Tag Archives: prejudice

Who am I responsible for?

Without a doubt, any time we ignore abuse, hate speech and prejudice, we support it. We let the person carry on doing what they were doing. We let them believe we agreed with them. They will infer our tacit support from our silence and inaction.

Every time we ignore someone who speaks from a place of ignorance and misinformation, we’re letting things stay as they are, contributing to things that are wrong.

The trouble is that like everyone else, I have finite energy and I get emotionally knocked about when I step up to these arguments. I could spend all day every day on twitter, challenging haters, bullies, bigots and abusers. Well, in theory I could, in practice I reckon by lunchtime I would be a weeping wreck.

Who am I responsible for? It is not an easy or a comfortable question. I know some activists have become very clear that people should educate themselves. I understand why – advocating personal responsibility is a good idea. Demanding education is a way of sucking up energy and time, and derailing people. But equally, turning around how someone thinks is a massive and difficult process, if I can help someone do that then I’d like to. It’s partly about spotting the scope for change and trying to see who is for real and who is a time waster. I’m not that psychic, I don’t always know.

My primary areas of concern have, for some years, been mental health and domestic abuse. The former gives me some scope to speak more widely about disability issues, the latter gives me insight into the mechanics of abuse in all forms. I use that knowledge where I can. I care about everything but there are plenty of issues I don’t have the experience to really get into details. Faced with an online argument of that ilk I feel the most useful thing I can do is offer support for and agreement with the people who have the experience to speak.

It is so easy for well meaning people to get this wrong. It is so easy for people who are not well meaning to hide behind activism and take unfair pot shots at others. I am reminded of the feminist reviewer who called a mixed race author with a complex social background out for appropriation. I don’t think the reviewer had any idea who the author was. When we’re challenging each other, knowing the limits of our insight is essential, or we end up calling out the wrong people and hurting those we should be helping.

I like blogging because it isn’t an argument. It’s a chance to put forward thoughts and ideas, and to share experiences around the things I know about in a way that hopefully makes it easier for others to understand. I believe that we need to share our truth, tell our stories and speak of our experiences. And when we run into other people who are doing that, a bit of support and recognition can go a long way. So much of it comes down to ignorance, so much could be solved with better understanding.

It’s all well and good talking about punching Nazis, but I couldn’t usefully punch anyone, not with these hands. The clever thing would be to get to them before they become Nazis, but of course if it works you can’t even tell that it works. Keep talking keep supporting each other, keep doing what you can do. None of us can fix everything, or everyone.

Comedy for Druids

Comedy often has a political dimension even if it’s not ostensibly about politicians. You can subvert and undermine with laughter, draw attention to issues, and raise awareness. This is the kind of work we might want to associate with the Druid satire tradition. Such comedy is a means by which those who have little worldly power can call to account those who have a great deal of power over them.

There is another kind of comedy. It is used by the powerful to crush the less powerful, through mockery, ridicule, stereotyping and misleading. It is used as a cover for hate speech and prejudice. I am seeing this online a lot, and it troubles me greatly. Abusive, humiliating and cruel, hate speech is easily framed by joke shapes. Object, and you will be told that the problem is you, for having no sense of humour. Feminists who object to rape jokes are told they have no sense of humour. “Just a laugh” is used to excuse reinforcing the idea that women are inherently inferior, that it is ok to judge women purely on looks, and all manner of other unsavoury things. I’m prepared to bet that other groups subject to hate speech also have to endure ‘jokes’ that aren’t funny.

The first rule of comedy is that it should get a laugh. Lines like “You’re so fat and ugly” are not innately comedic. Using words like ‘lame’ and ‘gay’ as criticisms is not ironic, or clever, or funny, it’s just lazy language use that needlessly reinforces prejudice. I’ve seen far too much of this. If you are using comedy to attack someone who has less power than you, then you’re doing it wrong. If you spot someone making gags of that shape, it’s worth calling them out. The point of satire is to keep the powerful in line and civilised, not to bash the disadvantaged.

