Friday, October 06, 2006

Dividing us

Yes, another rant from the pen of the long-distant commuter. Call it bridge-blogging for those of you that feel you need a spotlight on British current culture. Don't call it an obsession. I have other things on my mind, this just seems to be the best use of White Llama's stage at the moment - and some of you have been encouraging me!

In Rwanda they call it divisionism. They blame the media for stirring up the racial tension that led to genocide. Post-genocide, human rights organisations defend journalists from detention when they have reported something that has crossed the line.

In Britain, we call it inciting racial hatred, but the line is far harder to cross. Inconcievable is it that the journalist, much less the sub-editor, should be locked up for writing a controversial headline. Some might say controversy is encouraged, though nobody wants to read a story with a dull headline.

But today we see the Evening Standard, the primary paid-for newspaper in one of the world's most tolerant cities.

- Guide dog banned by Muslim taxi driver -

First of all, imagine why this is designed to infuriate the 'British', in the constructed sense of the world - white and generally English. The British love their dogs, they love their dogs even more when they earn their keep. So dogs that *help the blind* are just about as revered as it gets, top dogs if you like. Secondly, the British hate petty bans. Why wouldn't you let a guide dog, of all creatures, into your taxi? Why? After all, you let vomiting drunks in every weekend, we say, sweepingly. So, on the basis of a general wind-up-the-British-reader scale, a ban of a guide dog, anywhere, scores highly.

Then we come to the word Muslim. On a day when the Muslim veil has been on the majority of front pages (those that were not dominated by a writhing nearly-nude Big Brother girl, that happy symbol of British freedom). Of primary importance here is that under the code of conduct absorb by most journalists during their training, is the rule that you don't mention a person's race unless it is relevant to the story. There is no justification to mentioning the driver's religion. Unless, perhaps, the taxi driver had an objection to the dog because his religion teaches him that dogs are dirty, which may have been the case.

Now there are certain rules to being a taxi driver: you're not supposed to refuse a passenger when you've got your light on for example. But these rules seem mainly dreamt up in order to rile the London taxi-seeker when a cab sweeps past. Imagine if you will, that you had a certain distaste, perhaps even a terror, of spiders. For whatever reason, your customer wanted to place you in a confined space for some time with his spider. Now, you might try very hard to get over your sense of horror and revulsion for the sake of the person who is disadvantaged and needs his helpful spider (I know, hard to imagine, venomous creepy aliens that they are), but perhaps you just won't be able to do your job properly in its presence. Perhaos you would quietly apologise and suggest that the person find another vendor this time.

Now, I don't know that any of this happened. I'm simply basing my response on that headline, as many other people will. Particularly as nobody's actually reading the Standard anymore.

Yesterday we had a major story that a (Muslim) police officer was the subject of investigation after his bosses had allowed him to object to guarding the Israeli embassy. Now, that's a whole other post that I don't have the energy to write at the moment, but this series of stories about Muslims have a subtext, if you can call it that. Let's just come out and say it.

The awkward Muslims, who are invading our country in huge numbers and wish to turn our state to Sharia law, are refusing to fulfil their basic duties as citizens of our country. They probably want to blow us up, but if they can't do that, they will cetainly do their level best to make life uncomfortable for us, whether that be by wearing their veils, refusing to let us into their taxis or refusing to defend the embassy of a country that is very good friends with us and particularly with our security services. Why can't they just be like us?

What I really don't understand is why this message is being broadcast so loud and clear from nearly every national newspaper when it is so, *so*, SO far from the every day reality of the vast majority of British people. Why a debate about difference and inclusion, which is a perfectly healty thing, is being played out in the totally skewed world of the front pages, with an extremely limited cast of actors, most of whom we don't like and don't trust. I've said it before: these editors are simply trying to save their plummeting circulations, they will say anything they can if they think it will make you think we live in a world so scary, so serious that we need to buy a daily newspaper.

This construction of Britishness is also so outdated as to be farcical. Our everyday lives consist of multiple exchanges with immigrants who live here and work here. If they weren't here, the native British wouldn't be able to an enjoy the existence where every child can aspire to a middle class job, a home of their own and probably one in Spain too. Most of our inner-cities would have collapsed 30 years ago. We may keep ourselves separate, but it has always been thus with divisions more historically based on class than nation of origin. It is a country where every man's home is his castle and we construct walls round each other. Sometimes our suspicions are fuelled, but we are usually cynical enough to discount rumour and political spin. We also love the opportunity to interact, to mix our food, our language, our music and dance. We are a polite people and we like to enjoy ourselves and work hard. Every part of this applies to the people who have come to Britain, because they are a part of us too. My generalisations about Britishness can never only refer to the white population, because where does that leave my non-white friends who have been born and grown up here?

Freedom of religious practice is another British essential, defended instinctively and forcefully throughout the last Milennium. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian non-religious - a belief system in itself of course - or whatever else, there will be good and bad things that you do and you might say you're doing it because of what you believe. It's personal. If you don't harm someone else - the major definition of legitimacy - this is your right in Britain. We also laugh at other relgions and our own and perhaps this helps to diffuse the tension that could turn ugly. Itís not always nice, but I would suggest that you normally know from context whether there is malice in the humour or not, context which is completely devoid in a large-print newspaper headline.

What is worse - feeling uncomfortable talking to someone in a veil or feeling uncomfortable talking to someone without a veil? It's a personal struggle, what might be called a clash, but more likely something that two individuals can sort out for themselves; usually by being accomodating and polite enough to recognise each other's feelings. To keep your veil on if you want it on, but to know that you will find support if it is hiding repression and abuse and you want to take it off.

The glare of the press endlessly forces people to justify themselves, to apologise, to condemn. The press have a role to hold institutions to account, to point out wrong-doing and perhaps to vocalise the needs of the powerless. I don't for one moment think there is a public interest in the current obsession for 'Muslim' stories. I believe they are dividing our society and have seen people spouting racist theories that have the formula of newspaper generalisation. They don't deserve their place on every street and I would like to see the spotlight turned a little more firmly towards them.

White Llama will, of course, do its bit...


Tom said...

Quite right. Why have we not heard more about the latest terror plot to be uncovered in our towns and cities. We're under siege from these zealots!

Jess said...

*round of applause*