Wednesday, 19 August 2015

We are failing to address prejudice

Prejudice. Bigotry. Discrimination. Intolerance. Fear. Hatred.

The idea that there is something wrong with being 'different' or 'weird' or 'not normal'. That 'difference' is something to fear or hate. That it's OK to treat someone differently because you don't think they count as 'normal' by your standards.

This is something I've had serious concerns about for a while now - that we haven't really addressed this problem in society at all yet.

Of course, we have made great strides in dealing with some particular prejudices, and that is to be heartily welcomed. What we have done, though, has failed to address the underlying cause of the issue. We have dealt with some of the more common symptoms, but barely dealt with the actual problem itself at all.

The problem is that of people fearing or hating people who aren't like them; treating people differently on the basis of difference, and/or treating people as lesser human beings because they were born 'different', or have chosen to be or to look in some way 'different'. It is the perceived difference between 'normal' and 'not normal' - the idea that 'normal' is 'good' and 'not normal' is bad. It can be a deeply rooted idea in human society, of course, which is why it needs to be dealt with. It's not necessarily entirely inherent within in human beings - children will happily play with others who are 'different' without question, as we know, until someone points out the 'difference'. To quote the famous song from the musical 'South Pacific':

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

It is currently a vicious cycle within society, though, that sees children growing into adulthood with the idea that 'difference' or 'non-conformity' is something that is 'wrong', and that it's OK to treat people differently or regard them with less respect on that basis.
Instead of addressing that problem at its root we have essentially concentrated on publicly 'normalising' some of those groups who have most regularly or most seriously been victims of the problem, if you see what I mean. In the minds of many, it's thankfully now much more commonly OK to be black, or to be gay, or to be Jewish, or to be disabled, and that is a great thing, but it often doesn't extend to all other groups who are seen as 'different'. Some people 'get it', of course, but many somehow just don't seem to - to some it seems still to be the case that it's OK to be black or gay, but it's not OK to be a Muslim, or Transsexual, or a 'Goth', or just to dress or live life in a way that is 'not normal'.

We even now see, as another rise in the fears around 'swarms' of 'marauding' 'migrants' continues, some far right activists excusing their language and behaviour on the grounds that it's 'OK' because it's not actually 'racist' to be 'anti-Muslim', because Muslims aren't a 'race'. To most people it seems pretty obvious that that is nothing but an attempted semantic dodge to justify their bigotry, but the capacity and opportunity for it exists in their minds specifically because we have been working to address some particular symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. Thankfully there is now much greater recognition that 'Gay Rights' should extent to what are now being called LGBT+ groups, for example - while it is obviously a good thing to widen such definitions, it still doesn't mean that we are addressing equal treatment of all groups or all people in society, or addressing the actual root issue at the heart of what is causing the discrimination in the first place.

It seems to me that we have addressed some particular symptoms in society by a process of 'normalisation' of formerly considered 'not normal' groups, but that isn't really solving the actual problem at all. Some people just don't seem to understand the fact that 'freedom' absolutely has to come with tolerance and more - acceptance, equality and equal respect and treatment - for a society to be free, the people within it must be free to be what they are, and to be what they want, without others treating them in any way worse or any differently on that basis. Without that, there can be no freedom - people who are not free to be how they were born, or to live how they choose, or to look how they want, are not living in a free society at all. Social oppression through prejudice is no different from political oppression - the freedom only to conform to other people's idea of 'normal' is not freedom at all. Freedom requires acceptance of equality for everyone.

We even now, as an example of where things are going so horribly wrong, have a government in Cardiff and a group of 'health experts' directing things at Westminster calling for various types of 'ban' on the use of e-cigarettes and 'vaping' devices on the grounds that they want to 'denormalise' behaviour and make users of such devices, and therefore smokers in general, seem 'abnormal'. Clearly these people don't understand the dangers in the basic concept of what they are supporting. Regardless of views about the health aspects of smoking, it is really not acceptable for such people to be promoting the idea that we must all conform to being 'normal' in order to be fully accepted as equals, of equal merit, and equally worthy of respect and acceptance, in society. They are trying consciously to create public pariahs, as if it's somehow OK for that kind of status to exist for human beings living in a society.

This is a deep-seated issue that goes to the very heart of Liberalism and diversity, and underpins problems I have referred to before in posts about candidate selection (and the prioritisation of certain groups), the current language surrounding 'migration', and what Liberalism itself means to me. It's really just not OK for us to be thinking in terms of 'normal' being 'acceptable' and 'not normal' being unacceptable at all, in my opinion. It's not OK for us to just be deciding which groups we should be 'normalising', and even which groups we should be 'denormalising' - by doing that at best we are perpetuating the problem, and at worst encouraging that mode of essentially discriminatory thinking. Of course we should continue to fight for recognition of the rights of groups who have traditionally been disadvantaged within society, but we should never, ever lose sight of the fact that that in itself isn't really addressing the underlying issue at all.

