If we treated a person's geographical origin the same way we treated their star sign? Well, we'd all be a lot happier, for starters…
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Loathe Thy Neighbour
By James O'Brien
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2015 James O'Brien
All rights reserved.
The boy who cried wolf
Do you remember the boy who cried wolf? Of course you do. His story has been told through the ages to caution us against the dangers of raising false alarms. Do so too often, we learn, and you will not be believed when finally, and for the first time, your warning is urgent and real.
Take another look at the tale now, though, and ask yourself whether that message really holds true. The boy becomes bored watching over sheep that belong to his fellow villagers. Apart, presumably, from a few minor responsibilities for ovine health and safety, his sole job is to ring a bell at the first sight of a wolf and so alert those villagers to the imminent danger and bring them at breakneck speed to the field to ward off the wolf.
It is, in many ways, an important job for a youngster. At least on paper it is. He is charged with safeguarding not just livestock but livelihoods. Allow a wolf to rampage through the flock and people will go hungry, wool unsold, cutlets uncut. Neither is it work without risk. If he were ever to go nose to snout with a snarling, ravenous wolf, only a fool would bet on the boy prevailing.
Off paper, however, it all looks pretty dull. Unless the bell is actually rung, the boy might as well not exist. His days in many ways have less purpose than those of even the sheep he guards. Important he may be in theory, but in practice he is effectively impotent, irrelevant unless danger actually arrives. Were he, for example, to announce grandly every evening that yet another day had passed wolf-free, he would be more or less ignored. This status quo is not exciting; it is not particularly interesting. By definition, a status quo just is.
So he shatters it. He rings the bell; he sounds the alarm; he brings the villagers running to the field and delights in their panic and excitement. He matters. He is noticed. He is no longer bored.
So the next day he does it again, and the next day, and the one after that, until eventually the villagers get wise to his wheeze and ignore an alarm he has, for once, sounded sincerely. Their incredulity leaves the boy – and their sheep – to become wolf lunch.
There is no second chapter to the story. We are supposed to learn a simple lesson and adjust our moral compass accordingly. But should we? Why, for example, is the story focused upon the boy who cried wolf rather than the villagers who heard his cry?
Imagine now that we are the villagers. That we see our futures, our fortunes, our very survival inextricably tied up with the safety of our flock and we see the wolf – the interloper, the invader – as a permanent threat to our personal and material security. Can you really imagine a day on which the bell would ring and we ignore it, blithely running the risk of annihilation because we don't trust the adolescent shepherd any more? Of course not.
No matter that no wolf has been seen in these parts for years: threats are rarely about reality and our reactions to unreal threats are rarely rational. No matter how many times the boy's alarm proved false on previous occasions, or how often he claimed that the wolf had fled mere moments before we arrived mob-handed, surely we would never ignore the bell. The risk would be too great. The more we have invested in what is threatened, the more we fear its destruction. The fear of what the wolf represents is too deeply imbedded in our collective psyche to be ignored.
That's where the boy who cried wolf went wrong. If he wanted to continue enlivening and validating his own existence, he should have adopted different tactics. He should never have allowed the villagers to see through his ruse. Instead of sniggering at their gullibility, he should have nurtured it, fed it and watched it flower.
No matter that no actual evidence of a wolf was available. Fear deals more with feelings than with facts and the villagers' fears could have been easily stoked with tales of wolfish carnage wreaked upon a flock on a nearby hill, or with tales of the gratuitous violence inflicted upon a neighbouring village. Depending upon the era in which our story unfolds, he could paint bloody pictures of savaged sheep on a cave wall or download from the Internet old images taken on the other side of the world and claim they were in fact taken after a wolf attack in the next valley. Yesterday.
A witness would be ideal now: someone to lie through their teeth about the proximity of an especially murderous pack. Someone to praise the boy's vigilance and underline his importance while passing his cap around the cowed villagers in pursuit of payment for the risks he has run by coming here.
Then he could throw in some statistics to back up his story. The accuracy of Mark Twain's famous dictum about 'lies, damned lies and statistics' is apparently not obvious to everyone. The keener or more conditioned you are to believe what the statistics 'prove', the less likely you are to question them. Surely, you say, some statistical 'facts' are just that: inviolate and incontestable. Maybe they are. Let me know when you find some. Mostly their impact seems defined by the motives of the person citing them.
'The average rural wolf attack', the boy might argue, 'leaves seventy sheep, two humans and six fluffy kittens dead in unspeakable circumstances. They kill for fun, not just for food, you know, and it is well known that they urinate in wells and water troughs in order to poison water supplies.
