Hannah Jones’ Violent Ignorance

by | 30 Sep 2021

In her book Violent Ignorance Hannah Jones explores our ability to turn away from painful or uncomfortable knowledge. At the heart of the book she argues that this process – what she calls ‘violent ignorance’ – produces or allows the violence of racism, migration control and hierarchies of belonging. As someone with one foot in academia and another in political activism, I felt a deep sense of familiarity with this analysis of the various ways in which violent ignorance shapes our (in)ability to respond to injustice.

Jones’ masterful use of vignettes from the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, to the burning of the colonial archives in Kenya paints a complex picture of where different forms of ignorance fit within wider systems of violence. I particularly enjoyed her application of Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s notion of silences, and the role of silences in the production of history, to tell the story of the Windrush scandal through the frame of violent ignorance (99-102). Crucially, through the use of metaphors (skin, scab, veil) Jones captures some of the complexity activists face when attempting to challenge the underlying violence of our societies. In her final chapter, after describing ‘moments of extremity’ such as the Grenfell Tragedy, she writes:  

And yet, after each of these seemingly earth-shifting moments of shared recognition of injustice, things have continued on more or less as before. How could this happen? (170)

This question and our inability to predict when or where the veil of ignorance may be lifted, if only temporarily, lies at the centre of the work of those of us trying to build better, more caring societies.

I remember a lot of the events narrated by Jones. I know the feeling, the hyper-awareness of the unpredictability of these moments when something seems possible, when we see glimpses of what could be. I remember the demonstrations and die-ins organised in the spring of 2015, the months we didn’t realise were leading up to the publication of the now haunting image of Alan Kurdi, the annual under-attended memorial processions in central London for those killed in police and state custody, always wondering whether maybe this year the number of attendees would match the importance of the event. 

The familiarity I felt reading Violent Ignorance stems from the fact that as activists so much of our work and the context we operate in ends up revolving around these kinds of moments, events and openings. This inevitable and reluctant relationship with the waning and waxing of media narratives and public opinion is something we learn to navigate around in the hope of being able to use it to the advantage of our political vision. This intuitive understanding of violent ignorance, and its resilience, can lead us to favour media stunts to shock people into action. Yet in the back of our minds, we still wonder: should we be doing something else instead? Should we accept the fact that what is needed may not in fact be more information, more awareness, or more ‘shock’, but rather more care. And then the question becomes: how do we build care? Or as Gargi Bhattacharyya puts it, how may we begin to see one another? [1] Jones anticipates these questions and notes that ‘resistance seems most successful at sustaining a tear on violent ignorance when it goes beyond simply making knowledge visible and makes it imperative to pay attention – through an emotional, visceral connection’ (76).

Importantly, Jones makes room not just for the unpredictability of when these moments might occur when suddenly the veil is lifted, but for the unpredictability of what might in fact happen, or not happen. Jones’ retelling of the brutal murder of Labour MP Jo Cox and its aftermath is paramount to how we must understand the practice of violent ignorance. While Jones spends time describing the political context which led to Jo Cox’ murder, her interest extends to its aftermath, and how ‘we’ responded to or dealt with the meaning of the MP’s death. For Jones the speed at which this historic political assassination became a ‘meaningless and sad event’ (4) rather than a deeply meaningful and political event, ‘part of a struggle over political questions of race, nation and gender’, deserves further examination. She argues that

focusing on an ideal of having ‘more in common’ meant looking away from the political motivations of the murderer that resulted in this horrible death. It meant domesticating this brutality and violence, making it tame and manageable, so that rather than part of a pattern of political violence, it became a question of a family’s loss; and rather than the murderer being a political actor who grew out of an environment where misogyny and white supremacy could thrive, he became treated as an aberration and exception (p16).

Thinking back to the time of Jo Cox’ death, I remember the rapid shift in political discourse, how quickly we looked away from white supremacist and misogynist violence and focused instead on picnics and Union Jack bunting. Combined with the rapid depoliticisation of her murder was also a complex process of exceptionalisation. And as much as it was indeed exceptional, it also wasn’t. Arguably, separating Jo’s ‘exceptional’ death from the violence that festered around it, and enabled it, was in itself an active form of violent ignorance. The wider environment which birthed the attack on an outspoken Labour MP known for her stance on migrant rights, is the same environment inhabited by many who had lived in fear of daily racist attacks.

Jo Cox spoke ‘for’ migrants and refugees, and so her politically motivated murder should be understood and remembered along the other forms of violence experienced by those she represented and spoke for. Witnesses recall Thomas Mair shouting ‘This is for Britain’, ‘Keep Britain independent’, and ‘Put Britain first’. Mair’s attack cannot be separated from the wider ethno-nationalist project it sought to further. Mahmood Mamdani refers to this kind of extreme violence as ‘nation-building violence’ and asks:

[Is] nation-building violence a criminal act, calling for prosecution and punishment? Or is it a political act, the answer to which must be a new, non-nationalist politics? [2]

Nationalist politics (including the ‘progressive’ kind, as expertly described by Sivamohan Valluvan [3]), always premised on the violent exclusions of others, thrive when we look away from the underlying violence of our societies. Jones shows us that violent ignorance is practiced, it can be organised and it is always active. To build non-nationalist politics requires a reckoning with violent ignorance. It means rejecting the comfort of ‘not knowing’ in order to build the emotional, visceral connections which must form the foundations of new caring political communities.

[1] The Left Book Club, Anticapitalism and Love, 11th Feb 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVg4fid5JPQ

[2] M. Mamdani (2020). Neither Settler Nor Native: The making and unmaking of permanent minorities. Harvard University Press.

[3] S. Valluvan (2019). The Clamour of Nationalism: Race and Nation in Twenty-First-Century Britain. Manchester University Press.


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