Friday, July 10, 2015

Tipping Forward

One of the consequences of Social Media and the ease with which ideas can now spread is that the issues most nations are dealing with seem more common than diverse. America is struggling with racism in a country where whites are in the majority. South Africa, more famously, is struggling with racism where whites are in the minority numerically, but not economically. Same problem, just a different flavour.

The path of transition to a more tolerant world is important. One of the questions that people sometimes ask about South Africa is what happened to all the racists? Clearly the system was supported by a majority of white voters for a very long time. In the last race-based election in 1989, the Democratic Party only won 20% of the vote, up from 14% for the predecessor anti-Apartheid Progressive Federal Party in the 1987 election.

But then there was a rapid transition. Immediately it was simply not acceptable to be racist and public support for Apartheid became a fringe political view. Old South African flags mostly disappeared. Public support disappeared. There is no way that people change their inherent prejudices in private overnight. The difference in South Africa and America is that the transition was very tangible. Literally the only black people I came into contact with pre-1994 were in service roles. I can remember the discussions about an Iranian girl while I was at primary school. Was she white? Is Persian white? When I was 13, the first few brave parents were sending their kids to white schools. The transition was slow. I can't remember the percentages in my last year of high school, but I was still firmly in the majority (even though only c. 9% of South Africans are white). It was slow, but it was happening. I can imagine when the oppressed are in the minority, life can largely carry on in the same way. Prejudice may be private, but prejudice filters action and what we don't do matters as much as what we do.

What I find interesting now is the transition happening with the SCOTUS ruling in the US. The speed with which the change has happened over the last few years is mind boggling. Looking at other human rights struggles (it is amazing looking at how recently women got the vote in some countries) it shouldn't be that surprising how recently it was illegal, even in Britain, to be homosexual. The death of Alan Turing portrayed in 'The Imitation Game' is symbolic of the price we have paid for institutionalising and normalising prejudice.

Is this change more like the American racial transition than the South African racial transition? The majority of people look for relationships with the opposite sex. We have gotten better at empathy though. People who are oppressed in one way ideally should know what it feels like, irrespective of the cause of the oppression. The progress here is that all people get treated the same by the law and the government doesn't try to regulate something that doesn't affect other people.

People who have experienced the prejudice of the law enforcing no 'mixed-marriages' because they are sinful, should be able to empathise with those whose life is being restricted. People who get irritated with what Steve Hoffmeyer, Donald Trump or Nigel Farage should be able to see when their own words are hurtful.

There seems to be a tipping point. If your view, though wrong, is in the majority, Politicians will be able to pander to you. They won't call out your prejudice because in a democracy they need your vote. But as prejudice dies a slow death, there comes a time when it is no longer acceptable.  It is not acceptable to say calling something a sin and calling for laws that don't treat people equally is simply 'disagreeing with someone's life choices'. Free Speech means you can say it. Free Speech means people can respond. 

Being in the majority allows you to ignore reality. I think the tide is turning. I think we are reaching a tipping point. Our human rights progress over the last century isn't about one battle. It isn't about the battle that applies to you. Close your eyes and imagine a world where you don't know which character you are.

Human Rights is about the battles that apply to us. 

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