Brian Cox’s critique of John McDonnell sums up everything that’s wrong with centrist logic

Brian Cox next to John McDonnell
Joshua Funnell

TV personality and physicist Brian Cox has been trashing John McDonnell for putting forward the shocking proposition that being friends with Tories who cause mass human suffering isn’t for him. And his reaction symbolises everything that’s wrong with centrist logic.

We should be friends with people who inflict mass human suffering, apparently

Countering McDonnell, scientist Brian Cox has moderately proposed that we should be friends with people who inflict mass human suffering. It’s more polite, apparently.

But Cox isn’t done there. According to him, if you won’t be friends with such people, then it’s apparently evidence you secretly desire to preside over a “one party state” – invoking images of despots like Joseph Stalin:

Novara Media journalist Ash Sarkar quickly pointed out what a ridiculous leap of logic this is:

Centrist delusions

Cox’s outburst is an example of the kind of absurdities that so-called centrism inflicts on people’s reasoning.

In the world of a centrist, it’s assumed that the major parties are separated by small reconcilable differences of opinion within an already settled economic and political consensus. And Cox’s voting record seems to be indicative of this:

Therefore, within Cox’s cosy, comfortable, liberal democratic world, we should tolerate and respect all political views. But what is absent here is an appreciation that this ‘consensus’ may have normalised destructive policy, or that the current government consists of extremists. Instead, the likes of Cox believe that all should be treated with equal respect and civility.

The limits of this position of extreme tolerance have been hilariously explored by comedian Aamer Rahman regarding the delicate issue of the ethics of punching Nazis:

Now you have to be friends with them too

But now, apparently, not only do we have to tolerate even the most reprehensible of our political opponents, we also have to be fucking friends with them.

So as Gove, Hunt, Rudd, May and co. pour petrol over our society, bursting it into an inferno of destitution, inequality and social misery, we’re expected to take them to the pub, play Jenga, and just raise a few small niggles we have about policy.

This idea becomes possible because centrists presume that everyone is a well-meaning public servant, no matter how destructive, misguided, or executed on the behalf of special interests their policies are.

They hold onto this idea like a religious article of faith and they are completely blind to the possibility that some people are beyond the pale; that their policies are so toxic and destructive that perhaps they deserve to be condemned and ostracised.

The media’s shocked reaction to McDonnell’s comments perfectly illustrates this. McDonnell has blasphemed against their holy political consensus. And in their small bubble world, McDonnell and the Tories are (or should be) just rival colleagues in a convivial political soap opera. As such, anyone who can’t be friends with rivals in this world must be an unreasonable crank – which is exactly how the mainstream media wants to frame him. The possibility that McDonnell is refusing to be friends with those who have normalised a situation of cruelty through public policy isn’t even considered.

Cox’s hypocrisy

Reacting to the incident, Cox declared on Twitter that:

But this was just after – I shit you not – he blocked someone on Twitter for disagreeing with him. Not very friendly behaviour, Brian. Why not just agree to disagree and go for a Nando’s instead?

So what was the blocked user’s crime? She asked a pertinent question about how far friendliness and civility should go with certain political opponents:

To which Cox respectfully replied:

Of course, Cox seemed to be invoking Godwin’s law, which states that:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.

This favoured liberal rule is frequently used to dismiss people who are raising basic, but insightful, moral comparisons about the limits of liberal democracy.

Based on Cox’s unwillingness to engage with the question of fascism, he presumably assumes that to be friends with fascists is incomparable to the question of whether you should be friends with Tories. But as a philosophical point, what are the characteristics of fascists that make them incomparable to Tories?

Fascists have historically harmed minorities, poor people, and disabled people. They’ve inflicted violence and misery on others based purely on ideology. In short, the level of harm fascists have inflicted on others through their political projects makes them intolerable. That allows us to arrive at an important basic principle: that, at a certain point, the harm a political force inflicts on citizens makes them intolerable and certainly unworthy of friendship.

While I would not dare to argue that Tory policies are equivalent to those of fascist regimes, it is undeniable that the Tories have inflicted great harm on many people – albeit on a smaller scale:

Or more recently:

Fuck being friends with Tories

These things considered, it is entirely reasonable for McDonnell to refuse the friendships of Tories.

Cox’s reaction is reminiscent of when mainstream journalist Helen Lewis asked: “why is everyone so fucking angry?”. It shows a contemptible ignorance of the scale of harm inflicted on society by the Conservative Party. And if Cox is aware of it, how on Earth could he in good conscience ask Labour politicians to be friends with its enforcers?

Perhaps it’s Cox’s own comfort and incubation from suffering that leaves him unable to comprehend why others choose to abstain from friendships with such destructive political forces.

The whole affair has parallels to Martin Luther King, who once wondered whether the greatest obstruction to black emancipation was:

the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice

Maybe one day we can all hug a Tory and be besties, but only when they choose to help fight social injustice at home and abroad, instead of enabling and supporting it.

Featured images by YouTube and YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. “Countering McDonnell, scientist Brian Cox has moderately proposed that we should be friends with people who inflict mass human suffering. It’s more polite, apparently.”

      I thought that was Jeremy’s position.

    2. “All arguments are arguments over definitions” (assuming intelligent debaters). The Cox stoush seems to be confused by definitions. “friends”, “fascists”, “misery” – words thrown about like confetti, thus no real sense being made on either side. Clear talking demands clear thinking, not this Twitter chatter driven not by thought but emotion. Result: angry confusion., ie, waste of energy and time.

    3. I completely agree with the author of this article on Brian Cox’s stupid Centrist argument and that stand up was brilliant in deconstructing the idlibs (idiot liberals) in their opposition to punching white supremacists when these are the same doofuses who support imperial bombs to save people. That being said its funny that McDonnell would say that about not being friends with Tories and he said similar statements about not forgiving those who supported the Iraq War and yet Corbyn and him have embraced many figures and MPs who supported all the imperial wars and Israel that Corbyn has spent his life protesting. McDonell himself even at the Conference of this year was praising Gordon Brown’s economic legacy which is the same side of the coin as the Tories so if that’s not hypocritical it just shows the disgraceful nature of political tribalism.

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