Saturday, 24 September 2016

Down with Mr Fox!!

Last weekend I became an angry farmer chasing a fox, as part of Cardiff's Roald Dahl centenary celebrations. With my children and a group of 20 or so fellow random volunteers from South Wales we charged about in tweeds and flat caps through large crowds brandishing spades and bellowing in pursuit of an acrobat dressed as Fantastic Mr Fox. I was never one for drama at school and haven't done much role-play. It was all a bit chaotic and ridiculous, but what surprised me most was how being part of a group, surging forward and shouting aggressively, made me feel. Even in this crazy and fictitious role, the adrenalin rush was like a powerful din, drowning out the placards and pleas of the "Save our Fox!" fan club we bumped into.

During the Olympics and Paralympics I was reflecting on how easy it was to ignore the super-human efforts of so many incredible athletes in the process of desperately willing a British competitor to beat them. It was amazing how exhausting it was just sitting about about on the sofa and pointlessly raising my voice and heart-rate in support of an athlete thousands of miles away! I don't think of myself as particularly patriotic - I'd describe myself as British, European, English probably in that order, but these nuances disappear completely when I'm watching a race. I'm not Welsh but when I'm watching Six Nations matches I suddenly feel very Welsh and annoyed with the English team when they score.

Our human group instincts are very powerful - instincts to form groups, to support ourselves within our group, to defend our group and attack enemy groups. While most of us would probably believe, in theory at least, that all humans are born equal and are equally valuable, there are powerful forces within us that can work against that. This is especially so when our interests are threatened, and more so again when we feel we are in danger. I can see how easy it must be for threatened and angry groups to dehumanise other people and quickly become violent.

I'm reading a book by Jonathan Sacks at the moment called "Not in God's Name" - examining the history of religious violence. I've not finished it yet, but it is a very interesting read for anyone struggling to understand the mindset behind people who join ISIS, become suicide bombers, massacre innocents - committing what he calls "altruistic evil" or evil deeds in the name of some higher power or ideal.

When there's a huge queue in the hospital waiting room and everyone's been sitting about for hours I'm looking for people to blame - the rude receptionist, the hospital bureaucrats, or the ridiculously wealthy people living in our land who think that paying tax for public services is for the little people.That's the narrative I subscribe to. I don't feel annoyed with the person with darker skin and a foreign accent ahead of me in the queue and think I should have a greater entitlement. But I can see why people would, when that's the narrative they subscribe to. I'm just as likely as the next person to find someone to blame - although this tends to be the powerful rather than the powerless in my case.

There's a lot being said online these days about the paradox that we are living in a world where we can all have a platform if we have a mobile phone and are literate - all possible angles on every topic are recorded each second on the Internet - and yet we are increasingly only hearing what we want to hear. In a huge cacophony of clamouring voices the technology we use, without us really noticing it, is segmenting us more and more narrowly. 

But when we stop listening to people we disagree with, and speaking up when we should, we marginalise ourselves and end up bleating pointlessly within our own group. It doesn't help that public servants are often prevented from presenting counter-views and the evidence before our eyes in order to remain impartial - but the most worrying thing for me personally is how disengaged from it all I am feeling at the moment. When I stop listening to other views, and when I stop standing up against prejudice, when I retreat into my group and pull down the shutters, that's when "worrying" turns into "dangerous". When millions of Americans want to vote for a man whose views I think are repugnant it's no good just popping them all into the "enemy" group in my head. As fruitless as it may seem, the only way forward is to try to find points of agreement, to understand the reasons why people think the way they do, and to try to make connections.