I'm not pretending to know the solution. Sadly, it sometimes seems to be some of those who shout most loudly about 'freedom' that don't get the idea that that freedom can only exist if people in society are actually free to be who they are! I find that hard to understand, but I don't really know how to fully solve the situation. How do we get across to people the idea that it's not just OK now to consider those 'normalised' groups to be fine, but that we have to eliminate the actual issue of only accepting what we think is 'normal' at all?

The obvious primary route seems to me to be through education, of course, but we have to educate on the basis of addressing the problem, and at the moment we very often aren't doing that very well at all. We have things like 'Gay pride', for example, which are all very positive in showing the world that it's OK to be gay, but I think we have to really think hard about how we are using that message, and what subliminal message we might be sending - we need to make it clearer that we're NOT saying 'it's OK to be gay because gay is now 'normal'', but that we are saying 'it's NOT OK to consider opinions about 'normality' as an issue on which to base the way we treat other people at all'.

By way of illustration, I have to turn to the tragic case of Sophie Lancaster - beaten to death in a Hate Crime, for openly expressing her identity through the way that she dressed, as a member of an 'alternative subculture' (a 'wierdo, mosher' freak', as her attackers called her). The charity set up by her mother in her name has been doing tremendous work in educating people (including going in to schools and working with children) about the issues the case raised, but how much coverage and recognition does that get outside of the 'alternative subculture bubble'? Some, thankfully, but not enough, certainly - much of the public awareness beyond direct contact with the charity in schools and so on is 'preaching to the converted'. It's not something that is widely recognised as a 'serious problem' by many people outside those who have personally suffered in some way from it (it's not specified by the law, or by most police forces (with notable exceptions) to be recorded as 'Hate Crime' when something happens on that basis, for example). Most people just don't consider it a major issue, especially because the 'difference' is a matter of choice rather than birth. Indeed, many still write such things off as a 'phase' that people will 'grow out of' once they become 'normal adults' in society - it's not like being black, or like being's not as important or urgent to deal with. In a free society, it shouldn't matter at all whether a 'difference' is a 'choice' or an 'accident of birth', but this specific issue is certainly a major and daily issue of simple prejudice (and worse, sadly) to many, many people (especially, but by no means exclusively, young people) in the UK and around the world.

Once again it's only a single symptom, of course, but the fact that it is not one of the traditionally 'fashionable' groups to 'normalise' really highlights the problem we currently have. Most of the time we aren't dealing with prejudice itself as an issue, we are just 'normalising' particular groups so that they are less likely to become its victims. That's good, but it's not anywhere near good enough to defeat the problem and deal with the underlying issues. If we managed to defeat prejudice against difference races or religions, and sexualities and subcultures, we'll still be left with the same old problem, but just targeted at other groups. Fat people, ginger people, tall people, gypsies, Polish people, Foreign people, Scottish people, English people, people who support a different football team, people with tattoos and piercings, poor people, rich people, old people, young people, etc., etc. - the list of potential victims for prejudice is endless if we don't promote the idea that it is prejudice itself that is wrong, not just certain manifestations of it that can therefore be gradually 'integrated' into 'normal' society and seen as 'normal' and therefore 'acceptable'. For as long as we try to prioritise particular groups to 'normalise' rather than dealing with the underlying issue, we will still have many other people suffering the results of being seen as somehow 'abnormal'.

That is, for me, the real challenge of defeating prejudice, discrimination, bigotry, fear and hatred - to get the message through that considering the merit or acceptability of people on the basis of whether you consider them to be 'normal' is not at all acceptable in any way. If we want to live in a free society, that is what we MUST do. Our own freedom has to depend on us accepting the freedom of others, even if we don't think that they are 'like us' in some way - that is the only way that freedom can exist in society. We have to recognise this in order to do better at dealing with it.

We also, each and every one of us as individuals, have to look to ourselves, and constantly challenge the basis of our own preconceptions about other people.

(Note: The picture is of a Sophie Lancaster Foundation charity wristband - 'Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere' - they (and other items) can be bought via their website. The arm is my own, and not available for purchase)

Saturday, 15 August 2015

'State', 'Nation' and the Union Rag

OK, so that's a deliberately provocative title for a post which I know some will find controversial - stick with me, and hopefully you'll see why I chose it.

Firstly, a little bit of context. I was prompted to write this today be a couple of things. Initially it was related to articles like this:
about the lack of a Union Flag on the new GB athletics kit. Now personally I think this is a bit of a non-story, since the whole thing is pretty conclusively union flag coloured anyway, but I can, of course, understand the sentiment. There is a problem, though, which is what I want to discuss.

There were one or two other issues, too, including a Lib Dem Federalism-related twitter account that wants to campaign for the UK to be a federal 'nation'. Now I am absolutely fully in favour of a Federal UK, as I have already made clear in other posts. It seems to me the only logical, viable way for the UK to be effectively governed in future. I have very strong reservations about the terminology being used, though.

