What Does it Mean to ‘Think Global and Act Local’?

On 10th July 2018, Shamira A. Meghani came to Portsmouth to contribute to a panel discussion for Hope not Hate Portsmouth on the importance of connection over hate and division. S&C is delighted to share the text of Dr Meghani’s talk here in an exclusive with the kind permission of the author, and Portsmouth Hope not Hate.

We are often encouraged by our news media to see globalisation as a new threat to our local contexts, as something that emerges from freedom of movement. But the long history of the world is one of human interconnection: through travel, migration, and trade, we developed philosophy, and science, and in fact developed the very languages that we speak. We are the products of many different cultures preceding our own, cultures that made connections with each other by migration and trade, and the exchange of knowledge. Yes, languages that we are encouraged to see as so impossibly different are in fact part of much larger, interconnected language families, through which the very words we use have taken shape — and that’s long before colonisation prompted the making of various different Englishes throughout the world. We are then, already connected to each other, but are encouraged to see our differences in language and culture as insurmountable challenges to our national cultures.

In the global context we know that racism and crimes against minorities of all kinds are on the rise in a good many parts of the world, in contexts of austerity and nationalism, like our own, and in contexts of new authoritarian nationalism, such as in India and Turkey and the USA, as well as parts of Europe. We are in some senses turning back towards behaviour that preceded the rise of the worst racist regimes of the twentieth century. People ask after atrocities: “How did things get to be the terrible way that they became?” and if you read the histories of what preceded state and mass street violence in the twentieth century, you see that hatred was present, and stereotypes had developed, but that they had been minimised and not taken seriously, and even ignored, until it was far too late.

In the wider context of the UK, our government has, through years of austerity, taken the safety net from the most vulnerable people. It has, with newsmedia support, popularised the idea that the problem of scarcity in resources — the result of their political decisions — is somehow a problem of free movement or migration. This narrative has taken hold despite migrants contributing far more to the country than they take, in benefits or healthcare.

The anti-immigrant stance of our government which has ramped up the rhetoric against those represented as outsiders, has not just led to legitimate asylum seekers being turned away, but has led to the country effectively denying citizenship to people from the former colonies who helped to rebuild the country post WW2, as we saw recently during the still-unresolved Windrush Scandal. It was heartening then to see ordinary people speaking out to challenge the government’s failure, and a sign that people in our country are willing to reach out a little bit beyond our comfort zones. We need to build on that.

I say this because I think that we have come to see ourselves collectively as powerless, and that this is something we need to change — also collectively. We tend to view change as something made by governments rather than ourselves, partly perhaps because our political system has been so stable for so long. Perhaps it is also because positive change is often represented by the media as a ‘gift’ from  government.

But governments don’t act without pressure from people. Everything that we value in our society — from decent working conditions, to healthcare, to care for the vulnerable — was fought for by people who wanted to improve their own lives and the lives of others. And that approach has to be taken also, I think, to challenging the politics of hate.

We tend to see stories of hate crime against migrants only in very narrow contexts, for example as as the work of bad individuals, and are not often presented with the wider social context joined up. But a rise in hate crime demands our attention in new ways. If we can see hate in its wider context it should make us realise, I think, that progress — towards a more just and equal world, in which every human being has the support to thrive — is not just something that happens ‘naturally’ in peacetime, but something that we all have to be involved in creating.

Our politicians have often failed to be outspoken against the rhetoric against immigrants; they’ll condemn hate crimes when they happen, but they often contribute to the rhetoric that creates the conditions for an increase in hate. We know that happened in the context of the EU referendum, both before and after.

But I do think that even politicians who are alert to racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic language, sometimes fail to speak out because they fear being misrepresented by a biased media, which has accused those who play a role in our country’s political life of being ‘enemies of the people’, of being ‘saboteurs’. This is why we ourselves need to make change happen. Yes, this requires energy from all of us, but it has the potential to be more deeply transformative. Everything good in our society has started life in grassroots organising, even if it now looks like it comes to us from the state: from the NHS, to the length of a working week, to paid maternity leave, to protections against hate. All this began with ordinary people making the decision to make change.

We might need to ask here:  what does ‘grassroots’ mean? What could it mean?

‘Grassroots’ is a term that gets used often, but doesn’t always get explained. One useful way to think of it is as an ongoing conversation between the people of a community. Consider how a single conversation can open your awareness to something you didn’t know; can open your heart to a problem that you had not yet recognised; can make you change your mind about something important. That is grassroots activism and change. It raises consciousness, and can make people far more resilient to hateful stereotypes and far less given to participating in exclusion.

I use the word resilient here, because I think we need to shift how we think about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism — all forms of exclusion. Very few people think of themselves or their community as ‘bad’, yet bad things happen when hate takes hold. Does any community or group that ended up committing genocide, or other hate crimes, think of themselves as bad? I doubt it. So if everyone wants to think of themselves as ‘good people’—and I’m sure you all are!—we have to start elsewhere, and to consciously build our communities’ resilience to stereotypes of all kinds. We can do this by challenging ourselves and those with whom we talk, to think of each other as human first, and to see the humanity in those who are not ‘like us’, whoever ‘we’ are. Rather than first claim the ‘good’ in ourselves, we should teach ourselves and each other to the see the humanity in those who are not ‘us’, and to see difference as something we can learn from, and learn with, rather than reject. This is what makes us as a community resistant to hatred: grassroots change that makes shifts in consciousness. When hateful stereotypes surface in our midst, they must not be ignored, and must not become normalised. We may have to engage with people in the grip of hate, or who are indifferent to suffering: they are not easy to speak with, but they can — and must — be challenged by their peers.

I do think that this is a harder battle in some senses than any other: it doesn’t have an end goal, like a law change, or a request to ban something harmful. We in fact have much — though not all — of the relevant legislation already. It’s also not a day out marching with like-minded family, friends and colleagues, or signing and sharing a petition — all important things to do, of course, and don’t stop writing to your MPs about what matters! But, engaging in ongoing conversations, even with those who make us uncomfortable, is, I think, the key to making a society resilient to hate. We have to undo it from within. Working towards a transformation that gives up easy stereotypes and instead engages with better recognition of where we have ‘more in common’ as Jo Cox put it,  asks us to commit to responsible communication with others, and to commit also to challenging those in our peer groups who will quietly use racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist language. We don’t have to meet their hate with anger of our own (though we may of course be angry): we can even just ask questions that puncture their stereotypes. If it doesn’t change their behaviour, perhaps it stops stereotypes taking hold amongst others who are listening. In this way, by standing accountable to the more vulnerable and less advantaged among us, we can I believe, make our communities resilient, and create significant change.