One of the tropes of a certain brand of conservative media outlet is that Christmas is under threat. The usual suspects are rounded up: The EU, Muslims, immigrants.
Dame Louise Casey, the government’s “integration tsar,” cited Christmas in a report in September, saying: “I have become convinced that it is only the upholding of our core British laws, cultures, values and traditions that will offer us the route map through the different and complex challenge of creating a cohesive society.”
Laws of the land are one thing; British culture and traditions quite another. For the latter, apparently the “integration tsar” doesn’t believe in integration. Shouldn’t she be called the “assimilation tsar”—or perhaps even the “re-education tsar”?
As Santa Claus might say: Ho ho ho.
• A lot of Christmas traditions, like so much of British culture, came from elsewhere. To name a few: Christmas trees were likely a German idea originally; panto came from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte; mulled wine from the Ancient Greeks. The jolly, rotund image of Santa famously began in a 1931 Coca-Cola ad.
• “British values” are often described as religious, Christian values. But for the majority of Britons, Christmas doesn’t have much or anything to do with Christ any more. People of no religion now outnumber Christians in England and Wales, and this year the number of people attending Church of England services each week for the first time dropped below 1 million, accounting for less than 2 percent of the population. Non-Christian Britons are no less British.
• Having some sort of celebration in the dead of winter has long been appealing to many people whether religious or not. It was something people did long before the idea was co-opted by Christianity—and long before any politician uttered the phrase “British values.”
• One longstanding Christmas “tradition” is that for many, it’s a terrible time of year. If you are not living the soft-focus, pastel-hued fantasy life depicted in department store Christmas ads, you feel guilty, a failure, literally and metaphorically missing out on the party. Instead of this being a time of light, warmth, food, gifts, singing, laughing and good company, for many it is instead one of darkness, cold, hunger, loss, silence, tears and loneliness. Clients complain of the stress and expense of Christmas, and the pressure to be happy. The Samaritans volunteers are especially busy at this time of year.
No. 2. DISCRIMINATION
The Brexit referendum, ostensibly about the UK’s relationship with the European Union, about sovereignty, democracy, the economy, also unleashed a fierce national debate about something else: the hot button-issue of immigration. For some, the word "Leave" was an instruction not just to the UK but to foreigners within it, too; a message to new arrivals, a giant metaphorical sign to be hung at ports and airports around this sceptered isle. Theirs was a protest vote; their internal rallying cry was: There are too many of “them” coming over “here” and “we” don’t like it (ironic fact: the U.K. has more citizens living abroad than any other EU country). The objections were primarily economic or cultural. If you live in a neglected, underfunded town with scarce resources, and your job has gone to someone from another country, or you can't get a doctor's appointment or a school place, and your home town feels crowded and different, your choice is obvious—it's a matter of survival.
Most people who voted Leave did not do so out of racism. But no opinion poll is needed to hazard a guess at the voting preference of those who are unabashed racists. Regardless, the Leave vote sparked a resurgence of racism across the land. There was a 5-fold increase in hate crime within a week. Synagogues, mosques, schools and community centres were vandalised. People were attacked and verbally abused in the street. Racists stood outside multicultural schools flicking victory signs and telling people who didn’t look like them to “go home.” Sinister notes—and worse—were pushed through letterboxes. Suddenly closet racists were out and proud, emboldened in their everyday conversations, not even bothering with the standard prefix of “I’m not a racist but....”
Not that racism was dormant prior to June 23. According to the Home Office, 52,528 hate crimes were reported in 2014-2015, over 80 percent of them racially motivated, and that was an 18 percent rise in a year. In general black Britons are chronically under-represented in the professions, and over-represented in the prisons. In the field of mental health, young black men are far more likely to be referred to secure psychiatric settings via the courts than their white counterparts; black people of African and Caribbean heritage are six times more likely to be sectioned than white people. In therapy consulting rooms, clients tell shocking stories of violence, oppression and abuse.
