Tuesday, January 12, 2016

People are People

I’ve had a line from the Depeche Mode song People are People running through my head recently, and it seems peculiarly apposite to the strange times in which we live.

Because people, whatever their colour, creed, gender or sexuality are just that. And nine times out of ten if you think you don’t like a particular group for whatever weird reason, when you meet individuals from that group you find that actually you get on rather well.

It seems to me a strange contradiction in the human condition that we are at base tribal and yet able to deal with individuals we might think we dislike. On a global scale that means white westerners view dark easterners with suspicion (and vice versa), but on a local scale it’s as simple as my daughter talking about the chavs, the geeks, and the populars in her class. We all feel safer sticking together with people like us. The downside of this of course is prejudice and bigotry against the Other, to which we are all susceptible to some degree or another.

On the other hand, the amazing thing about human beings is their capacity to rise above their petty prejudices when confronted with individuals from whichever group they dislike and discover they have more in common than they first thought.

And that’s the key I think. Prejudice and ignorance exists always. And we should do everything we can to combat it. But on a day to day basis most people reach out to one another regardless of creed and class and form relationships, however tenuous.

We live in an age in which calling out people for their bigotry, whether conscious or not is now de rigeur. In many ways this is a good thing. People today will be more than happy to pull you up for being racist, homophobic or sexist in a way they just weren’t when I was young, which is just as it should be.

However…the downside of this is what you do when the rights of one oppressed group clashes with those of another.

I caught five minutes of CBB the other day, in which I heard Winston MckEnzie refuse to confirm when asked whether he had said same sex adoption was akin to child abuse. The response from his fellow housemates was almost comical. There were some half-hearted attempts to make him fess up, but there was also a move to bring the conversation to a swift end, people not wanting to stoke fire on the flames. My guess is that, conscious of viewers watching even though most of the housemates were quite clearly appalled, they were also worried about fearing to be seen as racist. In this instance racism trumped homophobia.

And who can blame them, in a world where the most innocuous comment can be misinterpreted? Think of Benedict Cumberbatch, using the term “colored” instead of “person of colour”, or the trouble Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard got into with the transgender community simply for saying universities should be a place for open debate? And let’s not even get on to Germaine Greer…

Language has become problematic. It is not enough to think unprejudiced thoughts, we must also be careful with our words, which can be misinterpreted in a dozen ways, as Tim Hunt found to his cost. Orwell couldn’t have made up the contortions to which people will go to nowadays to either appear not to be homophobic/racist/sexist or whatever, or to prove that others are. It is a brave soul that goes against what has become the cultural norm, and says, Actually I don’t completely agree with you.

It is for those reasons I have thought long and hard about writing this post. Increasingly over the years I have found myself more and more timid with my online conversations. Should I venture this opinion for appearing too right wing? (I don’t vote Tory incidentally.) Or that one and be called homophobic even though I’m not? I was recently blocked on a FB page for saying something sympathetic but bantery about a particular cause, which was misinterpreted as bigotry. It’s a fine tightrope we all walk on these days, but I can’t help feeling that our moral compass towards telling the truth has become deeply skewed.

This has been never more apparent than this week as we witnessed the reaction to the shocking events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. My response to it, and some of the nonsense I have seen espoused online since is so visceral I feel I can no longer be silent, but have to speak out for something which I believe to be fundamentally wrong.

On New Year’s Eve something unprecedented happened in towns all across Germany, not just Cologne. Groups of men deliberately targeted groups of young women and groped, sexually harrassed, assaulted and in some cases raped them. But we didn’t hear about it straight away. The first whispering I heard was when I saw it posted on Facebook by a German friend, and I thought What? My daughter was in Cologne last summer, Germany is a country I know well and feel safe in. When we were in Berlin last it felt infinitely safer to be wandering round late at night than it does in London. I do not often agree with Nigel Farage (oh dear I’ve mentioned the UKIP leader’s name, I MUST BE A FASCIST), but when I heard him talking on the radio the other day saying his first reaction was “Have German men gone mad?” I knew exactly what he meant.

