Just over a week ago, in Bury, in Greater Manchester, a woman called Sarah Hussein was set alight in the street and subsequently died of her burns.
It’s surprising how little prominence this story has been given. I only happen to know about it because I saw it posted on social media by someone of fairly right wing political views, who for convenience I’ll call X. X’s angle on this was to compare the coverage given to this Sarah with that given to another Sarah, Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a police officer earlier this year, and whose case was very widely discussed, and made into something of a political cause. Since both cases involved murderous violence directed at a woman by a man or men (the details don’t yet seem to be clear in Hussein’s case but three men were arrested), why, X wonders, did one horrific crime become a feminist cause celebre and not the other?
Hussein had a Pakistani background, and X, apparently assuming that her assailants had the same background, seems to think that her case has not been taken up in the way that Everard’s was, because ugly behaviour in a Muslim community can’t be fitted neatly into a liberal narrative, and risks accusations of racism. X’s belief that the media is controlled by liberals and leftists seems questionable (!) but the underlying point may have some validity: we are all prone to focus on stories that can be fitted into our preferred worldview (or at least into a worldview which we imagine other people expect of us), and steer away from those that don’t.
X is doing the very same thing of course. He is picking up on the lack of coverage of this story because he feels it supports a right wing narrative of his own in which people on the left are hypocrites whose claims to be the caring ones are shallow and self-serving (a view, incidentally, which my late, and rather right wing, father also had of the political left). It’s agreeable to X, no doubt, to feel himself to be the one saying that a Pakistani woman deserves the same attention as a white one, while those lefties who are always going on about racism remain (as he sees it) silent. It reassures him about the correctness and virtue of his own position, the dishonesty of theirs. (They, whoever they are, would of course have a different view.)
I’m not sneering at X here, though, because I’m no different. I too notice stories that fit into my own worldview. I’ve picked up on this story and X’s reaction to it because it connects with a topic that preoccupies me: the nature of the narratives that each human individual and each human tribe is constantly telling itself about the world.
Can we make anything of a news item like this, I wonder, other than by either ignoring it, or else making it into a story of some kind or another – and by the latter I suppose I mean connecting it up with things we feel we already know?
There are people to whom this event is not reducible to a story: first and foremost poor Sarah herself and those who love her. To them it wasn’t a story about horror, but horror itself, the thing we are all constantly seeking to avoid, to manage, to hold at a distance. The rest of us, though, carry on trying to avoid it, or manage it, or hold it at a distance – as I’m doing now, for instance, by writing about it in this distanced and dispassionate way.