'There are', he might explain, 'thirty-seven wolves currently known to be at large in the immediate vicinity of our village, but they breed like rabbits, of course, and there could well be two hundred by Christmas. Not only that, the borders of our village are unpatrolled (except by little old me) so there is literally nothing (except little old me) to stop every wolf on the continent (and beyond if they're strong swimmers – and some of them are!) taking up residence here tomorrow.'
Are there any facts in this narrative? Sort of, but it really doesn't matter. Remember what it is designed to do: shore up the boy's importance, validate his existence, alleviate his boredom and camouflage his feelings of inadequacy. All of this is achieved by frightening his fellows as much as possible. 'I matter', he is telling the villagers, 'precisely because the threat of wolves is so acute, and just because you haven't seen any doesn't mean they aren't there. Do you really want to risk the same fate as that village I told you about where everyone was eaten, or end up like those decapitated fluffy kittens I showed you pictures of?'
With a slightly different modus operandi, then, the boy who cried wolf would not have ended up dead and disbelieved, he would have ended up with a pay rise. Indeed, if he was possessed of a little charisma and a plausible demeanour, he could probably have gotten himself elected mayor of the village on an anti-wolf ticket.
Any population sufficiently persuaded of an imminent threat to their security or general wellbeing is, whether or not that threat even exists, putty in the hands of a skilled propagandist. The boy who cried wolf didn't need a lesson in honesty, he just needed better PR.
Of course, in the original tale the wolf did actually exist. The danger, though no doubt exaggerated by the boy's false alarms, was ultimately real and present.
Imagine, now, that the boy had discovered soon after starting his subterfuge that there were in fact no wolves, that wolves were extinct. Where would he be if this became common knowledge? Far from being the doughty protector of the village, a veritable wolf-whisperer with more apparent knowledge of the animal than men three times his age, he would instantly become a boy in a field full of sheep with no status at all, no purpose to serve save untangling the odd ewe from a prickly hedgerow.
Do you think he would tell us the truth? Of course he wouldn't. To do so would be to render himself ridiculous, to expose his own ludicrous exaggerations and self-serving lies. For while the wolf might not be real, the people's fear and anger indubitably are, and as long as he can feel and feed those emotions, the boy has power. And it is a power so seductive that we should not be surprised if a little cognitive dissonance comes into play and our little anti-hero actually comes to believe in the non-existent wolf. Who, after all, would really want dragons actually to exist except the self-styled dragon-slayer?
That, it seems to me, is the nature of the so-called 'immigration debate' today. People are not influenced by demonstrable facts or experiences but by fallacious anecdotes and rampaging feelings, and those feelings are fanned daily by people whose personal success – whether through selling newspapers, seeking political power or attracting listeners to a radio phone-in show – increases every time we feel scared or angry or both.
The last thing these people want us to do is wonder whether there is, really, anything to be scared of at all. And these 'plain-speakers', these tellers of 'truths', these self-styled dragon-slayers will stop at almost nothing to silence and ridicule the people who tell us that there is absolutely nothing to be scared of, to tell us that there is no wolf.CHAPTER 2
When is an immigrant not an immigrant?
If a man were to push you from the path of a speeding car, how much store would you set by his country of origin or even his immigration status? Seriously, can you conceive of any circumstances in which your gratitude to the man who saved your life would be in any way influenced or diluted by his nationality or ethnicity or colour? That you would feel somehow less thankful, less lucky, less indebted if he turned out to be from Poland or Pakistan or Peru as opposed to Preston, Pitlochrie or Penge?
These are, of course, intended to be rhetorical questions. Certainly, there are still people around who would recoil at the thought of even being touched by the wrong type of foreigner but they are, I fear, probably beyond the reach of the reasoned argument or, perhaps more accurately, the clumsy but well-meaning philosophy being employed here ...
It is, then, fair to say that almost all of us would find the idea of objecting to having our life saved on the grounds of our saviour's ethnicity palpably absurd. It simply does not matter. In the context of the wider story it is precisely as important and as relevant as his star sign or the football team he supports or the colour of the socks he was wearing.
So why are insidious invitations to set enormous store by the nationality of the car's driver routinely taken up with a truly ugly alacrity? The offending driver's colour, creed or country of origin is surely of no more relevance to our situation than the Good Samaritan's (deliberate biblical reference there, at least part of the point of that parable is the point of this chapter). If we don't care about the foreignness of our rescuer, why on earth are we so easily persuaded to care passionately about the foreignness of our 'attacker'?
