Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
a woman holds a sign at a protest against antisemitism

One month on from Pittsburgh

One month on from Pittsburgh, Jack Clayton argues that these attacks shake the very foundations of our democracy

Attacking people because of their religion, race, sexuality or gender demonstrates more than the hate people face because of who they are. It fundamentally exposes the precariousness of what we think is functioning democracy. When there was another US shooting exactly one month ago, this time in a synagogue killing 11 Jews, many around the world showed solidarity with them.

However, some decided in the aftermath to raise what they saw perhaps, as mitigating circumstances as to why the shooting happened in the first place. Baroness Jenny Tonge exemplified this when writing on her Facebook page: ‘does it ever occur to Bibi (Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and the present Israeli government that its actions against Palestinians may be re-igniting anti-Semitism?’

I don’t agree with Netanyahu’s policies either, but I also don’t believe all Jews are responsible for the actions of Israel. Nevertheless, my main point isn’t about antisemitic or anti-Zionist conspiracies, as much as they exist, but what her core message revealed. That to some like Tonge, certain groups of people are outsiders to the society they live in, which justifies blaming them, instead of seeing them as victims. Outsiders, who are apparently not necessarily entitled to a society’s protections like laws which apply to other citizens.

Finding reasons to blame victims frequently happens in hate crimes. To name just a few examples, how often is the question asked to a woman who says she’s been raped what she was wearing? Or whether a black person murdered had a criminal record, or if their music like grime/hip-hop, made them violent? Or if a transgender person attacked poses some threat to women’s safety? The questions around these scenarios, including Tonge’s after the synagogue shooting have something in common: other apparently ‘important factors’ become included to these certain groups of people, when they are victims of crimes. Sometimes we hear divisive debates around these questions. Discussions about being in a culture war according the right, or that identity politics is needed to help minorities according to the left.

However, neither phrases are helpful, and a bigger question is needed. If we believe that crimes like these listed happen in societies, and not just occasionally, then can we honestly say they are a functioning democracy? To me, democracy is an attempt to reflect the views and concerns of a population eligible to vote though elected representatives. Using this definition, what sane Jewish, black, female born, gay or transgender person would view it as acceptable to be targets of violent crimes and not be concerned about it? Many western nations live in legally democratic systems, but not practically, as laws aren’t always upheld. Whether that’s through people practising their faith and getting shot or hit by a van, or laws failing to be enforced equally, like in the Stephen Lawrence case.

Therefore, the problem is not supposed outsiders, but supposed insiders doing everything not to uphold what they claim they believe in. The far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson perfectly exemplifies the ugliest problems of Britain’s attempt at democracy. Robinson applies our laws, and democratic principles when it comes to criticising one group, and is silent when it comes to others. He’d sound sincerer if he was equally as passionate about fighting paedophilia in Catholicism, or amongst television personalities like Saville.

Similarly, there are equality preaching left-wingers dismissive of anti-Semitism, behaving like they understand it better than Jews themselves, and accuse them of having ulterior motives. Would they do this to a black person? Hopefully not, as the McPherson Principle – ‘that a racist incident is one perceived to be racist by the victim’ – resulted from the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.

So many societies are not functioning democracies. At least the kind where people are accepted for who they are through understanding different views and concerns and are safe when expressing them. Especially as vilifying our differences is so popular right now, and civilised discourse is not.

To some, I may sound like an unreasonable liberal snowflake millennial, who impatiently wants everything to be perfect instantly without working for it. Just like streaming my next TV series with a click. To them, I say, get ready for a blizzard, winter’s coming.

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Jack Clayton is a student at Brunel University. He tweets @claytonj944

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