The UK is not a 'nation', it is a 'state'. These are terms that get thrown around and a great deal as if they were freely interchangeable, but they are not the same at all (note that I don't use the term 'country' - it's not one that is so clearly defined). The Oxford English Dictionary (online version) gives this definition for 'nation':

'A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory'

 And for 'state' (in this context), the same source gives this: 

'A nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government'

These are very different things. They often get confused, perhaps as a result of the nineteenth century grouping of most European countries broadly into 'nation states' - in other words, administrative 'states' which broadly coincide with 'nations' where there had previously been various principalities, and so on. The definitions are quite clear, though - a 'state' is the administrative and political entity that occupies and controls a geographical area, and a 'nation' is a group of people with a broadly similar cultural identity. 

The 'problem' with the UK in this sense is that it is not a 'nation state', and never has been (and, I hope, never will be, as much as there have been attempts to make it so). It is a 'multinational state' - a geographical area under the control of one set of state mechanisms, but occupied by several different clear and distinct nations. In fact, the borders of the part occupied by those different nations are quite clearly defined and accepted, having been around for some centuries, so it really should be quite easy to spot!

You can, of course, argue that to an extent each of those 'nations' now has a 'sub-state' entity of its own through devolution (and they have previously in some ways), and you can argue that at some points in history in particular (during the 20th century wars, for example) there has been at least something of a UK 'nation', in as much as the peoples of the various nations have evolved culturally hand-in-hand, and have demonstrated a general loyalty to the same 'state' as if it were a 'nation state'. However, it would be folly, I believe, to deny that that somehow means that the UK is no longer that 'multinational' entity, fundamentally 'multicultural' in its construction. 

Of course, some people prefer to identify themselves as 'British' rather than coming from one of the constituent nations of the UK (Britain is not the same as the UK, of course, and that's another issue!). Some people presumably 'feel' themselves to be an amalgamation - a 'sum of the parts', so to speak. Whilst I have absolutely no desire to impose anything on anybody, and will always regard such things as a matter of free personal choice, I do have to question the extent to which some of those people understand the individuality of the nations of the UK. Does a self-proclaimed 'British' person from East Anglia, for example, really feel that they are in equal parts English, Welsh, Scottish (and Northern Irish, if they are using 'British' to refer effectively to 'UK-ian'), or are they simple ascribing a title to what they 'feel' as English people who are pro-Union in a political sense when really they have very little affinity with the UK nations beyond England? That's something for self-identified 'British' people (from all of our 'nations') to think about for themselves, but I don't think that feeling part of a 'family of nations' under one 'state' and with some degree of shared history is quite the same thing as that family being one single 'nation'.

And here we come to a fundamental point about the issue of terminology - the two things are often and easily confused, but there is actually a world of difference between feeling a cultural affinity with a particular 'nation' and giving political support and loyalty to a particular 'state'. A great many historical problems have been created by this common confusion, with it being regarded by some (sometimes people, sometimes governments) that in order to be loyal to a 'state' an individual has to also feel affinity to a 'nation'. This notion is especially nonsensical in the context of a 'multinational state', of course, but that's never stopped it from happening. Enforced cultural conformity and assimilation on the basis of a mistaken belief that 'nation' and 'state' are, or should be, one and the same has created some very serious problems, and indeed crimes, over the years. 

'Nation' is about people. It is about feeling affinity to a culture. That does not need to have anything whatsoever to do with the political concept of 'state', or loyalty to a particular state entity, or a belief that a particular state entity is the right construct for the nation to live within. To put it in more blunt terms, I do not have to 'feel' anything other than 'Welsh' in my 'national identity' in order to believe that the UK is the best construct for my geographical home to be a part of. In order to be 'loyal' to the UK, I don't have to declare myself to be 'British' rather than 'Welsh'. This is something that doesn't seem to be very well understood, and this is a problem both for relations between the defined 'nations' of the UK and for the attitude towards more recent immigrants - there is also nothing at all wrong with being, for example, feeling partly or predominantly 'Indian' in terms of 'nationality' and 'cultural identity', but still being entirely loyal to the United Kingdom as the political entity that administers the geographical area in which you are living (although there's obviously also nothing wrong with 'feeling' 'British Indian' either, and feeling a natural cultural affinity with both Indian heritage and with the 'nation' in which you have been living - that's quite natural, too, though again the issue of 'British' as notion applies). It's as if we are saying that in order to be truly 'loyal' to the UK 'state' we can only be assimilated into personally conforming with a particular form of 'national' culture, and I think that is pure rubbish.

