“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” — Pastor Martin Niemöller
I’ve been keeping quiet about this. To be honest I’ve been trying to keep quiet about politics in general because it’s so easy to say something which is misinterpreted or else to be ineloquent and clumsy. Even if you get your point across, in the echo chamber of the internet, the people who I know will like this will ‘Like’ it, and those who think it’s a load of liberal nonsense will have decided that before they read any of it, if they even do that.
But if shouting into an echo chamber achieves nothing, then silence achieves less. My thoughts on this are about as coherent as a box full of kittens and craft equipment, but I will attempt to iron them out now. Why? I refer you to the words of Pastor Niemöller, above. Replace Communists with, for example, Refugees. Replace Trade Unionists with Muslims. Replace Jews with LGBTQI* people. It isn’t really the point that you or I may be comfortable now, or even that we may not be in the future. The point is that people are being oppressed, maybe not ‘your kind’ of people, but we are all just variations on a theme of DNA, so yes, I would argue that that makes it your business. My business. Our business.
As the world tips ever further into the crazy dystopian fiction mode of politics, it is becoming worryingly obvious that it’s not just going to go away if we just ignore it — those of us who are lucky enough to be able to do so. I want to be clear that, recent events notwithstanding, I’m not pointing the finger solely at America (as a Brit, how could I?) rather, all over the world, those who have power seem to be those determined to use it to harm others. Syria. Venuzuela. North Korea. Russia. Saudi Arabia; this is obviously not an exhaustive list.
I’m currently living in a very diverse part of probably the most diverse city in Germany. Germany has general elections coming up in the Autumn, and so while I was on holiday in the UK, party placards mushroomed around my neighbourhood, and so far for me they have simply been a source of useful reading practise. But when I ventured from my haven on the Tempelhof/Neukölln border to the Western neighbourhood where I teach, I saw ones which made my blood boil:
1st picture: ‘”New Germans?” We’ll make them ourselves’
2nd picture translation: Unsure of precise translation, but it’s basically like ‘Burka? No thanks’ (Um…no one’s saying you have to wear it, love…)
I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw these. First I assumed my German was at fault, or that they were spoofs and I was missing some little subtext. Nope. They were for the party ‘Alternativ für Deutschland’. I think you can work out What that means. Just like Brexit was the alternative for Britain, just like soldiering on with oil and coal is the alternative to developing renewable energy technologies, just like having an itch some place you can’t reach is the alternative to, you know, not.
Klingt gut! Oh no wait, AFD, it doesn’t sound good. It sounds unspeakably awful. Know what else I think it sounds like?
(Image c/o https://www.ushmm.org/propaganda/archive/poster-women-save-family “Save the future of the family!!! Vote Adolf Hitler!!!”)
According to this article the AFD won more than 20% of the vote in some states in 2016. I mentioned earlier that I don’t think we can just ignore this. But, if we’re not racist, surely that’s enough? We’re not the ones holding torches and marching in Charlottesville, so how can we stop it? We are Good People™
The trouble is, disagreeing with racism doesn’t just seep out into the wider community as if by osmosis (sadly). While the clamour to say ‘but we’re not racist!!’ after such awful events as the ones a couple of weeks ago is a natural initial reaction, it actually deflects the discussion from the issues that are causing the problem.
Let’s take white supremacy, and the marches in Charlottesville, as an example. When the perceptions of racial discrimination in a country are so disparate (as shown here) it really begs the question whether those of us who do not experience racism really know the full extent of it. The torch-bearers and the slogan chanters are unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst, but they are certainly easy to spot. The perniciousness of racism is that it is built into the fabric of countries like America and the UK. Let’s use the example quoted in article I linked above, where 22% of white respondents and 64% of their black counterparts thought that black people were more likely to be treated unfairly in the workplace. That’s a heck of a difference, I would argue enough to assume that both groups can’t be right. Now, some of you will be jumping in here with: ‘But Beccy, my mate Keith is the only white person in his department, and he’s always being bullied; they’re racist to HIM!’ Obviously, bullying and prejudice are obviously always shit, but when I’m talking about racism here, what I mean is the bias towards white people and against People of Colour (POC) which is embedded in the values of not just individuals but the whole of society. (If you don’t believe that this is even a thing, then I refer you to this article, which mentions some of the studies carried carried out in recent years to find more robust data than the scientifically flawed but very thought provoking ‘doll test.’) These biases are very much at play in our society. That being the case, is it really enough to simply not hold torches? Often what it feels like we’re saying, when we say we’re not racist, is ‘I’m a good person’. Well, you probably are: but not because you’re not racist. Being not racist shouldn’t be elevated to some special status of good behaviour, it should simply be part of the standard behaviour that is expected of all of us — along with a lack of prejudice against any sex, gender identity, nationality….against any group of people. Society generally frowns on stealing, for example. Not stealing might be deemed to be the behaviour of a ‘good’ citizen, but really it’s simply what society expects of us. If you wanted to go above and beyond, you’d raise money for victims of theft, or try to work out why people felt the need to steal, and find a way to prevent it from happening. Imagine the rate of theft suddenly rose. Imagine people no longer had a sense of shame about stealing, but bragged about it on social media — not just a few, but whole groups of people, thousands of people. If you simply carried on not stealing then you wouldn’t make a whole lot of impact in these circumstances, even though that’s what’s expected of you. You would need to go above and beyond. When your uncle laughed about stealing someone’s wallet, you would need to point out to them why that’s not a good thing to do. You would need to add your voice to the voices of the victims of theft, demanding justice.
I am not saying this because I am doing all of the above, because I think I’m a good person. I’m not. I’m saying it because thinking that I need to be perfect before I encourage other people to do the decent thing isn’t working. Racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, political and religious oppression are all still happening. You might think that they may never ‘come for’ you, just like Pastor Niemöller probably did. But I say that if they’re coming for our fellow humans, then they already have.
Let’s not wait to be miraculously perfect. Let’s just be decent humans, let’s start now, and let’s be really bloody vocal about it.