Everything is already political. Nothing occurs in the social world because of the ‘laws of nature’, or ‘because it was meant to happen’. Instead, the norms, conventions and institutions in society are the products of political power. Even the names we give to objects are political in the sense that they are the product of certain power relations that give meaning to that object. Some terms and the meaning we attribute to them are of course less contested (e.g. ’chair’) and others more so (e.g. ’terrorist’). If everything is already political, then those that seek to explain the Grenfell fire by placing it its political and social context should not be accused of ‘politicising’ the tragedy.
Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires book, There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, develops the claim of many critical geographers that there is no ‘natural-manmade disaster’ dichotomy. So when we think about “natural disasters”, such as Hurricane Katrina or the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami for example, the ‘causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction – the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus’.
The parallels we can draw between Katrina and the Grenfell Tower fire are important. These both involved people who were ‘undesirables’- the poor, black and brown people, Muslims, refugees. In other words, their lives were dispensable- people whose safety could be compromised in the pursuit of profit or making the tower block more easy on the eye for the mostly wealthy white people living in the area. It comes as no surprise that the Kensington constituency in which the tower was situated, is blighted by stark inequality and ‘some of London’s most extreme gentrification.’
Tragedies are political, as is silence. Following tragedies, we are often warned against ‘politicising’ such events. Those who do so are accused of opportunism and point scoring at the expense of the pain and misery of victims and their families. Sometimes a ‘grace period’ in which people are to refrain from making political comments is demanded. The former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown was particularly critical of Jeremy Corbyn commenting on the Manchester terror attacks – as were most of the right-wing commentariat. Indeed, after the London terror attacks, Theresa May suspended general election campaigning (despite later giving a speech outside Downing Street in which she clearly attempted to explain the events and her policy positions.)
‘Grace periods’ are problematic. Who decides how long this grace period is? Who is it that decides what is and is not a political comment and thus a violation of the grace period? But perhaps most importantly, a ‘grace period’ is itself a political position. It presupposes that silence or passivity is neutral. In fact, it can be a position of complicity or have the effect of absolving responsibility.
It is important to acknowledge the political and social context of the #Grenfell tragedy. The cause of the Grenfell Tower fire has been explained by the ‘ineptitude and incompetence of the tower’s landlord,’ as well as the Government’s refusal to protect tenants. The context was one of ‘austerity, profiteering and democratic unaccountability.’ Remaining silent is equally political in failing to acknowledge this context. Indeed, it has emerged that damning reports of the building’s safety were ‘sat on’. Ambivalence, silence and passivity is itself a political position.
To provide an explanation of a tragedy that situates it within its political and social context can be understood as a mark of respect, such that it amplifies the previously muted voices of the residents and encourages accountability. This has arguably forced the PM to order a public inquiry into the tragedy.
The ability to explain a tragedy while respecting the dead requires tact, empathy and nuance. Nevertheless, attempts to silence explanations is to adopt a political position. Far from respecting the perished, it allows the conditions in which the tragedy materialised to persist and those responsible to avoid scrutiny.
Tanzil Chowdhury works at the University of Manchester