2. British government and media discourse
In the aftermath World War Two, workers were needed to rebuild a broken Britain. Immigrants began to arrive, especially from former colonial countries and allies in the Cold War, and were welcomed at first. But the mood quickly soured. Britain was to become the first European country to experience significant anti-immigration public sentiment, especially following the “race riots” of 1958. A series of restrictive laws followed, accompanied by much racial rhetoric that appealed to the electorate’s more suspicious, curtain-twitching side. This attack on vulnerable new arrivals—already under literal attack on the streets in many cases—was amplified by Enoch Powell’s notorious 1968 speech in which he foresaw “rivers foaming with much blood.” (He didn’t mention the foaming river of xenophobia.)
Besides the cultural, scientific and personal benefits of immigration, there is evidence that shows immigrants to be net positive contributors to the British economy, too (one study showed a contribution of £4.4 billion between 1995-2011). Yet the focus is overwhelmingly on the negative impact. Political parties compete for the perceived electoral asset of “toughness” toward outsiders, a self-reinforcing stance that is further amplified by nationalist rhetoric, negative media coverage, the emergence of extreme right-wing groups throughout Europe and the expansion of the EU.
3. The legacy of scientific racism
The notion of a hierarchy of “races,” based on the presumption of specific, biologically-determined characteristics, emerged in the Renaissance, survived the 18th century Enlightenment, and continues unabated to this day. Racial prejudice indeed “may be as old as recorded history,” says science historian Stephen Jay Gould.
At the height of the colonial period, however, in the mid-19th century, racial thinking in Europe took on a new complexion with the advent of anthropological “research” that attempted to demonstrate white supremacy and thus justify colonial domination.
The publication of Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man (1871) by Charles Darwin proved to be transformative in furthering racist ideologies: Now, whatever their origin, different “races” could be viewed in fact as different varieties of human or even as separate species, each at a different stage of evolution, with “the European” at the top of the hierarchy and “the African” at the bottom. This was backed up with photographic “evidence” and new “sciences” like craniometry—researchers such as Samuel Morton claimed a racial hierarchy of skull size. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton championed eugenics—controlling breeding to preserve racial (and thus, by his logic, intellectual) purity.
The findings of “scientific racism” and Darwinian ideas about the “survival of the fittest” were claimed as justification for imperialism. Poverty, war, the late 19th century “scramble for Africa” and the genocide of native people by the West—not to mention 1,000 years of slavery—were all seen as the result of an inevitable, scientific, natural law, devoid of any moral responsibility.
A century ago, European control had expanded over 84 percent of the earth’s surface. The British Empire is over, but the remnants of the discredited, antique beliefs on which it was built, worn out notions of an inherent racial hierarchy with whites at the top, perhaps live on in some cobwebbed recess of the British psyche.
4. The legacy of colonial social engineering
For the Europeans, notions of racial superiority were a guiding principle not only in the urge to create colonies, but in the mechanics of their construction, too. A classic strategy of “divide and rule” was used: the colonised majority was broken down into a variety of political minorities. The nonindigenous subjects, such as the Indians of South Africa or the Tutsi of Rwanda, were first identified and treated as a separate race, then the indigenous natives were divided into many separate “tribes” or “ethnicities,” claimed to be based on pre-existing cultural identities. Whether they were “tribes” in Africa or “castes” in India, what were formerly loose or non-existent cultural identities became viewed as static, immutable, long-standing and often polarized groups, enshrined in law. Arbitrary racial hierarchies were reinforced and live on in attitudes today.
Says Mahmood Mamdani: “Britain, more than any other power, keenly glimpsed the authoritarian possibilities in culture ... Britain creatively sculpted tradition and custom as and when the need arose.”
5. Racism: part of human psychology?
There isn’t a great deal of writing or research on the psychology of racism, perhaps because it is such an emotive issue. But there is an argument that prejudice is a part of being human. Our survival has depended on a certain level of anxiety, vigilance and distrust towards the unknown, and an affiliation with the safety of the known. Malcolm Gladwell says we navigate through life with the help of “thin-slicing,” in which we use our senses, our experience and our beliefs to process a given situation very quickly, largely unconsciously, and take action.