And of course, German men haven’t gone mad, because German men did not perpetrate these crimes. Which isn’t to say German men don’t rape and sexually assault (apparently 12, 000 such assaults took place last year), but German men do not go out on an evening in organised gangs, prowling the streets attacking innocent women. This is just not something that happens in their culture, nor in ours for that matter.

So here I come to an unpalatable truth, which in these days where we have to be so very careful about what we say has become damn near unsayable. There is a reason we didn’t hear about the German attacks straight away (until they came out via social media and both the German press and ours could no longer ignore them). And it is deeply unpleasant one. These attacks were carried out by men from Arabic or North African origin, some of whom might be among the refugees that Germany has so generously let across their borders in the last few months.

I can see Angela Merkel’s dilemma here. She was feted as the most heroic of the European leaders for letting so many refugees in (and considering Germany’s history I can understand why she did so), but there were many of us (myself included) who thought at the time we should be careful. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is without a doubt one of the most challenging problems our generation faces. We want and should be generous to those in desperate need, but equally we cannot simply let everyone through without doing some basic checks. Inhumane as it may have seemed, I think a better solution would have been to set up decent proper processing centres for people as they came across Europe’s borders. The countries which have borne the brunt of this crisis, Greece and Italy have had their tolerance and generosity stretched to the limit and I think the EU should have been doing far more to help them.

I also think the UK should have taken far more refugees, but that this is not a problem that is solved by telling everyone to come here. We need to address the root cause of this crisis by:  a) trying to bring an end to this terrible war as soon as possible. b) Doing something to stop the people smugglers who create so much of the misery. c) Taking people straight from the refugee camps in the Lebanon and Turkey thereby stopping the need for them taking such long and dangerous journeys and d) creating some kind of safe haven in Syria where people can go to stay until such time as they can get home. 

But that’s not a very emotional response, and the understandable emotional response is to say we have to help these people now, so if that means letting them come in, we won’t question their motives and accept carte blanche the stories they tell us. Which is pretty much what has happened.

I do not think for one moment that the majority of refugees are anything other than appalled by what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. And already there has been the inevitable hateful backlash from Right Wing groups across Europe. BUT… Houston, we really have a problem.

Because not only was there a slow reaction from the authorities in Germany acknowledging what has actually happened, now the story is out some of the responses to it are baffling. I have read a number of posts on social media over the last few days seeking to deny what has happened, or say we don’t know all the facts, or say well 12000 men raped women in Germany last year, so what’s the difference?
Apart from the fact that this is victim blaming of the worst type, it is also more worryingly bending the truth to suit our own political ends. The men who did this come from a different culture to ours, one in which women’s rights are not respected as they are here in the West. Yes, we are still a long way from having true parity here, and nearly every woman I know has a horror story about a sexual assault or near escape from one, but this is different.

These men for whatever reason thought it was ok to come out in public and attack women en masse, and the Police perhaps caught between a rock and hard place didn’t react quickly enough. Fearful perhaps of seeming to be intolerant, they didn’t help those women in time and downplayed the seriousness of the crime. And fearful of stoking up trouble their government said nothing and let those women down. And so hundreds of women who suffered appalling attacks on what should have been a happy night out, weren’t listened to, and judging by the comments I have seen in the last few days aren’t being believed even now, even by some liberal women for whom it doesn't’t fit in with the refugee narrative .

The thing is, by looking away and pretending this didn’t happen, or that it’s some kind of right wing racist conspiracy, we are doing a great disservice to the majority of refugees who are here genuinely for a better life. If people think their truth is being ignored, they will make their own truth and the melting pot of two different cultural norms coming together will ignite in a spectacularly horrible way.

So I think it’s time we acknowledged an unwelcome truth: we do not sadly live in Pangloss’s Best of All Possible Worlds.  Not everyone who seeks shelter under our roof comes with good intentions, and some come to cause us harm. Some of the people who have been let into Europe in the last few months do not understand the way we live, and see women as second class citizens. It is time to face facts and expect people who come to Europe to understand there are certain standards by which we live, and if necessary educate them in those standards (as they are trying to do in Norway). For integration to truly happen and be sustainable in the long term, we need to start being more honest with each other.

It is time for us to start feeling free to say the unsayable, otherwise we have all let those women in Cologne down.