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)

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