For many people, 2016 was the year we realized how divided the world has become. Of course, many of those divisions have always been there, lurking below the surface of supposedly cohesive societies. We knew we had never really extinguished bigotry or prejudice but we did a good job of convincing ourselves that it existed only on the margins.
In a post-Brexit world, and with the presidency of Donald Trump rapidly approaching, it has become impossible to maintain those illusions. Hatred is not only alive and well – it is now a mainstream phenomenon.
In hindsight, perhaps we should not have been shocked by this realization. For years, I had seen the popular media in the UK rail against migrants. Since at least 2010, the media has stigmatized disabled people and the poor in the name of ‘austerity’. It has divided British citizens into ‘shirkers’ and ‘workers,’ and called those claiming welfare on top of their occupational pay ‘scroungers’. There was little widespread reporting on the majority of those in the UK who claim benefits because their wages are so low they cannot survive without government assistance.
In the far-right press, the anti-immigrant rhetoric was even fiercer. For these outlets, migrants were the only reason wages were so low and the National Health Service (NHS) was crumbling. The consequences of deindustrialization on worker compensation were rarely discussed. There was no acknowledgment of the years of under-funding that gutted the NHS. There was only one explanation and only one enemy – the “other.”
All this took place against the backdrop of ongoing wars in the Middle East and the displacement of some 23 million people, about 1.3 million of whom have arrived in Europe. Of course, you wouldn’t know that, if the right-wing tabloid media was your primary source of news. Instead, you would probably believe EU states are welcoming migrants with open arms, that they are being lavishly housed and clothed with money ‘we’ (whoever that is) do not have, and that “European” culture and traditions are being eroded now more than ever. The Sun, one of the most popular tabloid papers in the UK, called refugees “cockroaches.” Even The Guardian’s front-page spread of Aylan Kurdi – a Syrian refugee toddler who died at sea and whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach– could not stem the tide of hate.
In February 2016, a date for the referendum on leaving the EU was set. In the months leading up to the vote on June 23, the language of the far-right became ever-more vitriolic. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) – which has long campaigned for a crackdown on migration – unveiled a poster on June 16 showing queues of (mainly brown) people, claiming Britain was at a “breaking point”. It was horrifyingly similar to the propaganda used during the Third Reich and unquestionably designed to fuel racial tension. Later that same day, Jo Cox, a Labour MP who campaigned for social justice and the rights of refugees, was murdered in broad daylight by Thomas Mair, a terrorist, white supremacist, and Nazi sympathizer. The campaign also engaged in endless fear-mongering over the ‘flood’ of migrants that would come to Britain from Turkey, if it joined the EU. There was barely a mention of the fact that Turkey is unlikely to join the EU in the foreseeable future.
A bizarre ruling by the Committee of Advertising Practice in 1999 to exclude non-broadcast political advertising from regulatory oversight meant that the Leave campaign could, effectively, make as many false claims as it liked. Unsurprisingly, the loophole was exploited to tremendous effect: a bus emblazoned with a promise to spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS was a key part of the Leave ‘brand.’ That promise was rapidly dismissed as a mere “possibility” after the Leave camp won the referendum with a slender majority. It is now mysteriously absent from the Vote Leave website.
Looking back, my overwhelming memory of those months was of a horror so great that it left me numb. And despite all of it – despite the polls, the open racism, the first murder of an MP on British soil since the days of the Irish Republican Army – somehow, I still thought the Remain camp would edge out a victory.
I cannot believe that we have gotten to a point in British history where those fleeing for their lives are referred to as ‘cockroaches’; where people who look different are told they would be better off drowning than reaching these shores. I cannot believe the hate I see and hear around me. This is not the Britain I grew up in. This is not how we do things in the country I have always considered my home. My family came here as refugees and we did everything ‘right’ – we worked and paid our taxes. We raised children who were polite and upstanding and those children were fortunate enough to get a good education and now they – I amongst them – work and contribute to society. We do not commit crimes. We do not incite violence. We respect the land that gave us sanctuary when our own lands would not.
On the night of the vote, I did not stay up to watch the results, but I checked them as soon as I woke up. I was staggered. It was clear to me the Leave campaign was fueled by hate and spat out lies. I simply could not believe that people – people I knew; people who had been refugees; people who were themselves migrants – could buy into the ‘foreigners go home’ rhetoric so easily.
