Last night I realised I was feeling really angry. Not the bursting out kind of anger, but a low, deep, growling anger. This morning I tried to piece together the causes of my feelings and figured out that I have seen too much dehumanisation of people in the past week, and I want to stick my hands up and shout ‘STOP. Enough is enough’.
You’re not here beside me so that would have no meaning, and in fact if you were I’d probably burst into tears because along with the anger comes grief, so instead I’m going to bring you with me through these past few days.
Let’s go back to last weekend …..in my working life I expend my energies working for the recognition of the rights of a particular group of children in the UK. I spent last weekend in an Italian city with others who work in many different ways for similar children all over Europe. Meeting with others who are doing the same thing is both encouraging and heart breaking. It is encouraging to hear of dedicated people doing difficult work and bringing about changes in societies, however the realisation that the stories I tell match the stories they tell and that these problems and difficulties aren’t particular to a country or a context, but are universal, is the heartbreaking bit. In seeing the lives of children in my small part of the world I am actually seeing glimpses of many other people and places. The difficulties become magnified, not managed. We see the failings of governments and systems on a global scale and not just at a local level. And most of those failings come from the inability to see that these children have value and that their value is not based on anything they have or haven’t done, but because they are people. Dehumanising.
I came home and on Monday night I sat up late to watch the BBC drama ‘Three Girls’. The series was based on the true stories of 3 of the girls who were sexually exploited by a gang of men in Rochdale and Oldham over many years. The girls weren’t believed. They were treated as making ‘life style choices’. Their chaotic lives, the very thing which made them particularly vulnerable to child sexual exploitation, was the reason given for not charging the men with rape and other crimes. You see, the girls weren’t the believable sort. The proper victim. They drank and they’d had sex prior to the exploitation. Eventually thanks to some remarkable individuals, in particular the sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham who had made hundreds of referrals to child protection services all of which had been ignored, and an investigation into the handling of the issues by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the police re-engaged with the girls. In 2012 successful prosecutions were brought against 9 men. It wasn’t all tied up with a neat bow. The decisions taken by the police and prosecutors in the management of the charging and the trial did not ascribe value to the girls. They were treated not as people with value, but as commodities who could be used to gain convictions. Dehumanising.
And then when the credits ran late in the evening I switched channel and watched with horror the breaking news of the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. The past few days have brought stories of the terrible awful consequences of the bombing. Children were killed. Many remain in hospital with ‘life changing injuries’. One can only imagine all that took place. Dehumanising.
Social media has been full of voices rising up in outrage. There are those whose outrage says we must stand together and not let the terrorists win, whilst others call for groups of people to be expelled from our country.
I’ve struggled with all of these responses, because it seems to me that they either risk or seek to dehumanise in the same way that those who commit atrocities dehumanise.
I understand the calls to stand strong together, but I am also realising that it will be easier for white people to get out there and stand together, than for our muslim friends and neighbours who will fear that others will fail to see beyond their skin colour.
Those who hurt or maim or kill or abuse or neglect fail to see the humanity in the people they attack, but if we call for responses to groups of people, who share nothing but skin colour or religion we are also failing to see the humanity in others as the great beauty of our humaness is each person’s unique individuality .
We are all different. Every child, every adult is different. I may have nothing in common with you but the colour of my skin or the town that I live in. Or I may share many characteristics with you even though we may speak different languages and live seemingly different lives. But assumptions cannot be made and blanket judgements cannot be thrown around.
I grew up with daily terrorist activities taking place in my home city. My day to day was shootings and bomb scares and soldiers on the streets and helicopters overhead. I thought that was how the world was. I was shocked when I discovered that not everyone lived like that. I discovered that there is a much better way to live. One where the religion of the other people in your community has no relevance for whether you socialise with them or whether your children attend school with them. Where you can hold different political views and you can discuss them. Where law and order is not maintained by soldiers with guns. Where your accent doesn’t immediately place you at the bottom of the heap. Where telling someone your name doesn’t allow them to immediately place you in a ‘for us or against us’ category. Where people are treated as individuals and not assigned an assumed group identity.
Two months ago my neighbour and I set up a group in our town which we hoped would provide a space for those who have been dehumanised by others in the form of racial insults or abuse, to have their stories heard in a way that would give back the dignity and common ground that had been taken from them. We wanted to demonstrate that diversity is to be celebrated but that also we are more alike than we are different, whatever our country of origin, spiritual beliefs or skin colour.
It’s been harder than I thought because I didn’t realise how much I existed in a bubble of white privilege. I had no idea that racism was rife in our area. I wouldn’t have thought that on the day after the Westminster attack in London, or the bombing in Manchester, that if I were a muslim I would worry about what would be said to my children at school. I didn’t realise that the dehumanising doesn’t end with the attacker, but it carries on into the communities as 12 year olds are taunted at school by white kids and called an ‘Isis terrorist’. That grown women entering relationships with grown men who share their educational background, country of residence, and are good people, risk their family rejecting their choices because ‘he’s muslim so he’s not alright’.
I understand that I have it easy. I’m white and wealthy, articulate and informed. I put my hands up to being naive, but I didn’t realise until recently that those things also mean that I have a platform which is denied to many of my friends because of their skin colour or the country their parents or grandparents lived in.
So I’m angry this week. I’m angry about the dehumanisation of so many people. I’m angry about the ease with which I myself forget about those who don’t have voice and platform and power.
So where does that leave me? Why am I writing this?
I guess I want to throw my two pennies worth into the discussions and rants and words all kicking about at the moment, and say – whatever we do, let’s stay human. Let’s remember that every person is uniquely different and yet …. our differences are miniscule compared to all that we hold in common. Let’s remember that no person should be disregarded or made to feel frightened or value-less in our society. No one.
I heard a psychologist on the radio yesterday talking about happiness. He said that happiness is when we know that we are moving towards fulfilling our potential. I think that loving our neighbour as ourself and seeing the value in every person must be part of fulfilling our potential. It is not going to be easy to do that. It never was and it never will be but it’s what will make us the most human we can possibly ever be.