Speak No Evil: What We Can Learn From Jacinda Ardern's Response to Christchurch | Opinion

The violence in Christchurch offers a turning point in how societies come to terms with the willful slaughter of innocents. The attacker's decision to live-stream the atrocity on social media platforms shows the devastating power of new media technologies, but it has been New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's response that has captured the world's attention.

We have known for some time that new media technologies are completely transforming all social relationships. This is particularly the case in the context of violence, where the relations between perpetrator, victim and witness have been dramatically alerted.

But what has been so important or unique about Ardern's response and what can we learn going forward?

It has been widely commented that Ardern's emotional reaction transcended all political and cultural differences, offering genuine empathy for the victims. And yet should we not see this evidence of basic humanism more as a damning indictment of the state of politics today? Was Ardern simply not doing what any politician should be doing when confronting such tragedies? And how have we come so far in the stripping out of emotion from politics, where empathy, compassion and human connections are seen as radical?

What has certainly captured the journalists' attention has been Ardern's decision not to speak the name of the perpetrator, thereby shifting the focus away from the attacker's identity onto the body of the victims. This is reminiscent of the heartfelt approach also taken by Brendan Cox following the death of his wife, Jo Cox, the former British Parliament member. Another reminder that white terror is very real and its consequences far reaching.

As a society we are still yet to come to terms with the ethical challenges of new media technologies. This is especially the case when it comes to violence. But this question of notoriety has far greater historical resonance. What might it mean, for example, to talk about the Holocaust today without mentioning the names of its principle architects? Might we reach a point in history where the name Hitler is no longer remembered? And would this necessarily be a good thing when trying to make sense of its logics?

Ardern's response should not be seen as a definitive solution; rather, she is asking a more important question: What we can do differently in the face of such violence? In this regard, maybe we can take her response as an urgent and necessary call to have a more rigorous conversation that will allow us to ultimately break the cycle of violence.

That counterviolence seems to be the furthest of demands in her thoughts is commendable. And her shift to putting guns on trial does offer a refreshing alternative to the "thoughts and prayers" so often put forward by those who advocate the sale of such weaponry. It is ethically remiss to suggest that such violent acts can somehow be detached from the capability to carry them out with such devastating effect.

But what's really at stake here is the question of justice. The perpetrators of violence need to be held accountable for their actions; but real justice would address the conditions underlying the violence so that others in the future don't have to suffer a similarly terrifying fate.

So, let's take this calling seriously, and use it as an opportunity to have a more open, honest and ethically sensitive conversation between the many groups in our societies who have formative influences over the opinions of people. And in that regard, we can begin by looking at the more mainstream political positions of politicians, public intellectuals and the media who continue to peddle narratives of hatred and division, while presenting "others" as something that's dangerous to the fabric of our societies.

Brad Evans is a professor of political violence and aesthetics at the University of Bath. He is the author of many books and articles, including, most recently, Atrocity Exhibition: Life in the Age of Total Violence (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2019) and Violence: Humans in Dark Times (with Natasha Lennard, Citylights, 2018).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​