In this context, one term that becomes very much misunderstood because of this is 'Nationalism'. 'Nationalism' has taken on a connotation of a negative, xenophobic view - a feeling that not only is a person's own 'cultural identity' theirs and what they feel an affinity to, but that the cultures of others are somehow 'inferior'. That's fair enough, given the history of the term and how it has been used, but where misunderstanding occurs is when the term also gets used for a desire to change state entities and develop a different construct of 'nation states' in what would then be the former UK. The two things can be related, in that some of those who would like to see the UK broken up are doing so from the point of view of a xenophobic resistance to what they see as 'foreigners' - it's nonsense to suggest that those elements do not exist within the SNP and Plaid Cymru, for example. They do - always have, always will - they are the 'natural home' for such people. That doesn't mean that they are the prevailing and/or policy view, though, and that doesn't mean that 'secessionism' is always based entirely on 'xenophobia'. It can also be based on a simplie principle of 'localism', and a belief that those geographic areas occupied by an accepted 'nation' are better served by having their own independent systems of governance. It is also nonsense to suggest that Plaid and the SNP are just the equivalent of the BNP in Wales and Scotland, with similar xenophobic agendas - they are not. Of course, it is difficult to understand that if you don't understand the fundamental difference between 'nation' and 'state' in the first place.

To give you a specific example, I will point you towards a couple of songs from well-known 'Scottish Nationalists' (and socialists) The Proclaimers. Whatever you think of them musically, and whatever you think of their sentiments as expressed in these songs, it's a simple, clear illustration:

The first is 'Cap in Hand':

It's a simple enough song about being able to understand lots of things, but 'I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand', on the basis that Scotland belongs to the people who live there, not to anyone else who lives elsewhere. On the face of it, that might seem 'Nationalistic', and many would take that to mean in some way 'Xenophobic'.

The second song, however, is 'Scotland's Story':

This is a song about immigration, and all of the people being a part of Scotland's Story:

"In Scotland's Story I'm told that they came, The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane, but where's all the Chinese and Indian names? They're in my land's story and they're all worth the same!"

It's a song about the equal worth of everyone who lives in Scotland, regardless of their origins or 'nationality'. How do you square these two sentiments with one another? Unless you understand the fundamental difference between 'nation' and 'state', and between 'Nationalism' in terms of 'secessionism' and 'Nationalism' in terms of 'xenophobia', I'd argue that it would be quite difficult to do!

So how is this whole thing relevant to where I started? Well, in the case of 'making the UK a federal nation', I don't believe you should. I'm a committed federalist in terms of the UK - I believe it is the way forward, but I utterly reject any idea of trying to make the UK a 'nation' and overriding the existing feelings of identity among the various peoples of the UK, including the defined 'nations' that occupy particular parts of these islands. It's a huge mistake to mix the two things up, in my opinion. The UK should be a federal 'state', but a 'state' comprising of the various 'nations' and not just a 'nation' in itself. To push the idea of the UK being a 'nation' is to fall into all of the old traps of enforced (by implication, if nothing else) conformity to a single cultural identity, and I've mentioned the problem with this previously in my post about 'Britain Day' and the like.

As for the 'Union Flag', there is a very specific problem with it as a supposed symbol of the UK as a 'state' - it explicitly fails to represent one of the main constituent nations of the UK. There is no representation of Wales, and that is something that I, as a Welsh person, strongly object to (and I'm not alone, I can assure you). That doesn't make me some kind of radical 'xenophobic nationalist' (or even 'secessionist nationalist'!), and it's not an entirely uncommon sentiment in Wales. I absolutely believe in the UK (a Federal UK) as the best 'state' mechanism for my geographic area to exist within politically, but I can never support a flag that is supposed to represent our shared family of nations under one 'state' when it doesn't recognise the existence of my country or represent it in any way (and the same is true, of course, of the Royal Standard flag). 

Of course, the argument that very often comes back when this is mentioned is one of 'tradition'. Well, nuts to 'tradition', quite frankly! Slavery is traditional. Sexism is traditional. That doesn't mean that these things shouldn't be changed, and the same is true of an obviously fundamentally flawed state symbol. The other regular answer is that it 'doesn't really matter' or 'isn't important'. Well it does, and it is. It is important, because it is helping to foster the dangerous and offensive misunderstanding of 'nation' and 'state', and promote the idea that in order to be truly loyal citizens of the UK 'state' we have to all be one 'nation'. We don't. Of course, many of those who regard this as people just being 'difficult', or 'nationalistic' in a negative sense, come from 'nations' which are represented on the flag, and have little understanding of the nature of the UK as a 'multinational state' entity rather than a 'nation state', and that is the kind of understanding that we need to promote. 

I can and will show loyalty to the UK state, but don't ask me to show loyalty to the idea of not being a part of the Welsh 'nation', because that's never going to happen, and nor should that kind of thing be asked of any of us. The problem is not only a directly political one - it raises its head in things like sport, where we are expected to feel 'national pride' (I won't delve deeply in to the obvious issues and dangers surrounding such 'pride', and the fact it is actually possible, though many sadly don't seem to be able to do it, to feel affinity and support for your 'nation' while not actually regarding it as any better than anybody else's!) and 'national loyalty' in supporting our 'national team' under circumstances whereby the team comprises of few representatives of our 'nation' (as one of the smaller constituent parts of the UK) and competes emblazoned with a flag that doesn't actually represent our 'nation' at all. Again, we are allowing terms to be confused.

