Saturday, 30 May 2015

Who is 'us'?


Nigel Farage, in that inimitable manner of his, has been on about Muslims. And in doing so dear old Nigel has framed it in these terms:

..there are some Muslims in Britain who comprise ‘a fifth column living in our country who hate us and want to kill us’.

My question in all of this is to ask who Nigel means by 'us'? We sort of know, or think we know - it's clearly not intended to mean Muslims so might mean everyone who isn't a Muslim. The problem is that we struggle to determine who 'us' might be - at least when we get to the point of actually sorting out the sheep from the goats, us from them.

Firstly there's no doubt that there are a bunch of people who hate me for what I am (or choose to be) - some hate my Englishness, others hate my catholicism, and another bunch hate me for being a Tory. Amidst all this hatred there's a few who hate me for rejecting the idea that there is one god whose prophet is Mohammed. A minority of these hate-filled people entertain the idea of violence as a means of projecting their hatred

But that doesn't get any nearer to the vexed question of who Nigel means by 'us'. It's all mixed up in judgements about language, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual preference and political opinion. Which perhaps means that, while Nigel thinks I'm part of 'us', I don't think I am because it would mean accepting his world view by suggesting that my Black, Pakistani and Jewish friends are somehow 'them' - tolerated rather than welcomed in my place.

What we see here is the irony of the left's groupthink - ironic both because the left focuses closely on defining characteristics (and society's attitude to those characteristics) and also since I'm talking about Nigel Farage who isn't 'of the left', at least in conventional terms. If we define people as members of a particular group (or groups) then we allow for the sort of comment that Nigel Farage makes by allowing for the existence of 'us' and 'them'. If, on the other hand, we define people as individuals who have a particular set of characteristics - some innate, some acquired, some a matter of choice or belief - then the idea of 'us' ceases to have relevence other than as a practical pronoun.

The political use of the word 'us' is exploitative of people's desire to belong. Nigel Farage uses it to suggest that Muslims living in Britain are not 'us' because a few of those Muslims hate some non-Muslims and may want to be violent towards those people. And we therefore have to reject all Muslims because we can't on first assessment tell whether this is a Muslim who will chat to us about cricket, laugh at our jokes and discuss business, or a Muslim who is only a switch away from blowing us all up.

But, on this logic, I should reject other groups that might hate me too. How do I know that the person with the Twitter account proclaiming their hatred of Tories isn't planning violence against me - perhaps a terrorist attack on the Conservative Club? I've watched the antics of anti-austerity campaigners and reckon they're pretty violent at times - how is this different from what Nigel Farage is saying about Muslims? Clearly such people aren't 'us'.

We could go on here - citing how some people hate (and therefore might be violent towards) a host of different groups from gays and lesbians through an assortment of races or religions, to the supporters of the wrong football club. There is no 'us' if it is defined by membership of a group not, in one way or another, hated. But the word is convenient and deniable - membership of 'us' is fluid and flexible subject to interpretation and amendment. Confronted by a challenge, I've no doubt that Nigel Farage would absolutely deny that 'us' didn't include Muslims even though the logic of his criticism tells us this must be the case.

I am quite comfortable with 'us' existing - my support for West Ham places me in a group where 'us' is fellow supporters and 'them' is everyone else. And the same goes for a load of other things - from my politics through to my group of close friends or family. But where we make the mistake is in framing political debate in terms of 'us' and 'them' - I'm guessing this isn't a new thing but it is, despite the opinions of right wing nationalists like Nigel Farage, very much associated with the left of politics, with the idea of collectivity and with the primacy of the group in their idea of society.

In the end there should be no 'us' in politics where that word is used to define others as an enemy, as unwanted or as dangerously different. Nor should there be an 'us' that means one group of people being unfairly privileged by government simply because of their membership of that group. And there should not be an 'us' where the politician campaigns on the basis of group interest - 'vote for me, I'm the Muslim/Black/Working Class candidate'.

You and I are not defined by our membership of a given group or groups - for sure such membership might inform what we think important but imposing this 'us-ness' on people is essentially divisive however well meant it might be. We know it's divisive because we see Nigel Farage do it with Muslims and are outraged. But Farage's use of 'us' is absolutely the same as the 'us' that determines the multiple manifestos at the recent election (for young people, for the disabled, for England, for Scotland, for ethnic minorities, for LGBT people). Are people really defined by age, gender, sexual preference and ability or by the specifics of their own lives, loves, interests and opinions? Surely it's the latter - I do hope so.


1 comment:

Nigel Sedgwick said...

I think you are on to a loser, with this campaign against 'us' and (presumably) 'them'.

You write: "I am quite comfortable with 'us' existing - my support for West Ham places me in a group where 'us' is fellow supporters and 'them' is everyone else." As someone who does not strongly identify with spectator sport, I suspect that were I in company with you and supporters of other football teams, your "us" would then encompass the supporters of other teams, and I would become the "them". This is, IMHO, just tribal identification, with the tribes fluctuating with the circumstances. This sort of 'us-ness' transfer happens all the time; it greatly weakens your argument.

Your write of "Nigel", which is pretty much the only real reason I have bothered to hit the keyboard. Farage and I are of the occasionally formed and very occasionally relevant tribe of "Nigels". Do not mock; be afraid, very afraid! Us Nigels will mock you back. Nigels don't agree on much, but mocking the name (as you have done by not including or substituting "Farage") is totally beyond the Pale. ;-))

You quote Farage, at the start of this blog posting thus: "..there are some Muslims in Britain who comprise ‘a fifth column living in our country who hate us and want to kill us’." Then you finish in your last paragraph with "We know [group labelling is] divisive because we see Nigel Farage do it with Muslims and are outraged." Well, I see you equivocating all Muslims with Farage's violent fundamentalist Muslins (my paraphrasing). I'm not outraged (you are both after all politicians), but I have spotted what has been done. It's not quite right; but it is you who have done it and not, IMHO and at least on this occasion, Farage.

Group identification is a fact of political life, not least in the existence of political parties - compromise arrangements between those who have some political opinions in common: to which they are willing to subjugate their political differences. Politicians do it, and so do the voters - especially when encouraged by politicians of all flavours. And what matters to the politicians is that 'we' identify with their 'us' - and the less well they delineate that, the more people will so identify. What we need to do, in answer to politicians, is identify (or not, as the case may be) with the totality of their individual stances - not be swayed over-much by rhetoric, irrelevant tribalism or the last one who spoke to us.

Meanwhile, vote for Simon(s)!

Best regards