Calling out unfunny bigots who claim comedy as an excuse for airing their hate, is not a safe or easy business. Expect to get a dose of it too. If you say “that’s not comedy, that’s racism” to someone online, then a response like “you’re an ugly bitch who can’t take a joke” is likely. Probably even if you’re a guy. I think guys who challenge are more likely to be told they aren’t ‘proper men’, that they must be ‘gay’, have a vagina, or otherwise not be macho enough to laugh. Hate pedlars come in both genders, and will justify and defend their hate without a second thought. Usually by giving anyone who questions it a thorough dose of their poison. If you’re calling someone out, you have to weather this. Take it personally, and they will call you weak and ridicule you, while their prejudices go unchallenged because they can avoid taking you seriously. I can’t say reasoning with the unfunny brigade works, but if you try it, do it calmly, without anger and without resorting to hate speech yourself. There are forms of sympathy that can get under people’s skin. “I really feel sorry for you. Life must be pretty grim if this counts as funny. I’m guessing you aren’t a very happy person.” A ‘poor you’ approach can confuse, challenge, break down defences and leave no room for a really angry comeback.

Refusing to get the joke is an interesting strategy for dealing with the unfunny. Even good comedy suffers when you have to explain it. Play clueless, and try and get them to explain to you why the ‘joke’ is funny. There’s nothing like having to break it down and expose the core prejudice to make it clear to someone exactly what they are saying. Conveying the idea that it doesn’t work as a joke helps reduce the incentive to keep pedalling it.

People use comedy to draw attention to themselves, and to show off how clever they are, in part. Failure to get a laugh, drawing the wrong kind of attention, or getting feedback that tells you that no one thinks you are clever, makes trying to pass hate speech off as humour less appealing. If the aim of being unfunny is to make sure that you are the aggressor, not the victim, getting laughed at is not the outcome you wanted.

It’s one thing laughing at the foolish things people do. It’s another laughing at the things people have no control over. Laughter that deflates arrogance is a good thing. Laughter that crushes the vulnerable, is not. Far too many people either do not know, or do not care that there is a difference. We need a culture shift, to which end it may be productive to start laughing at the people who are not funny, rather than laughing with their hate speech or being silent in a way they will understand as tacit support.

Interfaith Druid

I spent the weekend at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in Slimbridge, selling art and books as part of their Christmas market. For those of you who are either further away or not devoted bird watchers, this is a big nature centre, lots of water birds, and a big foyer suitable for doing events in. I had Druid books on the table, unshockingly, and I did sell some.

I also had several conversations with random people who saw ‘Druid’ on the book covers and wanted to talk about what they’d seen in the news, something about interfaith and charity… half remembered stories that made them uneasy. I ended up filling in gaps as best I could. I only have a partial grasp on what’s going on, but, The Druid Network – a registered English charity, applied for a place on the Interfaith Network (I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s called.) This is a big, publically funded interfaith group. The Druid Network were turned down, ostensibly on the grounds that it would cause disruption, despite no evidence of any Druid ever having disrupted any of the smaller interfaith groups where Druids attend.

It looks a lot like prejudice. Worse yet, it is prejudice in an organisation that gets its money from the state, and has therefore some sort of mandate. If you want to be a bigot in your own private playground, I for one don’t have the energy to bug you about it. I’ll go someplace else. But, if you are a big, official outfit and there is no ‘somewhere else’ that makes a viable alternative, I am not a happy bunny.

I like interfaith work. I’ve had a little bit of formal exposure. I like the kind of random informal stuff I end up doing at events. I also like the Druid Network (I’m a member but in no way qualified to speak on behalf of said outfit). I do not like what’s happened here. The whole point of interfaith is inclusion. I’ve heard plenty of protest against the idea of ‘fringe nutters’ getting a toe in the door anywhere. Usually from people who assume ‘fringe nutters’ are all the people they haven’t heard of, and the odds are good they’ll include folk like the Bahia and Jains in there. As well as us, of course. Tabloid thinking, we all know how it goes. ‘I haven’t heard of it and therefore it’s a worthless pile of rubbish’ is not the mindset that makes interfaith work. ‘I don’t like it so I don’t want to have to deal with it’ is another attitude you cannot take into interfaith work. It all starts to sound a bit like ‘don’t take my toys away!’