Sometimes thin-slicing can be completely wrong, with disastrous consequences, such as when white policemen gun down an innocent nonwhite civilian like Jean Charles De Menezes. Last year in America, young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police, with a total of 1,134 such deaths.
A number of studies have shown just how easy it is to create “in-groups” and “out-groups” based on the most meaningless of differences, and the hostility towards the out-group can escalate with depressing ease. Examples are the Lord of the Flies-like Robbers Cave experiment with two arbitrary groups of 12-year-old boys, Jane Elliott’s classic schoolroom blue eye brown eye exercise, or Saturday afternoon tribal violence between people who support different football teams.
Using the power of projection, the out-group is demonised: “we” are good; “they” are bad—deviant, dangerous, dirty, lazy (and any number of other aspersions). The more unknown “they” are, the easier it is to imagine them as devils. Racism—and concerns over national identity—are strongest in the least diverse parts of Britain.
This crude scapegoating of people from foreign fields, or “othering,” is vigorously and cynically exploited by poisonous politicians (Farage, Donald Trump, far rightists like Marine Le Pen), newspapers (the Daily Mail has been peddling xenophobia for a century), apartheid regimes (South Africa), dictators inciting genocide (Somalia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia), or western governments seeking to justify illegal overseas interventions (Iraq, Afghanistan).
The message used to be that the Russians were the primitive barbarians who want to take over the world. Now it is Muslims (the idea that 1.6 billion people—more than a fifth of humanity—speak with one voice or think with one mind is patently foolish).
Writes Mark Salter: “The ‘barbarian’ represents a rhetorical well from which politicians have drawn throughout the twentieth century and from which they still draw.”
“Race” is a construction: There is no basis for making sweeping assumptions about groups of people—positive or negative—based on skin colour. Farhad Dalal defines racism as: “The manufacture and use of the notion of race.”
But racist stereotypes are nevertheless hard to escape from; they are embedded in our culture. We unwittingly enact them, reinforce them, and hand them down. They are part of our social unconscious. They can be made conscious, and the othering, denigrating stereotypes and those who promote them can be treated with the contempt they deserve. But the history remains. No amount of whitewash will change that.
NEXT TIME: No. 3. Misinformation
No. 1: ALIENATION
All was not well in the Kingdom.
Times were hard. People were angry, a lot of them with good reason. After the global financial crisis and six years of government spending cuts, the age of austerity had sent a chill wind through the hills, valleys and high streets up and down the land. It was bleak, especially in the poorest, most neglected rural areas and forgotten, boarded-up English towns, far from Westminster. Unemployment was low, but zero-hour contract arrangements were increasing, and this green and pleasant land now had 1,000 food banks where previously they were rare. Depending on which study you believe, roughly a sixth, a quarter or a third of Britons were living in poverty. Meanwhile, in an already increasingly unequal nation, the richest 1% were getting ever-richer, ever-faster.
Whose fault was it? It must be someone’s fault?
The blame game
Human interaction can be a complicated dance around a “Drama Triangle”—the three points of the triangle are labelled persecutor, victim and rescuer. Where are you on the triangle today? And why? Are you a rescuer? Do you ever become so strident in your complaints on behalf of the victims that you become persecutory? Or do you need to be needed, so you do all that you can for the victim, who is as a result disempowered—a classic codependent relationship? Or are you a victim? Do your demands for help become so unreasonable that you become the persecutor and turn the rescuer into a victim? The roles can change in a second.
Whether within families, between work groups, cultural groups or even between countries, these roles are remarkably fluid and heavily dependent on the eye of the beholder. This was the case in the run-up to the Brexit referendum a week ago as the actors took up their positions on the stage:
• Is the millionaire politician or tabloid newspaper editor a rescuer who gives the disenfranchised a voice; or a persecutory opportunist who peddles fear and loathing of foreigners?
• Are the eurocrats a sinister cabal of power-hungry persecutors hellbent on annexing the UK, or—for all the EU’s many faults—rescuers who dilligently try to collaborate with their neighbours for the common good?