So where does that leave us. Well, I'll put it in blunt and personal terms. If you want me to support 'Team GB' at anything as if it were a 'national' team, use a flag that includes representation of my 'nation'. It's that simple. Make it clear that it is a 'multinational' team with a 'multinational' 'state' flag that actually includes my 'nation', not a 'national' team that I should feel ashamed to not support as if it makes me in some way 'xenophobic'. Either that, or if you want people to support it 'national' teams as others in 'nation states' do, end 'Team GB' altogether and let us support our own 'nations'. You can't have it both ways - either we compete as 'nations', or we compete as a 'multinational state' - we cannot pretend that one is the other, and then not bother to include one of the constituent parts of the 'state' in how we represent it. 

We need to change the flag, for a start - the title I chose for this post was a deliberate one, based on a reference to a very common term used for the flag in Wales, and not just among those who are politically 'nationalist' in any sense. We are supposed to enthusiastically endorse a flag that explicitly fails to represent our nation as a constituent part of the UK state, and many people seem to have no recognition of how genuinely offensive that is to many people. The same kind of thing goes for the anthem, of course - 'God Save the Queen' is supposed to be the UK's anthem in theory, but it is very clearly a song of and for only one of our nations. We need to change it - let England have it, and let's have a modern UK anthem that actually represents us all (and not just the geographically established 'nations', preferably, but the gloriously diverse peoples that we are in the UK). The idea of a new anthem just for England is a nonsense - England has, by its nature and by modern 'tradition', a perfectly reasonable anthem in 'God Save the Queen' - what we need is an appropriate new anthem to represent the whole of the UK.

I am Welsh. I am comfortable with that as my 'national identity'. I don't regard it as in any way 'special', or as in any way 'superior', but simply as 'mine' - it is what I have grown up with, and it is what I feel a part of. Wales is my 'nation'. I don't 'feel' anything else, but I'm more than happy to enjoy cultural elements from any other nation - we should celebrate our diversity, within the UK and beyond. Our own nation shouldn't be something we feel 'proud of' in terms of it being something 'exclusive' or 'better', but in order to truly celebrate our diversity we have to recognise the fact that we aren't actually all 'the same' even within the UK 'state'.

I am also a supporter of the UK as the state mechanism that I think will best support and serve the place where I live - I would like it to be a Federal UK, of course, and I also want it to be a part of the wider EU mechanisms. I think that serves us well in Wales and beyond. I fully support devolution on the basis of 'localism' (I am a Liberal), and I believe that 'Wales' is a logical geographic entity on which to base that, but I don't support the idea of it needing to be 'independent' of the UK. 'Nation' and 'State' are very different things, and in order to understand how we can celebrate diversity, enjoy the culture which we feel to be 'our own' and equally enjoy elements of others as of equal worth, and recognise how all of our peoples are best served in terms of 'state mechanisms', we need to understand that, especially within the context of the relatively unusual political entity (in Europe, at least) that is the UK.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Refugee Language - A Warning From History

Like many others, I'm sure, I have become increasingly disturbed by the kind of language being used with regard to the debate on immigration and the refugees in Calais. At first, I guess, David Cameron's use of the word 'swarm' could perhaps be forgiven as a momentary slip. A bad one, but not a deliberate one. There can be no such excuse for Philip Hammond's description of migrants 'marauding', though - after the complaints about Cameron's use of language, he can only have been absolutely deliberate in the terms he chose to use. Indeed, it seems like, far from apologising, he is standing by it and justifying it.

It's clear that from the Conservative government and from certain sections of the media there has been a very deliberate ramping up of rhetoric. The use of language is not only dehumanising, but it is quite clearly consciously and deliberately so. Of course, we as Liberal Democracts have been doing our best to fly in the face of this oncoming storm, and Tim Farron has done excellent work in taking the lead on both criticising what is going on and visiting the camp in Calais to meet refugees and aid workers for himself. We are trying to highlight the fact that these are actually real human beings in desperate need, not evil insects trying to descend on us and threaten our way of life, but however had we work it is unfortunately not going to be enough on its own.

The Conservatives seem hell bent on demonising refugees to the maximum, along with certain newspapers, and with only 8 MPs our message is never realistically going to command the attention that they can get. That shouldn't stop us, of course, but we do need others to get more involved in that battle (the Labour party for one - they haven't exactly been forceful in their admonishment of the Tories). Only today the front page of one newspaper is covered with a story specifically designed to whip up more trouble, firstly in complaining about the BBC's Songs of Praise daring to film in the Calais camp, and secondly by refering, right there on the front page, to it as a 'lawless migrant ghetto'. I'm sure I don't need to describe how utterly vile I think their behaviour is!

