(Published first at Guido 2.0)
Tim has already done a fine job of chronicling the scurrilous and largely anonymous bullying directed towards John Hirst (see posts here and at Iain Dale’s Dairy) who blogs as Jailhouse Laywer and, on occasion, pops in comments at my main online home, the Ministry of Truth.
The full background to John’s personal history is best explained in this article, which appeared in the Guardian in November 2006 – I’d recommend that you read it all but a brief summary of the salient points of John’s past is that in 1980, he was convicted of the manslaughter of his landlady on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was give a life sentence with a minimum term of imprisonment of 15 years. On being sentenced, the trial judge, Mr Justice Purchis, said of John:
“I have no doubt you are an arrogant and dangerous person with a severe personality defect. Unfortunately, this is not suitable for treatment in a mental hospital.”
John actually served 25 years in prison before paroled, not because he continued to be a threat to the public long after his initial tariff had passed, but because of his tendency to ‘buck the system’ and challenge authority while in prison. While inside he also got an education via the Open University and now blogs at http://prisonersvoice.blogspot.com/.
John recent came to the public’s attention after mounting an effort to challenge the laws that prevent prisoners from voting while in prison – you may have your own views as to the validity of his arguments, but its an argument he is entitled to make and have put to the test in law.
More recently, as Tim has documented, John has come under systematic attack by a small clique of right-wing bullies whose modus operandi is, perhaps, best illustrated by these comments from Paul Staines’s ‘blog’:
Guido Fawkes Esq. said…
Actually, it seems you are correct for once. Calling Guido a liar for skim reading a Google alert that arrived (late) this morning seems a little harsh.
A correction will be made.
You are still a granny killer, that can’t be corrected so easily.
3:50 PM, April 25, 2007
Hirst you axed a defenceless old lady. You do not regret your killing. You call it manslaughter. You know it to be killing in cold blood. Murder to us.You show no remorse. You are the lowest form of vermin. Of this I am 100% sure. Stay in your dung heap and shut the fuck up. Your pretentious self serving ramblings are utter bilge. Like you, scum.
4:27 PM, April 25, 2007
Irrespective of the validity of any argument John may advance, to these bullies his arguments can be automatically gainsayed by mounting ad hominem attacks that describe him as a ‘granny killer’ and/or ‘axe-murderer’.
Neither epithet is correct, as John will point out – his victim (in 1979) did not have grandchildren and he was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, little that seems to matter to those who take pleasure in baiting him, for whom his failure to show remorse for his crime is taken is ‘proof positive’ that he should be regarded as a murderer who killed ‘in cold blood’.
Staines’ above all others, should be well aware of the importance, if not necessity, of placing a correct interpretation on someone’s past actions. That was, after all, the sole premise on which he threatened a number of bloggers with the the prospect of a libel action when evidence of his own past misdemeanours resurfaced earlier this year. Who knows, perhaps Staines’ comments might not have been quite so harsh had Hirst used his time in prison to pester the trial judge for a personal testimonial to support his contention that he did not commit murder, rather than on obtaining an Open University degree.
They bullies wrong in their libels, not just legally and factually, but also because they, like Andrew O’Hagan, the journalist who wrote the Guardian article linked to above, fail to recognise or appreciate the significance of a single salient fact that is staring them in the face. One that the article explicitly mentions here:
He [Hirst] says he wasn’t uncontrollable; he was suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, though that was only diagnosed much later.
The personality ‘defect’ to which Justice Purchis referred on passing sentence in 1980 is Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder that is often referred to as ‘high functioning autism’.
On the key symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome – and other forms of autism for that matter – is something commonly referred to a ‘mind-blindness’ – they lack a functioning ‘theory of mind’ due to their condition and this severely inhibits their capacity to engage in common social interactions that most people take entirely for granted.
Our ability to relate to other people and engage effectively in social interactions with other human beings relies extensively on our capacity to perceive things from another individuals ‘point of view’ both intellectually and emotionally. It is this that enables us to judge the ‘mood’ of others from their ‘look’ in their eyes, their body language or tone of voice and make judgements about whether what one is about to say or do is appropriate to the social environment in which you find yourself at a particular time and assess how that may affect or impact on others and how they might react to us as a result. It is also central to our ability to empathise with others and appreciate/understand how they feel and how their experiences may affect them – and, by way an ironic twist, this ability is also essential if one is attempting conceal one’s own feelings, or tell a lie, dissemble or deceive others.
