The Virtue of Intolerance – Really?

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I’m so appalled this morning that I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and rant. As you may have noticed, I don’t normally go in for political rants here, partly because this isn’t the place for it (this is my escapist world of books, romance and fantasy!)  and partly because I’m not really a very political person.

I am, however, observant, and I have to say that what I’ve seen in my own country during the European referendum campaign and the resulting vote for the UK to leave the European Union, is sounding massive alarm bells. I don’t pretend to have all the answers to the world’s problems, but I know history is behind me when I say what the answer isn’t: hate.

As you probably know, I live in Scotland, which recently voted by a fairly narrow margin to stay in the United Kingdom. Although it’s been described as divisive – inevitably perhaps – the  independence referendum at least lifted a generation of Scots out of a political indifference that amounted to alienation, and got it talking. Despite strong feelings on both sides of the argument, I saw no signs of the pointless anti-English racism that has occasionally plagued Scotland in the past. The concentration was largely on issues, where our countries as a whole differed in aspiration, and where we didn’t. How we could do better alone, or how we couldn’t.

To me, the most disturbing element of that independence campaigns was the use of fear: if Scotland is independent, your economy will shatter, the banks will all leave, you’ll have no defence force, no health service, no jobs, no…whatever. And despite what we’ll call the limited truth of such arguments, since the vote went against independence, this has obviously been seen as a successful strategy.

Which is tragic, because we’ve just seen it expanded massively in the European referendum campaign. Have you heard many politicians really talking sensibly about what it would mean for Britain to stay or not to stay in the European Union?  Because it seems to me, both sides were just outdoing each other to scare us into voting for or against, not with actual evidence, but with lies and sound bites and rabble-rousing rhetoric. I think we’ve seen some of the terrible outcome of those strategies, and I know it’s time to stop them.

One side wanted us believe we couldn’t survive without the European Union (I guess we’ll find that out now!). And the “Brexit” campaign wanted us to fear everyone – people who come to our country to work and “take our jobs”, people who come deliberately not to work, refugees from war, hunger, persecution. People of a different country, culture or religion. And we’re meant to fear the people who apparently let them – or would let them – in, namely the evil governments of the European Union. On top of which, we’re meant to fear all the countries who might join the Union at some unspecified time in the future. And somehow this all gets lumped with terrorism!

How did traumatized refugees who’ve lost everything, people in need of compassion and help, become terrorists in our eyes? How did our European partners and allies become enemies working against us, robbing us blind and destroying our health service? Through playing on people’s genuine anxieties; through deliberate lies and fear whipped up by cynical politicians and some self-serving and over-powerful sections of the media. And fear in turn creates hate.

Well, ok, congratulations, it’s working: I’m afraid. I’m afraid the UK is leaving the European Union not through any reasoned argument but through ignorance and deliberately inflamed xenophobia. I’m afraid of hatred. And I’m seeing it not just in our country but all over the world, stirred up by people who need it to justify their own often irrational or self-interested ends. Does no one remember the lessons of Nazi Germany anymore? Does no one see the parallels of fomented fear and racial hatred? Of blaming every misfortune, every act of violence on one group of people? On a group of people you have been told to fear, not with any evidence but with lies, half-truths and appeals to one’s baser nature. My parents – most of my countrymen’s parents or grandparents or great-grandparents – fought the second world war to oppose that kind of hatred.

So, yes, I do fear. I don’t fear Angela Merkel, or the European Union. I don’t fear the French or the Poles or the Romanians, or Syrian refugees. I fear the alien country that corrupt or just cynical politicians would condemn me to live in, in perpetual isolation, a country hating anything or anyone remotely different. Because that’s not my country. I don’t want to live there. I don’t want my children to live there, surrounded by values of hate.

When Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, I liked to think it wasn’t a vote from fear as many said at the time, but one for unity and understanding and humanity. Was that naive? For what it’s worth Scotland voted to stay in the European Union too. How ironic is that?

When did we start admiring intolerance and ignorance as virtues? This self-serving unleashing of hatreds will rebound against all of us in the end. It’s time politicians – and the media – looked beyond their immediate, petty goals and started behaving like responsible adults, like leaders, rather than blinkered, manipulative children trying to organize themselves an extra sweetie. It’s a corrupt sweetie, and it leaves a damned nasty taste in my mouth.

OK, rant over. Back to romance and fantasy next time :)

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