It is worse than that, though. It's not just vile language and vile behaviour, but it seems to be a deliberate furthering of a particular narrative and agenda. I can only speculate about what the motivation is in terms of the forward planning agenda, but those involved really need to heed the warnings from history about where such dehumanisation and scaremongering tactics can ultimately end up taking an apparently 'civilised' country.

Firstly, I would recommend that everyone get themselves a copy of, or watch online or whatever, the documentary series 'The Nazis - A Warning From History'. It is, I believe, imperative to understand what really happened in the inter-war period in Germany, and how those circumstances led to electing such a government, and how civilised people were able to turn a blind eye (or worse) to what was being done around them to fellow human beings. We can only ever avoid repeating the mistakes of history if we learn about it and understand it. What happened then CAN happen again, and we'd be utterly foolish and naive to assume that it somehow can't.

Now I'm not for a moment suggesting that the Conservatives have a specific planned agenda akin to that of the Third Reich (and I'm also well aware of Godwin's Law!), but they do need to be aware of what they are doing in terms of spreading the language of dehumanisation, and what that can lead a population to allow to be done 'in their name'. It has been noted, for example, that the word 'swarm', as used by David Cameron, echoes a phrase in Mein Kampf ("promiscuous swarm of foreigners"). I hope that was accidental, and I'd really like to believe that it was. It should still stand as a stark warning about what is going on at the moment, though.

Certain very popular newspapers have for some years been habitually reporting immigration, and anything that they kind find in terms of negative stories about Muslims in particular, in gratuitously and outrageously emotive language. They have been painting a very definite picture, and pushing a very definite agenda that 'Muslims' and what they refer to as 'Migrants' (because that sounds so much less human than 'Refugee') are a serious danger to our society and way of life. They have been pushing a narrative of 'Great Britain', that glorious bastion of unified and perfect civilised society, being under threat by the 'forced of darkness' coming from elsewhere. There is not truth to it, of course, but that doesn't matter - they are pushing that narrative as hard as they can, and the Tories (some Tories, at least - not all are guilty, and I was heartened to see their Scottish leader congratulating Songs of Praise on their decision to visit Calias) are increasingly not just falling in line behind them, but taking the lead for them.

Times have been hard lately in the UK - we all understand that. They have not, perhaps been quite as hard for most people as the constant barriage of Labour's 'cost of living crisis' narrative might suggest, and certainly they haven't helped to create anything like a balanced or hopeful view of where we currently are. When times are hard, people search for answers at the extremes of politics - that has been true throughout history. People want 'action'. They want 'answers'. they want someone to come forward with a simple and immediate solution to all of their perceived problems, given in emotive terms that promise to 'smash' the 'status quo', and so on. It always happens, and it always will.

Of course, it's not just those on the right who are discovering this eternal truth - the Labour party's current woes in the leadership contest demonstrate that people are increasingly turning further and further to the left, too. Indeed, even within the Liberal area of politics there seems to be something of a trend among some people towards a more radical and emotive 'Libertarian' approach. Everyone just wants the all the problems to be solved, and everyone's looking for a quick and easy solution that appeals to them on an emotional level.

This is nothing new, of course - returning to the German example, it's no accident that the party who eventually gained power there first had to defeat the forces of radical communism, and secondly had to appeal to those of a more socialist mindset in addition to what you could say was their most likely far-right support base (and the party's formal name was no accidental choice).

When times are hard, as they have recently been, everyone wants a saviour, and everyone wants a scapegoat. The more extreme parties try their best to provide that, of course, but the more 'mainstream' parties need to resist the temptation to combat that by simply becoming more and more extreme themselves. Labour are struggling with that at the moment, and it will be interesting to see how that turns out. More worryingly, though, the Tories are really not resisting that temptation to lurch to the extremes very well at all, and they need to do very much better.

I don't think they have really thought through what they are doing, and what the results of it might be. They need to look at history, and realise what happens if a narrative of dehumanisation manages to win the day. On the whole people are, I believe, naturally reasonably tolerant of other people, and reasonably willing help other people in need, but if what they see end up in their mind not really being human beings at all, but dangerous hordes of 'undesirables' threatening their way of life, they can become something else entirely. The history of Germany in the 20th Century proves that beyond any doubt, and it's not the only historical example by any means (look at the history of the British Empire, for example). Civilised and culture people CAN be turned into something else by the rhetoric of dehumanisation - that is something proven by history, and something that we should all make ourselves aware of.

There is an agenda being followed that is telling people that it's OK to resist and hate these 'subversives' and 'not really human beings' and 'those who don't think like us' and 'those who want to destroy our way of life'. There is a narrative being created around a myth of our own 'superiority' and our own 'great civilisation' and our own 'traditional way of life', and the need to preserve these in the face of 'threats' from 'the other'. It is not a new idea, but it is an idea that really should disturb us all. We have seen how it can end up. I don't suggest that the current government have such ultimate effects in mind as they pursue this agenda, but they are opening the door to something that they might not be able to stop, or might even become swept up in furthering ever more as time goes in.

