Counter-terrorism and happiness

Reinvigorated debates about the ‘Prevent’ component of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy are just some of the many responses to our UK summer of atrocities. What could the duty to prevent people from turning to extremism or terrorism have to do happiness policy? Well, one short piece in The Guardian – a newspaper that isn’t known for its sympathy towards government counter-terrorism efforts – has argued that it is possible for universities to observe the ‘Prevent duty’ in benign ways by consciously doing so using a ‘wellbeing lens’. Louise Nadal, University secretary at the University of Greenwich, where one of the murderers of Lee Rigby had studied, argues that it is possible to comply with the Prevent Duty in ways which positively foster a benign ‘institutional culture’. This claim contrasts starkly with the common claim that Prevent stokes fear and prompts toxic debates about racism or Islamophobia.

Dumbledore’s warning: euphemisms bite back

We’ll have no chance of resolving the moral arguments about Prevent here. With equal fervour and plausibility, it has been argued that the Prevent strategy has saved hundreds of lives; that it is Islamophobic and has largely backfired; or simply that regardless of the truth about its effectiveness, it represents a crucial moral and symbolic answer to the evils of radical extremism.

What interests me about Nadal’s piece is her use of the term ‘wellbeing lens’ to describe her University’s strategy of embedding Prevent within an overall campus-wide strategy fostering good social relationships and pastoral support. As she puts it, ‘When we produced our framework on “students giving cause for concern” …we included radicalisation as another aspect of wellbeing and welfare, no different to any other.’

Though this seems benign as a better alternative than the default criminological lens implied by ‘Prevent’, Nadal’s understanding of a ‘wellbeing lens’ turns out really to be a euphemism for a preventive strategy focused on illbeing. Though it may be unfair to leap to this conclusion on the basis of her short piece, what she writes about it is all about looking out for people who are unwell. What I think she means is that instead of what might be called a ‘criminological’ or ‘hygiene’ approach to stamping out radicalisation, they have instead adopted a more kindly and perhaps more realistic approach which appreciates that potential criminals are also vulnerable humans deserving of pastoral support. In other words, I think she means a ‘therapeutic lens’ not a ‘wellbeing lens’.

She has made a good argument, but chosen a seriously misleading label. In a more robust and sincere use of the term a ‘wellbeing lens’ (or a ‘happiness lens’) is a very different thing to what she has described. It’s about people’s aspirations to live well, and about appreciating positive personal and social qualities. It’s not just about trouble-shooting and therapeutic care.

Just about all universities already use the euphemism ‘mental health’ to describe their strategies for addressing or coping with epidemics of mental illness and social pathologies. This abuse of common sense reminds me of Dumbledore’s warning: ‘Fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself’. If students suffer from mental disorders, we really shouldn’t be saying that they have ‘mental health issues’, should we?

Several universities are now adding ‘wellbeing’ into their strategic discourse, but all too often, this is just another euphemistic rubric for coping with pathologies. If they really mean to take wellbeing seriously, they’ll go a long way beyond remedial and therapeutic work. They will try to persuade everyone on campus to take seriously their co-responsibility for one another’s happiness. They will try to foster the kinds of convivial social environment in which would-be extremists are having too much fun, or feel too well loved, or have too many benign prosocial purposes, to want to turn towards repugnant creeds.

Applying a utilitarian calculus

To achieve that, we need to hesitate before calling anyone either ‘extremist’, or ‘racist’, or ‘Islamophobic’, or any other potentially inflammatory label. But Nadal’s piece also begs another important question. Whether a ‘wellbeing lens’ refers to therapeutic pastoral care or to something more aspirational to do with institutionalising kindness and conviviality, aren’t these things we would expect of any decent modern institution anyway? And when we interact with people over whom we have some responsibility, wouldn’t we want to take pretty seriously any hints they may give us about criminal or psychopathic leaning, even if we’d had no terrorism for generations?

Counterterrorism is about desperate measures in response to atrocities. If those measures risk making some people slightly unhappy some of the time, they may still be worthwhile if they prevent even more unhappiness. Judging an ideal balance can’t be based – as some anti-Prevent complainers would have it – on dogmatic protection of people’s right not to be offended. Inevitably it requires an implicit utilitarian calculus: will the pains they cause be less or more than the pains they’re likely to prevent? So in the end, the rightness or wrongness of the Prevent strategy should be judged through a happiness lens, not solely a ‘rights lens’ or a ‘criminology lens’ or an ‘identity politics’ lens.

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