Sunday, 13 June 2010

The peculiar persistence of racist hatred Many years ago I was giving a lecture at a university in Brasil, through an interpreter, and I told a fictional story involving an Irish man and assumptions of violent intent (it was an information science lecture, the point of the story was not political but about available information and the ways in which it can be interpreted). My interpreter, an academic who had spent time in the UK, prattled on a little and people laughed, until I looked over at him quizzically. He said, 'I was explaining, we have the same attitude here towards Polish people.' I had to retrace the story to explain that I did not imply a racist slur against Irish people, which is what he had anticipated. He then backtracked with the students to retract the anti-Polish slur. And we moved on. A few years ago I was in Kyrgyzstan with a British study group. We spent one night in the mountains camped in yurts, hosted by an Uzbek woman. We taken aback by an instance of nasty, overt racism from a small exuberant group of Kyrgyz, and our hostess was clearly shaken. Through our interpeter and our behaviour, we offered as best we could what I would describe now as a form of civilised comfort. Now, with this news from that country I am saddened by the way racist attitudes, against people who happen to be of slightly different stock, escalates to collective wild aggression. Hard to explain, this apparently universal phenomenon of persistent tribal hatred acted out in uncontrolled violence. Of all the sources I've read that touch on this theme, the most memorable was a curious and absorbing ethnographic study by Mattijs van de Port, trying to understand the 'eruptive character of violence' among the gypsies and the settled people of Serbia during the Balkan war. It makes me think that those of us who try to pronounce on racism simply from a position of civilised comfort, seem to do so with pitifully inadequate appreciation of the thirst for sensation, the seduction of chaos, the persistence of the primitive, what van de Port calls 'the choice of irrationality,' the comforting adoption of the barbaric, the suspension of civilisation, 'an affinity with some pre-cultural state,' the impermanence of our own truths and values. Having worked recently on a bibliography of racial inequalities, I'm surprised at the reluctance of commentators to go deeper. But it is folly to proceed as if these forces do not need to be explored and understood.
The bedrock of the garden fence to fall back on The Sunday Times published a piece this morning about a major survey conducted for Co-Operatives UK. It offers a few unsatisfying titbits about material which is not yet published and not covered by anyone else as far as I can see. Not a word on the Co-Ops site. So what have we got to go on? The number of people willing to keep an eye on the elderly or disabled in their neighbourhood has risen. Neighbourliness has declined significantly over nearly 30 years. The number of people who say they suffer from loneliness has more than doubled (presumably over the same 30 year period). The average number of neighbours known to respondents has fallen sharply. In 1982, nearly half believed they knew by name at least 11 neighbours and a quarter knew 20 or more. Now, even the most neighbourly Britons — those in Scotland — know an average of only 8.4 neighbours. Apparently the report judges neighbourliness 'by measuring the number of people helped by their neighbours divided by the number whose neighbours have caused them problems.' So you could have a positive, a zero, or a negative score. I've been thinking about what that means since I read it at 0700 this morning. I suppose it treats neighbouring in proactive and not passive terms, but you gotta start somewhere. It will be interesting to find out. 'Knowing by name' is a poxy proxy for neighbouring, but it sounds like they may have used the same wording in a previous survey for comparison, so would be valid to some extent. Oh and then there's this little gem, quoting Co-Ops UK secretary-general Ed Mayo: 'There is not that bedrock of the garden fence to fall back on.' I doubt if Ed would have said this, more likely it's been mangled by a PR writer for him, and I thank them.

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