24th December 2015
A recent blog by Tarjinder Gill really got me thinking. I instinctively dislike the identity politics that is currently so popular with some parts of the left wing and she made me dig deeper into why that was. She argued passionately that we are united by our humanity. I agree that the sort of labels used to define those subject to discrimination and in an effort to correct injustice, can simply make us lose sight of shared humanity. A particular memory from my past stands out when I think about this:
It was a long drive to visit my 88 year old father around the M25 from Reigate to Barnet, especially for a young and frazzled NQT. I arrived to hear him literally hollering at the home help. The agency used by the council often sent different people but I’d met this this chap before and felt he was particularly inappropriately employed. He never made any conversation with my dad or showed any sign that he considered himself to be engaged in a job that involved human interaction. He had gone to the shop to get a fresh loaf of bread and my dad seemed to think he’d kept the change. The home help was Nigerian and my father’s shouted insults horrified me as they were openly racist. In my embarrassment I stumbled over an apology to the home help who left soon afterwards and then I tried to make clear to an old man with a degree of dementia (and a striking resemblance to Alf Garnett in looks, speech and attitudes) just why he couldn’t talk like that. My dad was unable to separate the behaviour of this man from his skin colour and this despite him accepting other agency staff who generally weren’t white.
What strikes me looking back at the scene was that there were two sins I’d witnessed. One, the racism of my father, is openly condemned by society. It is a form of dehumanisation and we are rightly intolerant of it. The second sin was committed by the home help. Presumably focused on the money he could earn, he took no trouble to see my father as a human being and a very vulnerable one at that – lonely and desperately in need of human interaction. I can’t really distinguish between the degree of guilt of either party – both dehumanised the other. However, neither can I dehumanise either of those men by defining them in terms of the wrong they committed. My dad was quite scared and applying a prejudice he’d never really seen challenged. The home help was busy, probably very tired and had other priorities. Who hasn’t ‘treated people as things’ on countless occasions?
It is an impulse reminiscent of 16th and 17th century Puritanism to divide people into ‘the elect’, those distinguished by their virtue, and ‘the damned’, condemned to hell fire. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century the definition of virtue and sin were not entirely the same as now. Then, drunkenness or promiscuity were accepted as evils by most of society (even if many were willing to risk eternal damnation in the pursuit of them!) Now society (rightly) believes racism (or sexism or homophobia) are abhorrent. The sins may have changed but the puritan impulse to separate society into two groups, the virtuous and the damned, to prove one’s virtue by dehumanising those who ‘sin’; is all too familiar. We all sometimes do it.
However, there is another path to virtue and despite having very little of my Christian faith left, it is one I cling to. At sunday school I was taught the bible story of the adulterous woman. The crowd wanted to stone her for her behaviour. Today we might limit our anger to a twitter storm, or in the case of the likes of Tim Hunt, the loss of his job and standing. Jesus, however, spent time socialising with sinners (i.e. those whose behaviour we find abhorrent). He did tell the woman to “sin no more” but when asked to condemn the adulterous woman his reply was “Whoever is without sin among you, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.” We are reminded that we all fall short.
When I see someone condemning the ‘evil Tories’ for their lack of compassion but then being nasty to someone on twitter how can I take their claims to virtue seriously? We do need to combat discrimination in society, this is important. However, there is a real danger of elevating wrongs against those from groups suffering discrimination above other injustice in the way we treat the guilty party. It seems to give some people a means to display their ‘virtue’ that leads to a merciless condemnation of ‘the damned’ which is as dehumanising as the original crime. Such ‘virtue signalling’ frequently leads people to forget the very reason why such discrimination so wrong. Granny Weatherwax got it spot on, it “starts with thinking about people as things.”
I’m not Christ-like. I know there are some wrongs I’m not able to see beyond. However, we can only ever keep trying to remember our shared humanity with those we would rather despise. A good message at this time.
Merry Christmas everyone!