women humiliated and powerless. But even if it does, the answer wouldn’t be to halt immigration – even if that were possible, which it isn’t regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU – just in case a few immigrants are sexually aggressive, any more than the answer to Savile is to keep all men away from children.

The last analogy isn’t really comparing like with like.  A better analogy to the Savile example, discriminating directly against all British men, might be Paul Weston’s suggestion that Muslims be banned from public office.

I found the way she talked about German women particularly unsettling. Sometimes people rightly complain that when they try to explain something they are accused of justifying it.  But this sentence has an ambiguous impact.

Young German women thankfully enjoy historically unprecedented economic and sexual freedom, with their expensive smartphones and their right to celebrate New Year’s Eve however they want.

Despite that ‘thankfully’, she seems to be half voicing the resentment she goes on to attribute to the young male immigrants, as though softening up the reader to see where they might be coming from. I can’t imagine she ever asks whether ‘it is not madness to ask’ whether some grievance or other root cause ‘has anything to do with’ the rise of the EDL.

By contrast Maajid Nawaz’s article is thoroughly sensible.

Update 2 I am grateful to Lamia for drawing my attention to the fascinatingly slippery way in which the phrase ‘hard question’ shifts from being the kind of hard question which might genuinely challenge liberals to a perverse, if covert, dig at women in the West.  The title ‘Let’s not shy away from asking hard questions about the Cologne attacks’ is echoed in the first sentence of the paragraph I quote in the post; in its new context it takes on a new and unwelcome meaning.