Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Good, the Bad and the Irregular

The news that the British Film Institute appears to have created a hostile environment for laughing, ejecting a young woman for over-enthusiastically responding to Serio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, could easily be put down to the po-faced seriousness of its members (I'm one, so I should know), but this was the sort of contretemps that you could expect to witness in any multiplex. What made it news is that the young woman, Tamsin Parker, has Asperger's Syndrome. Of course, having such a condition and being a pain in the arse are not mutually exclusive, so we shouldn't automatically assume that the other members of the audience who complained (some abusively), and the management at the National Film Theatre who removed the young woman, are necessarily in the wrong. What I am interested in is not who was in the right in this particular Mexican standoff but the way that people reacted. While getting ejected from a cinema is obviously not on a par with being deported, there are questions here about tolerance, norms of behaviour and our relationship with authority that have a topical political resonance.

For example, just as "I've got Asperger's" doesn't automatically make you an innocent, so "I'm of Pakistani heritage" doesn't necessarily mean that you will operate a less callous immigration regime. That Sajid Javid could imagine his own family being subject to the unreasonable behaviour of the Home Office may suggest an improvement in ministerial empathy, but he is still a Thatcherite, Ayn Rand-reading ex-banker, so it would be premature to assume that the new "compliant environment" will represent more than a change in language. My guess, buttressed by his underwhelming performance as minister for housing, is that the Iron Lady will be a greater influence on his future actions than his family background. What few political commentators seem to have addressed, distracted as they are by his ethnicity and position on Brexit, is the peculiarity of a nominal libertarian occupying an office of state that is designed for an authoritarian. While it is conceivable that Javid and May will clash over immigration, with the former perhaps wanting a more business-friendly approach to visas, the greater clash might come over surveillance. If it doesn't, you'll know that Javid is just another Randian bullshitter.

All the indications are that the government has no intention of fundamentally changing the immigration regime instituted by Theresa May as Home Secretary between 2010 and 2016. This is not because she is stubborn, but because there is little evidence that voters want a change: they simply want the hostility to be more accurately directed. This explains why the Tories have been robust in insisting that de facto hostility to illegal immigration must remain the order of the day. Labour's insistence that the Windrush cases have nothing to do with illegality is correct, however it also means they are implicitly accepting that there is no need to fundamentally reconsider the nature of immigration controls and are therefore subscribing to the idea that what matters is fairness (those Miliband-era mugs are still at the back of the cupboard). Getting rid of the counter-productive target for net migration and addressing the evident abuses in detention centres like Yarl's Wood is probably the limit of Labour's policy ambition this side of the next general election. Labour's position, which can be summarised as "a bad system, badly planned", only differs from the Tory claim that operational failings are the fault of civil servants in that it extends the blame to ministers, which is the least that you would expect of the opposition. What both parties continue to share, along with much of the public, is a belief that we can be reliably discriminate between "good" and "bad" immigrants, despite history suggesting that we can't.

Another Windrush parallel with the BFI fracas is that cinema management don't routinely police the auditorium nowadays: the usherette and the projectionist are long gone. As a result, antisocial behaviour has to be policed by patrons. This isn't a legal obligation, in the way that policing immigration status has become for landlords and hospital administrators, but it is a responsibility that many people find stressful, essentially because most of us hope that someone else will step in when trouble arises. This isn't simple cowardice (though that is present) but social embarrassment, often expressed by the evasive phrase "I don't want to get involved". When circumstance forces us to step forward, whether to defend our own rights or to protest injustice against others, there is a tendency to over-compensate in order to justify the psychological investment. Molehills quickly become mountains. If the press get involved, then this is further amplified, with predictable spin. The Guardian quoted a witness on "naked intolerance in the middle of London", The Daily Mail emphasised the "fury" that the incident gave rise to, while The Sun characterised the BFI as "snobbish". Given that the young woman's mother is a theatre director, I feel there is a state of the nation play waiting to emerge from the chrysalis of this little drama.

One of the paradoxes of public opinion on immigration is that most people think that it is too high nationally but not locally: it's a problem of anywhere rather than somewhere, to coin a phrase. A related paradox is that concern over immigration tends to be higher in areas with fewer immigrants. This tendency to compartmentalise social topics between the local and the national is also seen in respect of the economy, famously the paradox of thrift and the false equivalence of the national accounts with a household. Today, more people think Brexit will negatively affect the economy as a whole than will affect their personal circumstances. That the public are more accepting of skilled than unskilled immigrants suggests a understanding of aggregate impacts, yet this is the same public that believes we must all tighten our belts to pay down debt. The critics of democracy, from appalled remainers to the advocates of epistocracy, often point to this apparent cognitive dissonance in social and economic affairs as evidence that most people simply lack the knowledge to properly influence public policy. I'm not convinced by this argument, and I think there are at least two other credible explanations for the publics contradictory views.