Government ministers have a duty to provide leadership on this kind of issue. To have the people who are supposed to be leading not only of country but its international diplomacy pandering to the language of dehumanisation is beyond just being vile and despicable - it opens up a whole new chapter from anything that has happened in recent UK history. When Enoch Powell delivered his infamous Birmingham speech, he was not a figure with the prominence of the Prime Minister or of the Foreign Secretary, and his speech did not have the impact of the more subtle furthering of the narrative being currently employed. What is happening now is something different and new - not an isolated case of a 'renegade radical', nor an opposition party attacking the government of the day, but a program of dehumanising language coming from the government itself, as well as large sections of the popular press. This is something that people really should be deeply concerned about - we need to step back, open our eyes and see what is happening around us.

There are groups poised to capitalise on the effects of this narrative, of course - Britain First, the EDL, the BNP, and so on - I'll leave you to decide for yourselves which particular groups and/or political parties may have the kind of agenda (hidden or otherwise) that sees them delighting in the current rhetoric. Currently they are mostly a fractured set of splinter groups, and none of them show any realistic prospect of forming a government any time soon, or even being a serious parliamentary force. We need to be aware, though, that that is not a new thing either, and such groups can rise dramatically if the circumstances are right for them. We can never be complacent about their apparent level of support.

The UK now stands on the brink. It is not being caused by a few refugees fleeing war-torn countries, nor by people from other EU countries coming here to find work, nor by any religious group. Our society and way of life is not under threat from 'foreigners' who seek to destroy it at all, but by our own people seeking to blame 'foreigners' for everything they see as being wrong today. We need to be aware of this, and we need to fight against it with every inch of our being. History shows us the dangers, and if we don't listen to the lessons from history we can and will repeat those same mistakes. We need to remember where we know this kind of situation can lead - we need to remember what can happen when we create in people's minds the idea of the 'untermensch'. It really is that serious. I cannot describe the extent to which the idea of repeating the same mistakes in 21st century Britain fills me with dread as a human being.


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Lions and Migrants and Charities, Oh My!

There has been much talk over the last few days about these issues, and indeed about how they relate to one another in terms of priorities, bandwagons, and so on.

There have, for example, been accusations such as 'you care more about lions than migrants', and it is true that some people seem to be making far more fuss about one issue, and the welfare of one 'group', than the other. That issue was quite succinctly summed up by one person referring to a Daily Mail front page talking of both issues, "Britain: Angry that a Lion is shot, Angry that immigrants aren't being shot.". These accusations do, of course, have a point in some cases.

For some people, though, the two things are by no means mutually exclusive - you can care about the issues of lions, trophy-hunting and so on, and also care about the desperate human beings just across the sea trying to get to the UK. Indeed, you can comment and campaign on both issues, and many people are. What the Daily Mail and its ilk are up to is another issue, of course, but if I worried too much about the kind of rubbish that the Daily Mail writes I would soon lose my marbles! They have their own nasty little agenda, and everyone really should know about it by now.

There are those, however, who are even saying that we should basically shut up about the bloomin' lion while people are dying - I think those people have got it very badly wrong. We should take every opportunity to raise public awareness about issues that need to be addressed, even if there are still other issues that need to be addressed, and arguably need to be addressed more urgently. It is true to say that, despite years of dedicated campaigning by some people, groups and charities, the issues of big game hunting and trophy export have barely raised a ripple on the public awareness chart. The awful demise of Cecil has given what might be a unique opportunity to get the public to wake up to the problem - of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't other problems in the world, and more urgent ones, but this kind of 'jumping on the bandwagon' might actually bring at least one problem closer to a solution. That, in my opinion, has to be a good thing, even if it leaves other problems unsolved for another few days, when they were never likely to be solved in those few days anyway!

That brings me on to the issue of charities, and their marketing approaches - this is something, although I guess it's barely registered with many people among the lions and migrants, that David Cameron has been talking about recently. Now I certainly don't dispute that there can be problems with charity marketing - I don't have figures to call on, but I do know people who have signed up for their 'just £3 per month' donation towards a particular issue, only to be bombarded constantly with a flood of materials from other charities demanding (in urgent terms) that they must do the same for them. Large charities understand marketing, and they understand that the 'urgency' of an appeal can be a key element to getting a good response. They do have to be careful, though - in addition to the issue of some people feeling 'harassed' (which is never acceptable), I also know people who have cancelled their original monthly donation just to try to escape from the flood of new requests for cash. If they push too hard for short term gain, they potentially could do long term damage to the whole sector by putting people off from donating at all. I'm certainly not convinced that extra legal regulation is the best approach, though.

