We throw around terms like 'bigot', 'xenophobe' and 'racist' as if it were a bodily function; hurling them far too comfortably at people who don't share our world-view. It makes us feel righteous and justified. But what does labeling someone racist or xenophobic actually achieve? We convince ourselves that people with right-leaning views can't be reasoned with, so there's no point in trying. But they were reasoned with at this referendum, and persuaded. They were a majority.
(Nigel Farage, leader of the far right UKIP)
Now, more than ever, the world needs more connection, more sharing; we need more empathy, and more non-judgemental exchanging of ideas - especially with the people we disagree with. Of course some people can be bigots and xenophobes. But labeling them as such and simply walking away is not effective. If anything, it shoves people further into the hands of the mainstream media and conservative governments - organs which are far more adept at persuading people they should be afraid than anyone else is at reassuring them they are safe.
Something needs to change. The world is rapidly lurching further to the right, and we're adamantly, almost stubbornly singing the same song, waiting for people to sing along. And then we hurl abuse at them when they refuse. At times, there is an almost staggering amount of arrogance on 'the left.'
When someone shares an opinion we abhor on Facebook, we should try to strengthen our connection with them, rather than reaching for the delete button. When someone advocates a view we consider racist or bigoted, we should be listening to them - empathising with their views and engaging with them non-judgementally. We need to understand peoples' fears, rather than chastising them for being afraid.
Many will argue that it's 'not our job' to lead people away from bigotry. Well, quietly fuck that. Because tens upon thousands of people are in the full-time job of leading them there in the first place. If someone has genuine concerns about immigration and we flippantly dismiss them as racist, what then of the far-right group which reaches out and says "Hey, we share your concerns. Let's talk." We lose opportunities for genuine connection like this every day, whether it's the unspoken ideological divide with our friends or family, or the person we just unfollowed on Facebook.
I think about those living in rural Australia, often bereft of the lived experience of the functioning, multicultural city-hubs which many of us take for granted. On a daily basis, they are berated with a representation of our Muslim and refugee communities which amount to a relentless parade of fear and violence. Many of these people might have never even met someone of Islamic faith, but they are being deluged with stories of extremism and terror by our media and our government. How on Earth can we blame them? If I didn't have the lived experience of connecting with generous, community minded people from a Muslim background on a daily basis, I could very easily see myself being lead down a similar path. It's all far too easy.
And how do we engage with the mother or father of this family when they air their concerns? We yell at them. We demonise them. We call them racist, xenophobic bogans. How helpful can that possibly be? And why are we targeting our anger at them, rather than the system which lead them to those views in the first place?
(The far-left group Antifa. What are statements like this supposed to achieve?)
As a community development worker, I encounter challenges and frictions in communities on a daily basis. If a particular community was wrestling with bigotry or intolerance, there's basically two approaches I could take. I could call a meeting, sit everybody down, and yell at them about how disgusting and racist and bigoted they all are; call them a pack of bogans, close the meeting and head home. Or I could spend time with them; attempt to empathise with their circumstances and experiences, and try to understand the concerns which have lead to the views they hold. And then we might look for solutions. I'd like to think these options are a bit of a no brainer. So why are we convinced the first approach is effective?
Social media has made it far too easy for us to look people up and down, form an assessment, and throw them in a box. We do it because it's easy. Everything is easy on a digital platform, especially when you're convinced that you're right. But that's exactly the problem. We need to find a new way to engage and a new way to listen. We need to disentangle ourselves from the paternalistic arrogance which has become the calling card of progressive politics. I can only hope that Brexit is the wake-up call we need. Because something needs to change.
If we don't drastically reconsider our approach, this will be the first of many results where we shake our head, post a satisfying meme (or a link to a John Stewart clip), and complain to our friends about how much bigotry there is in the world. It might continue to make us feel good in our comfortable, progressive circle-jerk, but it's not working. At all. Brexit didn't happen because people are inherently bigoted; it happened because people are scared, and our arguments and methods of engagement are simply not working. If we're going to point the finger of blame at anyone, it should be squarely at ourselves.