I haven’t written too much about the horrible, horrible events of 2016 on this blog. I sometimes wonder how useful it is to share angst online, if it’s not accompanied by action.
And one of my key observations about this year has been the tendency of people with whom I identify and like, to comment a lot, but do very little.
On the other hand, what’s the point of having an easily-accessible place to share my views if I limit it to pure geekery and pictures of food? And while it might result in readers abandoning the blog in droves, I think it’s more important to be honest – especially now.
I never started writing online to make others like me, after all.
On the one hand, 2o16 has definitely felt like an unrelenting series of punches to the gut. Creative and gifted people have seemed to die in their droves. The Brexit referendum campaign revealed a very nasty and intolerant underside to British politics, the US Election thundered on in the background like a particularly intrusive migraine. And once again, intolerant dictatorships made life intolerable for others in Syria, either though direct action or intentional inaction.
On the other, aside from my angst and disappointment, I’ve had a wonderful 2016. It’s been professionally successful beyond my dreams and personally, for the most part, incredibly happy. And yet…I’ve spent the year surrounded by bad news.
So, I’ve felt conflicted.
As the year comes to close, I look back on the good and the bad and my number one lesson has been that I should speak up more. To speak up for what I think is correct and to engage more directly with people who don’t share my views. I don’t mean online abuse and personal attacks, but intentional and open debate.
I’ll put my hand – both hands! – up: I’m part of the metropolitan elite so critiqued in the press. I’m educated, live in a major city, read left-leaning press and engage whole-heartedly with cultures very different to mine.
Until the morning after the Brexit referendum, I assumed I was in the majority. Or at least that, despite the efforts of some truly despicable opportunist politicians, the British public would see ‘common sense’ and vote to remain in the EU. Even if this was based on an evaluation of ‘remain’ as the least worst option.
But I did very little, if anything, to contribute to the ‘remain’ vote, aside from my individual vote on the day.
After Brexit, and to this very day, I look at the UK as a very different place to live. I moved here 16 years ago, half-British and assuming this could be a second home, to do my masters degree. I fell in love with London, got a job and stayed after graduation. All because I could. All because I felt welcome.
Now, not so much.
I’ve not been the victim of any of the disgusting intolerance that inevitably followed the Brexit campaign. But I’ve read and heard enough of the experiences of others to know that it’s probably just a matter of time. I don’t sound British, really. I’m white, yet I’m still part of a minority. Multiple minorities, really. I’m Irish. I’m gay. I’m pro-EU. I like diversity in my environment. I would probably be labelled by many as an ‘intellectual’, due to my education and the kind of job I do.
I could easily keep my head down and allow events to unfold all around me. But that feels like a cop-out. I’ve been challenging myself to identify what I really believe, what’s really important to me. Part of what I’ve realised is that being able to openly express dissenting views is important. Feeling there is a general climate of fairness around me. And the Brexit referendum campaign an its messy aftermath illustrated that both of these are under threat.
I don’t like how things are changing around me. I don’t like politicians labelling open discussion of alternatives as ‘treason’ or ‘unpatriotic’. I feel disgust at open consideration of ‘identity cards’ for those of us who don’t have a British passport. I’m one of the ‘EU migrants’ that the hateful tabloids write about every single day, spreading outright lies and intolerance in their wake. I’m bored hearing about ‘British values’ as if everyone could agree what these actually are. But if ‘British values’ represent fair play and a chance for the ‘little guy’, then they’ve been sorely absent from this country for some time now.
I regularly remember that I could move. I could leave here, take my business with me and live and work in any other EU country. In that sense, I’m not stuck here. And I’m aware that so many people who share my views, or who are at the receiving end of harassment of abuse because of their colour or political views, cannot. So I won’t leave the UK unless life becomes intolerable. And I’ll do what I can to avoid that in the interim.
So what does that look like?
I’m going to make 2017 my year of speaking up.
I want to argue the case for more fairness, open discussion and exploration of options. The antithesis of our national black-and-white, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ debates in 2016. I’m going to disagree with people openly, even though I’m so terribly afraid of and upset by any sort of conflict. But I’m also going to listen and try to understand where all this fear and hatred is coming from.
It’s too easy to put others in a category, to oversimplify them. We’re all guilty of that, to a certain extent. The people who voted differently to me did so for a huge range of reasons. That’s why a simplistic referendum was such a bad idea in the first place. But it’s unfair and incorrect to label all leave voters and assume they are identikit and intolerant.
Why do I keep coming back to Brexit?
Because I think it was a microcosm of the various challenges we’re going to face in the coming years. Challenges that involve us taking a stand, speaking up, doing the right thing. With a man like Donald Trump in the White House from next month, you can bet it’s not going to be plain sailing for a very long time. I think we need to learn from the Brexit debate, understand how we can all do better and speak up for what’s right before it’s too late. A focus on facts, not on chest-thumping, empty nationalism.
We don’t have to all agree. That would make for a very boring world. But if we’re going to disagree, let’s do so with respect and some thought about the consequences of our decisions. The UK wasn’t some kind of paradise under previous administrations. I’m not an idealist in that sense. But I don’t remember such a tone of unrelenting hostility and intolerance in the sixteen years I’ve been living here. I don’t want it to get any worse. I’d like a return to civility.
I’ll do what I can to contribute to this. Even if that means that here, you will see fewer photos of my meals and more opinion pieces drawing attention to intolerance when I see it.
And please, if you disagree, let me know. Let’s start that conversation about a more positive future here.