Nearly six months later, I am still angry at those people. However I try to rationalize it, deep in my heart I am angry at people who have benefited so much from the EU over the past forty years, but decided that my generation should not benefit. I am not as angry at those who were hit hardest by deindustrialization and the financial crash and who genuinely believed those behind Vote Leave were their saviors. Successive governments have failed to adequately meet the needs of whole sections of British society and that cannot be ignored. I do not blame those people for buying into a campaign which promised them something better.
I am angry, though, at the immigrants who sided with racists and fell for their lies. I expected them to see through those lies because they have likely been lied about themselves. I understand that indigenous populations might fear ‘the other.’ That makes sense to me, as a trained psychologist and human being. But what is beyond me are the divisions that have been exposed between people who have similar experiences. How can someone who fled their country and sought asylum forty years ago vote against the interests of those seeking asylum now? Where on earth has your humanity gone?
Every time I think of this I am filled with a fury of such magnitude that it is alien to me. This is how the EU referendum left me feeling: sick at the success of a campaign that was designed to fragment our society. But, it also meant that I became virtually reconciled to the idea of a Trump victory in the United States. Not pleased by it, but not naive enough to think our cousins across the pond would be any better at recognizing lies and hate for what they were. When I awoke the morning after the election, I could barely raise an eyebrow at the result. In some ways, I still cannot. It is not because I do not care, but rather because I cannot shake that feeling of numbness.
I suspect that beneath it lurks rage and terror and hurt. Because it does hurt, as someone whose demographics are so vilified, to know that 62.9 million people voted for a man who may cause you and people like you – and even people who are not like you but who share some of your demographics – harm, and that almost 90 million people did not care enough to vote against him. And again, it is the minorities who voted for Trump that I am angriest at. It is the Mexican-Americans who voted for him, despite his repeated referral to them as ‘rapists’. It is the women who voted for a misogynist. It is the people who have thrown their brothers and sisters – and maybe even themselves – under the bus in the name of freedom. The freedom to daub swastikas on synagogues. The freedom to lynch black dolls. The freedom, in effect, to Make America White Again.
You may tell me that there is no need to be terrified, and that Trump will not do half of what he said he would. And you may be right; but there is no guarantee of that. And if you are not already frightened then I suspect you will never need to be. The rest of us – the ones who stand out; who wear our differences openly – know that to be frightened is the only realistic response to such a calamitous result.
Not that I was ever enthusiastic about Hilary Clinton. Her administration would have caused utter devastation in Pakistan and much of the Middle East (as has virtually every U.S. administration in living memory). And, of course, Donald Trump did not invent America’s long-standing problems with bigotry and war-mongering and prejudice, but his presidency does lift the veil on them. And veils are important. Whilst hate is veiled you know the majority of society shuns it. When the veil is lifted, you know the hate has gone mainstream. This is what I – and maybe others with minority identities – truly fear: the normalizing of hate and bigotry.
Rich white men have stirred up hatred of poor people and women and queer people and people of color, as they have been doing since time immemorial. But, as usual, it is those on the receiving end of hate who are being told to open our hearts and build bridges with the rest of society. It is those of us who, by virtue of our minority status, have much less power and privilege who have to learn to forgive and reconcile. Why should I? Why should any of us? How long are we expected to turn the other cheek? Why should we give racists and bigots a chance? In what absurd alternative universe would I be expected to believe that you would suddenly stop being a misogynist and xenophobe?
So this is what happens. Politicians divide us and citizens are left to piece together the wreckage. But that’s hard – especially when you have been the target of slander and bile. And I am not sure how to do it. Yes, we should engage in small acts of resistance. Yes, we must maintain our individual humanity, even as society loses its collective humanity. Yes, we should continue to fight for those who will be most damaged by this terrible new world. The problem, however, is that the hate peddled by these people is pernicious: if we are not careful, we will all become tainted by it.
I am in danger of doing what so many have done and tarring all those who voted for Trump with one brush. I am in danger, in short, of doing exactly what these people want: of falling for their spin and their lies and of hating people I have never met but who I have constructed in my mind’s eye. As a psychologist, I do not know what to do with these feelings. As a person, I suspect my first and greatest task is simply not to hate, not to become that which seeks to divide and to destroy. But, that, I suspect, will be much, much easier said than done.