Some of the bigger UK faith groups have not been getting good press lately, for other acts of exclusion (Church of England saying no to women Bishops). Politically this sort of behaviour just isn’t clever, and it doesn’t help anyone. We need to be able to talk to each other. We need to foster open communication to reduce fear and prejudice. We need to accept at the table anyone who feels moved to be there, no matter how fringe, or weird or ‘not us’ we think they are. Exclusion is a good way of breeding resentment and entrenching bloody stupid ideas on both sides. We need something a lot better than this. I wait with interest to see what we actually get.

The limits of tolerance

On the whole I think there’s a lot to be said for a ‘live and let live’ outlook. I prefer to think the best of people unless I have a very good reason to do otherwise. I don’t imagine everyone should think, eat, act, dress or believe exactly the way I do. But there is a line that can be crossed here. A point at which tolerance ceases to be honourable. It’s very easy for tolerance to become indifference, and mean turning a blind eye to the immoral, unacceptable and downright evil.
There are things it’s easy to point at and say we should not tolerate. Child abuse. Murder. War. Lying. Cheating. Anything dishonourable. For most of those (the exception for me being child abuse) it’s possible to think of scenarios where they would be acceptable. Lying is dishonourable, unless Ann Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the front door. Life would be so much easier if there were clear cut lines about everything. I think much of the potency of honourable living stems from the sheer difficulty of doing so. And some of that has to do with how challenging it is to even figure out what an honourable course of action would be in any given circumstance.
Where do we draw the lines for tolerance? How accepting should we be? The only real measure we have for deciding if we find something objectionable, is our own subjective, emotional response to it. Our culture, personal history and beliefs will colour that.
I think if you encounter something you don’t like the first question to ask is, why? Be as precise as you can about what bothers you. The more you question yourself at this stage, the easier it is to work on the issue. It’s easy to identify a group of people who seem to personify something we don’t like – foreigners, teenagers, the poor, the rich, the religious, the non-believers, and ascribe characteristics. Most people reading this blog will be conscious of prejudice and guard against it in their own thoughts. But, there is a world of difference between saying ‘all teenagers are evil’ and ‘bored teenagers who have no self esteem can behave in ways I really don’t like.’ The more precise we are, the better. Sometimes, in the process of scrutiny we can find what makes us feel intolerant has far more to do with our own feelings, things we dislike about ourselves even, than anything external.
What harm does it cause? If no one, and nothing is suffering as a consequence, then it really doesn’t matter. And at the same time, if you look hard enough, pretty much every human behaviour can be construed as harmful if you can get to it from the right angle. Especially when beliefs get in the mix. Think of the fear of social and family breakdown that homosexuality seems to inspire in some people. Plenty of intolerance has to do with fear. So if you aren’t sure if it is fair to judge someone else, ask what, if anything, you are afraid their behaviour means, or could lead to. Ask what kind of judgements you are making about their right to choose, and the willingness of any perceived victims.
When is it ok to judge someone else? When would it be dishonourable to accept an action, statement or belief? How tolerant should we be, for example, of intolerant faiths and political stances that would, if given power, supress the very tolerance that allows it currently to continue? How much should we be guided by the fear of causing offence?
One of the hardest challenges facing a liberal society, is how to deal with illiberal elements within it. To force liberal values onto others makes a nonsense of the very values liberals cherish. And equally, to empower those who will use that to disempower us, is madness. If we want to embrace everyone, understand everyone, make room for every perspective, how do we do that without the most aggressive voices coming to dominate? How do we do that without giving a big, fat, useful platform to the people who most want to make everyone else conform to their view?
What can’t you tolerate, and why? It’s informative to make a list. Aside from physical abuses, I think the thing I’m least tolerant of is dogma and assertions of certainty where there can only be opinion. My personal feeling is that if people could reliably discriminate between facts and interpretations, facts and beliefs, facts and emotions… the world would be a much better place and most of these other tolerance issues could safely be left to evaporate.
What can’t you tolerate? Please do comment.