The first is that people tell white lies both to themselves and to others. Claiming that immigration isn't a worry in your locality may reflect a desire to keep the peace; a social obligation that you don't necessarily feel at the abstract level of the nation. In this pessimistic reading, the concept of "illegal immigration" is important precisely because it provides legitimation for a hostile attitude that carefully excludes your neighbours. While cultural bigotry hasn't gone out of fashion (see Islamophobia), there has been a shift in the discourse since the days of Enoch Powell, with a demand for rigorous bureaucratic compliance replacing overt xenophobia. Paradoxically, the troubles of the Windrush generation have arisen because of the declining public acceptability of informal racial prejudice and the concomitant increase in the formal acknowledgement and classification of rights. As the history of persecuted minorities has repeatedly shown, it is the organised and systematic prejudice of the state that presents the greatest dangers. In the UK, this trend has increased the vulnerability of society's irregulars.

The second possible explanation is that people see the national sphere less as a reality and more as a projection of social ideals. In this optimistic reading, attitudes are often altruistic in that they reflect what we imagine the consensus view to be - e.g. "I'm not fussed about immigration personally, but I think cutting it would be good for the country". This isn't the "I'm not racist, but ..." excuse for bigotry so much as a tendency to trust the wisdom of crowds as presented by the media in its construction of the public sphere. That anxiety over immigration has clearly fluctuated in response to press coverage does not mean that we are pliable and credulous but that many of us are prepared to adjust our expressed beliefs to conform to what we imagine the social consensus to be, which holds out the hope that immigration will become less of a concern in time. We don't want to stand out from the crowd; we don't want to be irregulars. One lesson of Eastern Europe between 1949 and 1989 was that people do not become brainwashed - they simply keep their heads down ("I don't want to get involved"). They will voice the orthodoxy but reserve their true beliefs. It has always struck me as odd that Western politicians and commentators have rarely drawn the obvious conclusion about domestic public opinion.

Having Asperger's Syndrome means being irregular; an involuntary member of the awkward squad. I don't say that to belittle the condition or its sufferers in any way, but to situate it in its social context. Unless you are knowledgeable about it, then it will always be easy to mistake some of its manifestations for unruly behaviour or rudeness. But just as the lack of a degree in economics shouldn't preclude you from having the vote, so this ignorance shouldn't preclude you from telling someone to "shut up" in the cinema. I am not defending the right to be offensive here, which is too often just the right of powerful establishment shills like Rod Liddle to punch down, because I don't see it as a positive right (or freedom to). What matters is that you do not have the right to stop me being offensive, even when I am in the wrong or proceeding from ignorance, which is a negative right (or freedom from). The conclusion of my parallel is not that Tamsin Parker is equivalent to the Windrush generation because of the unsympathetic and harsh treatment she suffered, but that the guy who called her a bitch and was also ejected has just as much claim to be considered so, precisely because we don't know his name and his fault was ignorance.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Kills Children3 May 2018 at 19:57

    We are headed laser like to the totalitarian future, human thought control, from birth to death, is now an open project, mainly conducted by what the Americans stupidly call the left, I don’t know what these people are but if these people are the left then let us say right away the left are the biggest threat to human freedom period. If these people are the left let us all say fuck the left, fuck their lies about Syria, fuck their imperialism, fuck their attacks on alternative media and fuck their claims of fake news and their sycophancy to the mainstream media. I say again, fuck the left!

    “ is the peculiarity of a nominal libertarian occupying an office of state that is designed for an authoritarian.”

    The only code these people live by is that of getting power. These people are never ‘libertarian’, they are always but always authoritarian.

    For the Tories everything is more or less going swimmingly (save the odd resignation), they didn’t implement austerity thinking it would improve homelessness or reduce self harm or reduce child poverty or reduce suicide rates, they introduced their policies to punish the lazy, those who don’t want work – classic fascism! Read the testimonies from those who carried out the pogroms in Eastern Europe, they were not talking about Jewish bankers ruling the world but that the Jews didn’t want to work!

    So the fact that crime, child poverty, homelessness, self harm etc etc have increased is the Tories delivering a campaign promise to their army of hideous cunts. Will these hideous cunts be now worried that they are deporting dark skinned people in the middle of the night? Will they fuck, they will be delighted. The Tories should be proudly proclaiming on the MSM, we said we would stick it to these lazy bastards and we have – Vote Tory for more of the same!