• What about big business—corporations, the banks, the entrepreneurs? Are they part of the problem, dodging taxes, exploiting workers, buying off politicians, rigging the system in their favour? Or are they rescuers, people who invest, create jobs, generate tax revenue?
• Are the victims Britain’s poor, the disenfranchised, struggling to get by in neglected parts of the country where budget cuts go deepest? Or do some see even them instead as persecutors, a kind of dysfunctional underclass of criminals, perhaps, “benefit scroungers,” or racist thugs?
• And what of migrants? Are they also the downtrodden victims, fleeing economic hardship or violence in their homelands, risking it all to come to the UK to search for a better life for their families? Or are they persecutors—“coming over here, claiming benefits"—and jumping the queue—“stealing our jobs, housing and women," “stealing generally," all while imposing their alien ways on “British culture"?
Something is rotten in the state of old Britannia. Whose fault is it? No one puts their hand up. Instead we point: left, right, up and down. It's obviously those people. No not them, they're good. Yes, those ones—they're really bad. It's all their fault!
How can we all have such differing opinions?
Me and my shadow
We like to think we’re fine upstanding citizens, we know how the world works and above all, we are right! There is no uncertainty, and we just don't understand other points of view—those people must be hopelessly naive, or ill-informed, or stupid, or spineless, or selfish. We find evidence that supports our view, listening only to the obviously common sense voices in politics, the media and among friends. Any evidence to the contrary is demonized, derided, ridiculed, ignored or denied. It's easier to see life in black and white.
But is there a voice of doubt? It might be a tiny voice. You can't bear to hear it.
The voice says, no, you're deluding yourself. It's not that simple. There are shades of grey. The voice says: maybe you are wrong. Maybe you are the bad guy.
The stance of your fiercest opponent, your most hated foe, lies within you. Why? Because you are a complete human being. Lurking in what Jung called our shadow are all the unpleasant or unwanted parts of ourselves. We might deny them, repress them, avoid them (or, in therapy, get to know them). But often it’s easier simply to disown them: to package them up and hand them over to someone else saying, “here, this isn’t mine, it must be yours.”
This is the Freudian defence mechanism of projection.
The virulent homophobe for instance might fear his own gay desires. The shaven-headed youth hurling racist abuse at a man on a tram might feel afraid and vulnerable. The man who flirts with a female friend accuses his wife of having an affair.
The city banker with the clever accountant pays little tax; her bugbear is “benefit cheats."
The public school-educated chauffeur-driven politician berates “the establishment.”
The racist newspaper proclaims without irony that eastern Europeans are “deeply racist.”
Bridge of hope—or wall of fear?
What we project onto who determines how we vote. If you fear the worst and ascribe bad intentions to others—immigrants and eurocrats, for instance—you might be tempted to vote Leave; if you hope for the best and ascribe them with good intentions, maybe you go for Remain. Of course it is much more complicated than that. But our projections have been fueled by this black and white, yes-no, in-out referendum, and all the associated marketing, campaigning and propaganda on both sides.
The choice has split my country in two. It feels at odds with itself. Since the referendum, old friends and family members have been falling out, hate crime and racial abuse are skyrocketing, and there is a slight air of menace on the streets of London. In therapy, clients talk of their existential anxieties. It feels like the end of the world as we know it.
No one is in charge. There is no plan. Everyone wants to know what will happen next.
There are wildly exaggerated fears of a dystopian future, of our land degenerating into the isolated pariah state of Anglia as portrayed in Julian Barnes' satirical 1998 novel England, England—a country that had “cut its own throat and was lying in the gutter”; where free movement to Europe gets withdrawn, and gunships patrol the Channel intercepting English boat people attempting to flee to France.
There is faith in humanity, though.
At our best, the Drama Triangle gets replaced by a healthier version. Instead of persecuting others you find your true power and use it wisely, for good. Instead of avoiding your troubles by co-opting those of others, you accept responsibility for your life and rescue yourself. Instead of feeling like a victim, you own and express your vulnerability.
In Greek mythology, when Pandora’s Box is opened, all the evil spirits are released. One thing is left behind: Hope.
NEXT TIME: No. 2. Discrimination
1. Diagnosing Trump