2016 is over at last, and I know that a lot of people are very pleased to see the back of it. We have seen a chain of celebrity deaths which, while statistically no more numerous than in recent years, has felt particularly cruel in terms of the individuals involved and the values they represent. Millions of people have died as a result of war or natural disaster, and terrorist attacks have spread across Europe. Meanwhile, the ‘jungle’ camp in Calais was disbanded, leaving thousands of refugees even more vulnerable than before; Britain voted to leave the European Community; and Donald Trump was elected president of the USA.
It feels as if things are falling apart, and a lot of people feel justifiably scared of the consquences for themselves, as well as horrified by the atrocities which have already occurred. In many ways, this is an appropriate response. We should be frightened, angry, outraged. But… perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so surprised.
In dancing, I sometimes teach a move called a Reel of Six (13-30 seconds in the linked video), which takes longer than most other moves in this style of dance. It’s slightly complicated and a bit disconcerting, but it’s not particularly difficult, and if it works, it ends up with everyone neatly back where they need to be for the next bit of the dance. What often happens, though, is that people start to panic halfway through. They’ve done a lot of work, and they’re a long way from where they expected to be, so they begin to lose confidence. One person stops dancing, and then another, and then the whole thing falls apart.
In social justice terms, I think we’re half way through our Reel of Six. We’ve come a long, long way in the last hundred years. We feel as if we listened carefully, learned our lesson from the holocaust and WWII. We (speaking from a British perspective) established universal health care and the welfare state, the equal pay act, same sex marriage. We’ve seen the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Kyoto treaty, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US Civil Rights act and the first black President. We’ve worked hard, and now we’re focusing on tweaking the finer points.
And don’t get me wrong. The finer points need to be tweaked. The language we use is important. Representation of minority groups in the media is important. The intersectionality of oppressions is a complex and ever-changing system which we need to understand much better. But the idea that we are in a post-racist, post-feminist, post-homophobic, politically correct society is simply a fiction. There still are, there always have been, really quite a lot of people who think it’s acceptable to be openly prejudiced – or if not, that they should hide their racism because of risk of retaliation by the liberal elite, not because it’s actually harmful to anybody. Access to medical treatment is hugely geographically dependent, even within the Western world. Transphobia is – well, pretty standard.
One of my children recently studied the Second World War at school. It was striking to me that of all the detail she learned, there was very little focus on Hitler, the holocaust, the political landscape leading up to Britain’s involvement. On one level, this makes sense to me: I understand the teachers’ wish to shield very young children from the atrocities, and focusing on social and cultural changes, day-to-day life and community cohesion, engaged the attention of the children. But I also sensed a feeling that it was almost unnecessary to talk about the Nazis because everyone knows that they were Bad – Nazism has become such a synonym for evil that it’s hardly worth mentioning. Only they don’t know. This new generation will only know what we teach them, and it is terrifying to me that some of these lessons are being lost already.
We need to get beyond the idea that our human rights are established and unassailable. We, the aforementioned liberal elite, need to accept that our society has not moved on as far as we thought; that the support for Trump, the racism uncovered by Brexit, is not an anomaly. It is a bit of a backlash, I think, but mostly it’s a sign that we still have a lot more work to do.
We can mourn. The thing with intersectionality is that most people are affected by this political shift, in some way. But then we need to carry on. The huge progress of the last few years will not disappear, but the strides towards equality and justice will not sustain themselves. They need us to keep hoping and working and believing that it is working, slowly, and that we will end up where we need to be.