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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Disease of Division [5]

Like being in love, being human means that in every religion and ideology (even a humanist one) there will be raving fanatics. Every large community has its fair share of them. But communities also have loving fathers, mothers and families who are not extreme in their beliefs; the quiet ones who go about the peaceable task of daily living.

We have labelled these people "moderates", and we have them in every country in the world. Wherever there are extremists, there will be those peaceable individuals who don't make much noise, and so remain under the radar. We should not judge them to be the same as the extremists in their communities, however, as we should not judge them by the highly bigoted individuals of yesteryear who once ruled their nation.

But neither should they be offended by criticism of those extremists in their communities, either now or in times past. Case in point, modern Spaniards should not be offended by discussions over the very real brutality of the Conquistadors; it should not cause offence if you don't identify yourself with them in the first place, and in the second, the responsibility of intelligently criticising, peacefully protesting, or cleverly countering racists and right-wing extremists in your own community today lies foremost with you.

The only thing we can be judged on is our mistimed silence; many of us are remaining silent as we watch in horror the escalation of madness across the world. Throughout this series on the history of division, its history is still being made as I write. The Taliban a few days before took over Pakistan's largest airport, which left at least 30 people, including the attackers, dead - just as I was writing that there is no airport security in the world that can protect against a mind set to murder.

But no fire starts in a vacuum. This is the legacy of a Texan president's cowboy diplomacy years before. Now states of emergency are on the rise. Islamic militants in Iraq attempt to take city after city, while militants have stepped up attacks in Afghanistan as foreign combat troops leave this year.

And it's not just on distant shores, either. On the tail end of news about our squabbling politicians in Britain, the prime minister spoke up after the public debacle between two of his ministers over how they should tackle Islamic extremism and its infiltration of education establishments in the country.

The prime minister has said that plans for schools to promote "British values" are likely to have the "overwhelming support" of people in the country, as retaliation against extremists influencing the minds of the young. I've been advocating that education is the key for a long time, but isn't this political approach divisive in itself? What are British values exactly? Are democracy, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths exclusively British? Are they solely American for that matter?

These are human values I uphold dearly, but why do they have to be appended to a race or nation? Surely it's a paradox to call universal values British? Or at the very least it's a very anti-British thing to do. I wasn't taught democracy and tolerance and love for my species and my world from any British upbringing; it was instilled into me by my parents - who were brought up in Cyprus during times of bloody crisis.

I'm not a particularly sensitive person, so it doesn't really offend me, but there are sections of society that will be offended by the ruling politicians of this country. Does the British prime minister mean that Muslims are not democratic or tolerant unless they are taught what it means to be British? And who decides that? It's obvious neither Britain nor America are able to uphold its values during times of crisis, so how are they going be the educators of it? The British extreme right have a shameful anti-democratic past, indifferent to any type of tolerance towards other cultures. These people are British, but they don't adhere to the British values of which the prime minister speaks. Who will educate them?

We in the West are seeing our communities become more extreme in their distrust of the foreigner, of the migrant, or the "other" - not realising that the only thing that separates "natives" of a community from the "non-natives" is simply the passing quirks of time and tide, and the chance of birth. The English are not native to Britain. They were once immigrants to these shores, with ancient Roman settlements preceding the Germanic tribes that invaded after the fall of the Empire.

During that time, as one community replaced another during the natural movement of peoples, Britain has always survived. Why do we now believe that this great and diverse nation is somehow full up, and can no longer tolerate difference? When did Great Britain become so little in stature, thought and deed?

It breaks my heart to see the country I have grown up in, the country I love and believe so much in dispersed into former shadows of itself thanks to the shoddy politics of division. And when did the tolerant people of Britain become so accepting of this? When did they become a silent majority? In not wanting to respond in kind to fanatics, some of us believe that silence holds stronger wisdom, but silence can sometimes be misconstrued as acceptance.

Speaking to the Wisdom of Silence

Wisdom is as wisdom does, and because of this, it feels no need to persuade a majority to give it the impression of being wise, and so, often remains silent. But this understanding is shared between wise people; for us to understand this requires us to be at a stage in our development where we don't need to speak up for what is so obvious between rational minds.

I believe in such a wisdom of silence, wholeheartedly. But while in life there will be things so fundamental that need no words in its defence, it doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out when politicians and people in power (who should know better) try to herd us into a pen of division - even when they tell us it's for the best of intentions, or for our "safety".

I apply this logic to my own actions within my community; but wherever we are in the world we need to speak out and show that common-sense, tolerance and respect for universal freedoms does exist in our communities (even if our governments think differently) - and by taking such a side showing that there really is none to take.

Moreover silence is a metaphor - to be the opposite to the noise of those destructive members of our communities. Even if we believe in an ideology extremists in our community have hijacked, if we say nothing then we simply become moderate extensions of that ideology taken to its extreme. You're allowing others to reclaim what you believe in, and your silence makes it seem as though they speak for you.