You have seen the headlines, possibly without even realising what was happening: 'Romanian driver crashes into bus stop queue'; 'Asylum seeker sought after hit and run outside school' et cetera. What place, precisely, do nationality and immigration status have in such stories? What possible purpose is served by their inclusion? Have you, for example, ever seen them similarly cited in the headlines of news reports that could be usefully described as 'happy'? 'Immigrant rescues stranded child', perhaps, or 'Bulgarian saves the day'? Maybe we could find one or two if we searched hard enough but nobody can dispute the fundamental imbalance here: foreignness only really matters when the foreigner does naughty things. When the foreigner does nice things he's not really a foreigner at all.
Consider a recent case in America where a student with no immigration documentation (a fairly reliable indicator of illegality) won a scholarship to a college. Fox News Latino, which caters for a largely Hispanic audience, reported the story under the headline 'In rare move, university grants $22K scholarship to undocumented student.' Over at Fox News, which caters for a largely non-Hispanic and historically 'right-wing' audience, the exact same story, accompanied by the exact same photograph of the exact same young student, appeared under the headline: 'Money for illegals'. The two television stations, as the name suggests, are part of the same organisation.
This case highlights perfectly the way in which, with particular reference to feeding xenophobic tendencies which may often be unconscious, much of modern media has completely and deliberately blurred the line between report and comment, between the providing of facts and the prompting of emotional response which invariably involves pandering to prejudice. And, of course, for every reader, viewer or listener whose prejudices are being pandered to there will be another for whom the same prejudices will be forming afresh in her consciousness. The 'journalism', in other words, is deliberately designed to feed that feeling of the amorphous constituency of 'foreigners' or 'immigrants' being somehow up to no good.
Would you really care about the geographical origin of the doctor who gave you the all clear, or the shopkeeper who returned your lost purse or the teacher who helped your children achieve their potential? So why would you care about the country of origin of a doctor you were unhappy with, or a shopkeeper who short-changed you or a teacher who marked your children's homework badly?
We are all guilty here. I am certainly not adopting a holier-than-thou approach to feeling prickles of prejudice when confronted with someone whose 'otherness' might provide a convenient hook upon which to hang an anger-assuaging insult. If you get cut up by an overweight person while driving there follows an often irresistible impulse to shout at the 'fat bastard'. You might, of course, hold magnificently enlightened views on the issue of obesity and believe passionately that sufferers from it need help and understanding rather than abuse and name-calling but, in the heat of that moment in traffic, the other driver's fatness is the most obvious weapon to hand which might be employed to hurt him.
And that seems to me to be of huge importance. When we are enraged or annoyed or even just noticeably irritated by another person and want to lash out, to hurt, to cause them mental anguish, we reach for words we think will work regardless of whether we hold the views the words convey. Substitute the word 'fat' here for 'black' or 'Polish' and I think you'll see what I'm getting at. It would, of course, be a racist act to shout 'You black bastard!' at someone who had annoyed you (just, I suppose, as it would be to shout 'You white bitch!'), but it is by no means certain, or even likely, that the shouter is in fact a racist person.
Anything that marks your temporary enemy out as 'other' offers itself as an effective means with which to hurt them. Colour and weight, as we have seen, most obviously fit the bill but the list is almost endless: height, sexuality, ugliness, hair colour, clothing ... All speak of an ugly little impulse within us all (my apologies if you feel exempt from this observation, but you're probably kidding yourself) to use someone's minority status as a weapon. Once we are aware of this appetite within us we have a choice: to feed it and so increase the anger in our lives, or to resist the siren call of 'Money for illegals' and 'Romanian driver kills pedestrian' rhetoric and so hopefully quieten the ugly voice within.
More worryingly, though, that ugly little voice is not confined to situations in which the 'immigrant' has deliberately done us harm. Hospital and doctors' waiting rooms are probably the best place to recognise the grim truth of this. If you are obliged to wait for longer than you would like – and you invariably will be – it seems almost impossible not to question the rights of other people present to be seen before you. It is here that even ostensibly liberal people might find themselves unhappily clocking thick accents, or niqabs, or the colour of complexions (no matter that this no longer provides even the vaguest indication of non-nativeness). It is almost a reflex action. But not quite, because you can catch yourself doing it, you can recognise the reality of what I describe and you can make a choice: do I indulge the enraging but irrelevant detail of my fellow patients' ethnicity or do I afford it exactly the same importance as I do the ethnicity of my doctors and nurses?
Excerpted from Loathe Thy Neighbour by James O'Brien. Copyright © 2015 James O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents
1 The boy who cried wolf 1
2 When is an immigrant not an immigrant? 13
3 The immigrant next door 23
4 The last refuge of a scoundrel 35
5 'You can't talk about immigration …' 47
6 If the cap fits 57
7 Infidel-ity 67
8 Taking the biscuit 79