Friday, 30 October 2009

When 'every little' doesn't help

'May you live in interesting times'.
That, says my beloved Terry Pratchett, is not a blessing. Rather it's a bit of a curse, if you think about it. And there is no denying that we are now living in interesting times. And there is no denying that's not all that great. But that's no excuse for totally losing all sense of perspective.

We are scared.
Of terrorism. Of pedophiles. Of swine flu. Of the E coli 0157:H7 virus and other pathogens carried in poorly packaged or poorly cooked meat. Of Nick Griffin and hate preachers. Of racists. Of Islamic fundamentalists. Of sounding racist. Of our own shadows.

We are scared at the citizen level and we are scared at the government level. And what do we do about it? If you look through the papers of a day, you may well come to the same conclusion as me: what we do about it is kick frantically to all directions, keeping clear of the heart of each issue but making enough noise to look like we are doing something. When all we are doing is making noise. And noise is rarely a good thing.

Now as you know, I live in Britain so my examples are local yet I fear that, no matter where you are, similar things are happening every day: a sense of impeding hysteria, an overwhelming sensation that we really do not know what to do to prevent bad things from happening so we'll just try to allow few things to happen full stop and thus play the numbers game.

We all laugh when we see airport security staff putting children's plastic sandals through the scanner. Laugh but don't stop them because you never know and better to be safe and late than sorry and dead.
But what is the outer limit of caution?

Britain's tabloids have gone wild this week as parents in Watford are no longer allowed to supervise their children in playgrounds unless they have undergone criminal records checks. Vetted 'play rangers' are to supervise children instead of mums and dads.

Why? Because the case of Vanessa George has sent shock-waves through the nation. She is a paedophile. She is a woman. She is a mum. That means the demographic of potential dangers to children just widened to include absolutely everyone, so absolutely everyone is banned from playgrounds and here's to hoping that whatever tests play rangers are subjected to are the right kind and perverts don't creep through. I would still personally prefer to know that each kid was looked after by his or her parent. And that parents are keeping an eye on each other. What the hell. I would like to know that when I have kids I will be allowed to keep an eye on them myself.

But with a recent case of suspected rape of an eight-year old girl by two ten-year-old boys, stunning us all into silence, the only truth is that we really don't know how to keep our kids safe and putting them in a glass jar may well be the only way forward. Because if our children are not even safe from other children, then what is safe?
A glass jar. Safety through separation.

Now, I don't have kids. But I'm guessing, in light of recent events, if I had kids and was not allowed to keep an eye on them in the playgrounds, I'd just keep them away from the playgrounds and be done with it. Was that what the council was going for? I'm guessing not. But that's what they'll get. Because a blanket policy of considering everyone guilty until proven innocent is never going to bring about good things. Still how can we expect Watford council to maintain a sense of perspective when everyone else has lost it?

A woman in labour asked for 'ethnic minority' staff to leave her bedside, at a hospital in Milton Keynes earlier this week. It is not clear what particular minority she objected to (although according to reports, it was one group in particular she objects to) and it is not clear why she objected to them being present. What is clear is that the hospital refused to accommodate her. So the hospital acted as they should. Her request was racist, unreasonable and by the sounds of it unreasoned. The hospital overruled her and she went home a while later with a healthy child.

Now she could be facing action in a county court on grounds of discrimination. And although I object to her racism and find her ability to demand racial segregation between contractions faintly amusing, I can't help but think that the thought police are on the prowl. I disagree with what she stands for. But she didn't act on it because the hospital did not let her. So what would the trial be about? And why is there a threat from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the hospital may be under suspicion as well, when no discriminatory act was perpetrated by hospital staff?

I fear the answer is simpler than we are comfortable with: this is the sort of problem we can deal with, be outraged by, 'handle', judge and close. Only it doesn't solve a thing. If anything, it exacerbates the situation. The likes of Nick Griffin can spin the whole 'no place for Britons in Britain' tale and the bottom line remains that we have lost perspective because the big issues are just too big for us to deal with so we contend ourselves with the contained little issues thinking it's better than nothing. Only it isn't. It's actually worse than throwing hands up in the air and going 'this is too big and I can't fix it the way I've been fixing things hitherto. I need to think, I need to change'.

If you are not sold yet, here is another example:
An elderly lady in Norfolk wrote to her council to complain about a gay pride march in her vicinity. I personally enjoy Pride and everything it stands for and tend to join when I can although I am not, myself, gay. Nobody cares. Pride, as I know it, is inclusive and open and most participants would welcome elderly ladies from Norfolk if they wanted to join in the festivities. But they would equally accept her right to refrain, even to disapprove of them. Each to their own and all that.

And a letter to the council is a rather innocuous – if pointless – form of protest that will not have any real effect on Pride. On this occasion, however, it may have a real effect on the person complaining as the council wrote back to the homophobic old lady warning her that she may be guilty of a hate crime. The matter was passed on to the police and I expect it to be dropped but the point remains: with real hate crimes committed every day, why is a narrow-minded pensioner exercising a democratic right to free speech targeted? It could be because a council employee was not thinking or was misguidedly over-zealous. It could also be that she is simply an easier target than say the thugs who still engage in gay bashing in the centres of our towns. The same way that a bigoted mother in labour is an easier target than the police officers whose routine racism victimises young, black males as a matter of course as the Guardian recently revealed.
And I use 'revealed' very loosely here.
Because we all know.
We know racism is a violent reality for many people in our communities. Homophobia is spectre in many lives. Real, physical dangers to people's bodily integrity and sense of safety.
And yes we do know that child abusers of all genders and all ages are also abroad.
We know all that.

The question is what do we do about it?
And all I'm saying by pooling together three largely unrelated examples is that we are currently doing NOTHING. Because bashing soft targets and imposing blanket bans is not making our society more tolerant or safer, it is just making it more hypocritical, harder to live in and less likely to resolve the real issues underlying the violence and sense of threat that seems to hide in every dark corner.
Making every person a suspected paedophile does not make children safer.
Punishing unsavoury opinions does not make hate crimes less likely. Making opinion - however unpalatable - a crime makes us the bad guys. It makes our democracy shambolic while race and homophobic crimes - actual acts, the stuff the law should target - carry on occurring because they are not properly prevented or followed up.

And creating a society of division, mistrust and fear will not make anyone safer.
So no, ladies and gents, every little does not always help. Particularly when we are trying to navigate through 'interesting times' without throwing everything we have achieved through decades of social struggle, democratisation and liberalisation overboard.