I also believe that wisdom is not defined by a single individual, culture, race or nation, but by the moment. How we understand the moment when it calls for us to act, and how we educate ourselves in the face of its challenges brings us wisdom silent in its surety. It doesn't need to stamp or shout its existence like an extremist. But it does need to act.

To keep our democracy we have to use it. But we can use it to speak out wisely, without the noise of violence, or the call to harm - we can use it in our refusal to remain silent for fear of harm. I've always refused to tiptoe through life simply to die "safely", but going all the way for our rights doesn't mean going to extremes that will hurt others.

We can make "noise" with the silence of wisdom, safe in the knowledge we don't need to bray and call out for the mob of the majority, or use the violence of opposing factions, to provide a different ideological view. Silence here is the metaphor for protesting and making ourselves heard peaceably, creatively, with humour (self-deprecating if need be), but foremost with sincerity.

Cynics will say - as they always do - that this isn't practical, in much the same way the 60s hippie movement - and its failure due to its insincerity - was made fun of and charged (especially in the 80s). But standing up today against the old guard is not about promoting some new liberated age of sexuality or spirituality. It's about understanding that civilisation can't exist unless we remain civilised. This might not be the language extremists understand, but it's the one they will have to learn, because no human can live forever in the darkness of a cave, even the psychological one necessary for fanaticism to ferment.

That means allowing people to live their lives in freedom to make their own choices. That also means being tolerant of any non-harming lifestyle no matter how much it may clash with our own. But we are far, far from such a stage. Even in our most developed nations we've only just begun to provide our national minorities with majority rights. We are still failing miserably to protect them from extremist harm, or falling short in educating the extremist members of our communities that it's not a prejudiced mind society seeks to censor, but the destructive, discriminatory actions of a prejudiced mind.

We are all free to think what we want to think. I don't want everyone to think the same about me, and neither do I care nor wish society to intercede in the thoughts of others - until they start to cause harm to others, to innocents, to our loved ones.

When harm is a cause, we begin to cross a line. When thought becomes a deed, and that deed results in the death of human life then we have crossed the line into extremism. The only life I am prepared to sacrifice for my beliefs is my own; I will not harm, nor take a life for what I believe in. The worst you'll get from my opinion is a headache.

However, even an opinion needs to be framed correctly - notwithstanding your belief in a fundamental truth, you can't poke someone's eye out with it. You might believe the colour of your skin makes you somehow supreme, but you won't get me to believe it by putting a pillow case over your head and intimidating me with a burning cross on my front lawn.

The truth, like wisdom, is silent; it dazzles gently. It takes time. A lie - like a superficial difference in skin colour somehow coding intelligence - dissolves in due course. It's also why time is the enemy of the extremist, the separatist and the racist. Their views are ones that quickly become outmoded, the first to be laid waste to time. Wisdom and truth are the silent survivors of time.

It's why racists love to overuse the derogatory term "political correctness" towards people over-sensitive about racist, outdated beliefs, or over certain issues set in our human past. The phrase itself is an oxymoron, however. When has politics ever been correct?

The point is to genuinely avoid causing offence, not to merely be seen as avoiding offence. It's a subtlety that distinguishes "correctness" from its political counterpart. In America, and Britain, and most developed nations, bigotry in any form is socially unacceptable, and political suicide for anyone in the public's eye. That doesn't mean this is sincere, however, and that politicians aren't bigots.

If the feelings over bigotry were sincere, it would have inspired change in the grass roots of society, but in America we have seen the opposite: there is a rise - a retaliation almost - in racial profiling. And until we have grown up enough - become wise enough - to reconcile historical sensitivities that remain open wounds, it's childish to think people shouldn't have the right to be over-sensitive over them.

Do people who complain about "everything being PC these days" honestly believe we have solved the tensions underlying the "uncorrectness" satisfactorily enough to make fun of them? The inheritors of past victimhood may make fun of themselves as a way to deal with their legacy, but what gives us outside of that community the right to do so, without having adequately reconciled the wrongs?

And not being directly responsible or accountable for those historical sensitivities misses the point: it doesn't mean we shouldn't respect them. Americans today cannot be held personally responsible for its bloody beginnings, or its slavery past, but America has hardly solved its race issue to be able to use the n-word freely, or even mistakenly, and not have it cause an uproar.

Nevertheless, the point isn't to crucify people that use the n-word in America, but to educate them into how we have loaded that word with systematic inhumanity. The point is to make the poisonous environment that threatens to relive the sickening connotations of that word obsolete. Until it is obsolete, the n-word will continue to be charged with fury.

Defusing the fury won't happen simply by voting in a person of mixed race into a presidential office. However much it might help to raise awareness over change, it ends up remaining a huge political PR stunt for democracy unless it effects change at street level. But if your party politics is one of division, then you won't have changed a thing, apart from getting arm strain from patting yourself needlessly on the back.

Over time your party's one moment of showcasing wisdom will simply become a small footnote in the history of division, instead of turning it into a real chance to side with something that has none - unity.

Main | Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | End of Part five | Part six

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