The ‘mind-blindness’ one finds in Asperger’s Syndrome and other autistic spectrum disorders, rob those who these conditions of this capacity to relate to and undertand others, particularly on an emotional level.
An individual with Asperger’s syndrome is typically blunt to the point of brutality in their honesty – one of the key diagnostic traits that psychologists look for when assessing an individual for any autistic spectrum disorder is a pathological inability to tell lies or conceal their feelings and opinions which is typically coupled with a tendency to ‘speak as they find’ with any seeming consideration for how that impact on others. This frequently results in their being perceived to be rude, abrupt and disrespectful, not because that their intention but because they cannot read the kind of visual/social cues that we take for granted as indicators that we may be ‘speaking out of turn’ or behaving inappropriately.
This inability to read social cues can often result in their developing a social phobia. Although they cannot ‘read’ the kinds of non-verbal cues that others give out as warning signs that their behaviour may be innappropriate, individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome can, and do, develop an intellectual understanding of their propensity for making social errors and may be highly self-critical on becoming aware of their mistakes, with the result that they may come to shun social interaction with others for fear of making such mistakes and their inability to deal with them adequately. It also impairs their ability to interpret the actions of other correctly, particularly in relation to whether actions are carried out with deliberate intent or merely accidental; this commonly results their experiencing feelings of paranoia
O’Hagan’s article includes this observation about meeting Hirst:
It is obvious within seconds of meeting Hirst that he is probably neither a monster nor a model citizen, but he presses his Open University learning on you without ever knowing that the overwhelming sense he gives is not of educated reasonableness but of chaos and vast insensitivity. This is just an observation: he makes a case for himself very persuasively, but everything he says makes you wonder whether this man is totally in control of himself.
Intellectually, Hirst may be, and almost certainly is, very much in control.
What he cannot control, due to his condition – or rather ‘manage’ which is better term – is his social interaction with O’Hagan because his condition means that he cannot pick up non-verbal signs from O’Hagan that would indicate that he has made a comment that O’Hagan finds abrupt, or insensitive. Hirst’s ‘problem’ in his interaction with O’Hagan is simply that his condition renders him incapable of observing the usual ‘social niceties’ that Hagan expects to encounter as a routine facet of everyday life.
A little further on, O’Hagan comments:
It has to be said that Hirst has a slight tendency to pathologise his victim. “She’d had six or seven ex-offenders living there,” he says, “and they couldn’t bear her. She was unbearable. She stole our food. It was as though I was her carer, and I was so fragile it was unbelievable. I was like a walking time bomb. She claimed she had been in a concentration camp. She was trying to control my life and … wanted to be waited on hand and foot. I had my own life to lead.”
And a little later still…
I wonder if Hirst knows how callous he sounds. It is difficult to avoid seeking a connection between the coldness of his descriptions of what he did – “It was like swatting a fly that’s buzzing around you” – and the question of whether he is truly reformed. Sitting in his living room, I begin to feel afraid of John Hirst. He would say such fears were stupid, because the stupidity of other people’s doubts about him are self-evident to John Hirst, but something in him seems amoral and the self-control he often speaks of seems teetering in his case. When he stops talking about how he killed Mrs Burton, he stands up and returns to the kitchen. I look again at the CCTV showing the space outside and wonder if I could handle him.
If you’ve understood my description of the effect that Asperger’s Syndrome has on John’s ability to interact socially, then you will understand the he did not know how callous he sounded to O’Hagan and that this something that O’Hagan himself would have understood had he appreciated the significance of John’s condition.
O’Hagan states that there is something in Hirst that seems ‘amoral’ – this, ironically, is not an unfair observation.
John is not a moral man in the conventional sense, because his condition robs of him of the capacity for emotional subjectivity and introspection upon which our practical sense of morality is based – Hirst does not ‘feel’ the difference between right and wrong in the way that most people does. However, Hirst may be, and almost certainly is, an ethical man; one who possesses a keen intellectual understanding of right and wrong, albeit one that would appear rather abstract to most of us.
This explains the very matter of fact way in which he talks about the crime he committed more than 25 years ago and the events since. Intellectually he accepts, fully, that his actions were wrong and that the punishment he received was just retribution for his action – more than just, in fact, in the sense that he served ten years longer in prison than the period specified in the sentence handed down by the trial judge. What he cannot do is engage with that understanding in any meaningful emotional sense – it is something he knows and knows to be true, a series of unquestionable material facts, but not something he feels because his condition renders incapable of engaging with those facts in an emotional way.