I'm sure lion-based, and similar, charities and campaigners will do everything that they can to capitalise on the current media spotlight and public attention on the issue of big game hunting and associated trophy export, and so they should. It doesn't actually harm other issues significantly to get one issue some real public momentum for a few days or weeks - it will inevitably gradually sink down the list of priorities over time. They do have to be a little careful when it comes to appeals for money, though, not to make their appeals so 'urgent' and 'hard-hitting' and ongoing after the immediate that they end up doing long term damage to their own, and other charity, prospects. Take the opportunity and exploit it, but don't push too hard for too long or people will push back, and that wouldn't be good at all.

To turn to the issue of 'migrants', much has been said about the dehumanisation and demonisation of these desperate people searching for a better life, and the fact that many should, in terms of relative numbers taken by different EU countries and of their status as genuine 'refugees', be allowed in to the UK (many would be likely to be allowed to stay if they got here and got caught). That should, I suspect, be pretty obvious now to anyone who is not sucked in by the nasty propaganda of the likes of the Daily Mail, and Farage's UKIP crowd (and other even worse right wing loons). I won't go over that same ground in detail - suffice to say that it is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

I think the current public profile on the issue, as much as it may seem to be an excuse for right-wing tabloid excess of the worst kind at the moment, might actually be a good thing in the long term. It is shining a light on the issue, and the more the more extreme right wing elements in this country bay for blood, I suspect the more people will begin to see though the rhetoric and start to think more carefully about the whole problem and what is really going on. As I said, 'don't push too hard for too long or people will push back'! This problem needs light to be shined on it. It needs people to look and listen and think. It needs people to raise their awareness, because that will ultimately, I believe, begin to raise their understanding. Of course, those of us who believe that the 'swarm' is actually a group of individual desperate human beings should continue to raise that point, but by prolonging and enhancing the exposure our opponents are actually making it easier for us to continue to do so. It will inevitably slip down the list of public priorities eventually, though.

Issues come and go in the public conciousness. That is natural, and inevitable. As human beings ourselves, we cannot concentrate on everything at the same time. We cannot make everyone aware of every problem and injustice in the world simultaneously - it just isn't possible. Most people 'pick and choose' their main issues of focus for campaigning and charitable contribution according to their own personal feelings, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. Personally, for example, I've never really campaigned about lions before - I know others do, and indeed it can relatively be quite a popular issue compared with some other equally virtuous charitable causes - lions are actually a relatively high-profile animal in general. When it comes to 'animal welfare' and 'wildlife'-type issues, I've tended to concentrate more on the issues of dogs and wolves, but that's just a personal choice (I support various wolf and dog rescue charities with donations/purchases of merchandise, sponsor a dog with the Dogs Trust, campaign against Breed Specific Legislation, and so on). I will, however, certainly take the opportunity presented to help spread the news about the issues surrounding the hunting of lions, and other animals in Africa. Now is the time to do that - while the public are watching.

As much as we can't raise awareness of every animal issue at once, we can't do the same for human problems either. We all choose our own priorities, and work on that. Some choose cancer charities, some choose homeless issues, etc. - personally I tend to choose equality and diversity issues (and especially surrounding 'alternative subcultures', because that is something personal to me that I have personal experience of). It doesn't mean that we don't support the aims of other charities, of course, and don't support them when they are raised in the public conciousness by particular events. It's just that, in general, we all choose our own priorities, and that is a good thing - if we didn't do that, the less popular issues could just be ignored completely.

Not actively being dedicated supporters of lion-based charities and campaigns until a 'big thing' comes along doesn't make us bad people. It doesn't even mean that we don't care about lions and are just 'jumping on the bandwagon' for our own ends, or because it is popular. We can't all do everything for everyone all of the time. The same is true of the specific issues surrounding refugees and 'migrants'. Showing that we care about an issue that does come along in a big way doesn't mean that we no longer care, or that we care somehow less, about other issues either. We need to remember that in our discourse about such issues, because making such accusations doesn't help anyone or any issue. when it comes to seeking charitable donations, charities (particularly large ones with large marketing budgets) also need to remember that - few people could afford to support every charity on an ongoing basis, and it's better that they support one or two personal 'favourites' than support none at all in case they suffer a deluge of demands for money (or because they bankrupt themselves!).

I guess what I'm saying overall is that we should take opportunities to help on particular issues as they come along as well as concentrating on our own 'favourite' topics. There's nothing wrong with that. Just because an issue is 'popular' and in the news for a short time doesn't mean that those who aren't constantly talking about it don't care, and we should resist any temptation to dismiss or belittle their contribution on that kind of basis. It doesn't mean that those who are talking about it for that time are 'jumping on the bandwagon' for any reason other than wanting to help while it is in their mind. People aren't unlimited vessels, able to think about every issue all the time - we need to use opportunities to highlight issues as they are presented to us, but not assume that people who 'suddenly' seem to care about the issue are somehow just 'opportunists', or in any way lesser because they tend to concentrate on thinking about other things at other times.