Sunday, 31 August 2014

Some thoughts on Racial Discrimination

The Rotherham scandal is high in the newspapers at the time being, and one of the depressing things is the way the threat of race discrimination was used by gang members on occasion to deter action on the streets by the police.
In fact, the whole fear of racial discrimination seriously undermined the decisions to take any action against those sexually exploiting young girls, because the majority of those involved were Asian.
The men themselves held an attitude of those perpetrators was that the girls, white, and not with the dress codes and subservient attitudes they expected of women. We can see exactly many places in the world where this is the case today - the Islamic State, areas controlled or terrorised by the Taliban around Afghanistan.
Just as witch trials - "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" were a perversion of Christianity, so this attitude to women is a perversion of Islam, but the trouble is that - like the witch craze - it has become widespread because any attack on the misogyny is seen as an attack on Islam.
There is a widespread fear from those in authority of anything which could be deemed racial discrimination. And the attitude even spread to the top echelons of the civil servants involved, where the attitude became one that these girls were in care already, and were the type of girl who would be provocative sexually, almost "asking for it".
Morality was jettisoned in favour of value judgements on people, on how much they were worth. It seems that some girls were judged not by what had happened to them, but on the basis of how they were perceived by the prejudiced eyes of those in charge. The fact that the grooming and sexual abuse would have been wrong as such, whatever the background of the girls, was ignored.
Racial discrimination is now prohibited by law in Jersey (the law comes into force next week), and it is important to understand that the law is there to prevent people being targeted because of their race. As far as behaviour towards others goes, it is to ensure that there is not a specific kind of bullying based on race, although it should be noted that all kinds of bullying are reprehensible.
The term "race" in this context is a legal, not a biological one. There is no biological definition of race, nor can there be, as biology knows only of continuums within a species, and not discrete items which can be placed into non-overlapping sets. The law defines "race" in terms of "protected characteristics" - colour, nationality, nation of birth, and ethnicity. None of these can be defined precisely in terms of biology, and nationality actually has nothing to do with biological race at all. It is a complete accident of history, and nation states are subject to change all the time.
In a recent seminar I attended on the law, the presenter suggested that one of the protected characteristics, colour, was able to be defined precisely. The speaker self-identified themselves as "white". In fact, as what we may term "coloured " and "white" people can, and do, quite happily interbreed, the genetic coding for darker skin can lead to a whole spectrum of differing skin tones. Colour of skin is not nearly as discrete as we imagine it to be, because we tend to think in terms of contrast, not those populations which are hard to place on into our little boxes.
What racial discrimination legislation is about is not discriminating against anyone because of the colour of their skin, or making comments about skin colour which would be offensive. Whether metacomments, comments about comments that are offensive, are acceptable, is more problematic. I would imagine a lot depends upon context. It would be entirely legitimate for a television series like "Roots", or more recently the movie "Ten years a Slave", to portray the prejudices of the slave owners because that is not glamorising or promoting those attitudes as acceptable.
Racial attitudes can be more subtle. Notions that the Germans have no sense of humour are common, and there is a basis in fact. The fact, however, is not that Germans have no sense of humour, but that some of their humour is different from ours. This is because of linguistic reasons, as their language is constructed differently, and relies more on humorous ideas than wordplay in English language humour.
But to say "Of course you wouldn't find that funny. Germans have no sense of humour" could be deemed offensive, because this is a statement designed to ridicule and embarrass someone because of their nationality. It is a question of good manners, as much as anything.
There is one area where matters clash, and that is humour, which operates in part, on the basis of stereotypes.  I have heard it suggested that humour based on national stereotypes will gradually fall out of favour, and will be culturally unacceptable. I do not think this is likely. Humour always as a subversive element, to upset the status quo, and that will not go away. But it will change.
"Love Thy Neighbour" (which was always a rather appalling comedy anyway) will not be coming back. Citizen Khan, on the other hand, is a self-reflecting comedy from within a community, and invites outsiders to share the joke, and understand some of the sensibilities and absurdities of different cultures.
Once a society loses the ability to laugh at itself, it loses a valuable self-critical element. As Orwell noted, Oswald Mosley  rapidly became the butt of jokes, and lost credibility. But who in Germany or Russia would dare to mock Hitler or Stalin openly, and hope they could get away with it.

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