I should point out this is not to say that John is without emotion and feeling – far from it – rather that he lacks the capacity to understand and rationalise what he feels in way in which he can find meaning. What he cannot do is externalise his emotions, project them outwards in a fashion that would enable him to rationalise what he feels.
This is crucial to understanding John’s evident lack of remorse for his actions, as evidenced by this exchange with O’Hagan:
“But do you want to be forgiven by her?”
“Honestly, I don’t give two fucks,” he says. “That might sound callous, but it isn’t. Her being in the court brought home to me what I’d done. Here’s someone now before me who hasn’t done anything, and I was feeling for the daughter, but all I could see was her anger and bitterness coming back. She probably wanted me to be hung, but it still wouldn’t have brought her mother back … I’ve satisfied retribution. I’ve satisfied deterrence. I owe society nothing now.”
All the hallmarks of Asperger’s are there to be seen in this passage, if only one knows what to look for.
John can ‘feel’ for the daughter because, at an intellectual level because he can understand how the death of her mother would, or perhaps should, have made her feel, but he cannot empathise with how the daughter feels as he perceived those feelings in the court room, nor can he understand or appreciate how the emotions she expressed towards him at the time of the trial – anger and bitterness – relate to and stem from her feelings of grief at the loss of her mother.
Hi comments are, therefore, typically blunt and to the point and his emotional appreciation of that situation is limited, lacking in nuance and based only on what he could perceived as being clearly evident from the daughter’s reaction to him. What he saw from the victim’s daughter was anger, bitterness and resentment, emotions that would all too understandable to most of us but which to John, with his limited if not existence capacity to empathise and understand them and how they rooted in other feeling not obviously evident but present nonetheless- grief, loss, sadness – those feelings served no purpose. As John says himself, nothing that the daughter could do, say or feel, and nothing that the court could do to him, even had the death penalty have been open to the court – could change what had happened and bring her mother back.
To feel remorse one must do more than simply understand that the wrongness of one’s actions, one must also form an emotional connection with the victim and the victim’s family. One has to empathise with them, understand on an emotional level how they feel, feel a sense of grief and loss for their grief and loss and for having been the cause of those feelings.
John feels none of that, because his condition – Asperger’s Syndrome – precludes his forming the very emotional connections necessary for him to feel remorse.
He can no more express remorse for his crime than a blind man can see or a tetraplegic can step out of their wheelchair and walk across the the room. His lack of remorse is neither a matter of choice nor proof that his crime was pre-meditated – the necessary condition for a murder conviction – it is merely a function of his condition.
John has a disability – although whether he sees his condition in that way is another matter – and it is that disability that prevents him from feeling or expressing remorse for the crime he committed more than 25 years ago.
That does not absolve him from responsibility for his actions. He committed the crime and served the sentence that he was given by way of punishment for his actions – more than the sentence in fact. But, as John rightly points out, neither the crime itself, now his lack of remorse, makes him a murderer or a ‘cold-blooded killer’ – nor, to my mind, does it justify the callous and ignorant behaviour of a few anonymous on-line bullies who seem to think that they can safely gainsay any argument he cares to advance merely by labelling him an ‘axe-murderer’ or ‘granny-killer’.
If John is sometimes rude, abrasive, disrespectful or merely – to some – a nuisance by way of his persistence in pursuing a line of argument, his behaviour can be explained and understood. It is not something he does by choice but is, rather, a consequence of his condition, his disability.
What excuse or explanation is there one can advance to justify the actions of those who take pleasure in hounding him. Those who are rude, disrespectful and abusive towards him by concious choice?
Those who refuse to engage with John by way of intellectual argument, who choose not to address his comments, consider the points he advances and challenge his opinions are not just cowards and bullies but the kind of bullies who – by their consciously chosen behaviour and attitudes – would seem to think nothing of persecuting a physically disabled man by kicking his crutches our from under him.
That is what the character of their behaviour amounts to. The abuse they direct towards John is directed towards his condition, his disability, and ignorance, in this case, is no excuse. The bullies cannot claim to be unaware of his condition, it is there referenced in black and white in Andrew O’Hagan’s article, and any of them who might claim not to have read that article, who may have joined in the hounding of John Hirst simply to ‘follow the crowd’, they are the kind of ignorant scumbags whose conduct is beneath even contempt. Which is worse, the bully who ‘kicks a cripple’ because they can, because their victim cannot fight back, or the bully who joins in just to be part of the crowd?
John Hirst may have killed a woman, more than twenty-five years ago and spent most of his adult life in prison as a result – but he is still a better man (or woman) than any of those cowards and bullies could ever aspire to be.