I know, judging by my twitter feed, that I was not alone in being truly horrified by the Panorama report of racism and anti-Semitism in the Ukraine and Poland, as part of an in depth report in the lead up to Euro 2012. On the same evening, Sol Campbell was reported as advising fans not to travel to support England and it was easy to see why (the reply by the Ukraine seemed hollow at best). Perhaps we are insulated on this little island from the worst of the thuggery and racism – we’ve had, and have, our fair share of far-right, neo-Nazis and Fascists but their opinions have never taken a full hold on the British population and the recent disastrous results for the BNP in the local elections were good to read. Parts of Europe are teetering dangerously close to the edge in their populations’ support of far-right parties: Hungary’s Jobbik party is reportedly the 3rd largest party, whilst the recent Greek elections saw the far right party ‘Golden Dawn’ poll around 7% of votes.
However, whilst we are sitting pretty watching vile racist and anti-Semitic chanting and violence spew out of our television screens, I am reminded of all the famous experiments conducted examining group behaviour and obedience to authority that filled my psychology degree text books and were largely the outcome of a world coming to terms with the Holocaust. It was the Holocaust that demonstrated how even members of a civilised society could drift into the most barbaric, inhuman and depraved acts of violence against targets within their own population. The defense of ‘I was only following orders’ seemed absurd and yet as the psychologists began their research it turned out many of us, regardless of who we were, might follow suit under the right circumstances.
Now cast your mind back to the reports of people being swept up in the riots last summer in the UK. We heard of people who did not understand how they turned from getting on with their lives, avoiding criminal behaviour, to marauding and destroying shops, homes and streets (I was struck by this man in particular). We stared, for a very brief moment, into the abyss of what nice English human beings were truly capable of when they became caught up in what seemed to be a perfect storm of circumstances. Most remarkable, of course, were the reports we heard of people defying the seduction of the riot and participating in defending their streets, cleaning up the mess and protecting the civilisation that they valued so much. But what if it hadn’t been rioting, could racist ideology have taken hold as easily in the right circumstances?
Psychologists demonstrated to us the weakness, the vulnerability and the sickening potential of the human psyche. But with these results the psychologists also set before us the most important challenge: to protect ourselves and our society against the possibility of behaving in such a way. To retain our sense of individual responsibility and ethical code that will always protect the most vulnerable in society whether they be, in the words of the Bible, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger (Zechariah 7:10) or the person who is just a bit different from you.
It seems to me that we might not be so quick to think the problem we witnessed on Panorama is ‘their’ problem, since we aren’t really so different from ‘them’. Moreover, the problem of racism is not just ‘their’ problem, because football’s governing bodies, in their infinite wisdom, are sending one of the most prized international competitions to ‘their’ country at which ‘our’ team will compete. A few weeks ago, I submitted a question to BBC Question Time about whether international cultural and sporting events could ever be a positive force for good in a country in which they were held. I did not get to ask my question, but it seems to me that the answer lies considerably less in the event itself and much more in the hard work that campaigners go to in order to shine a spotlight on the issues we might otherwise overlook. The trouble is, the spotlight does not last all that long and once it’s gone out we’re left with darkness and forgetfulness (which is different from the response given on BBC Any Questions).
This IS our problem. It’s our problem that racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and far-right politics seem to be on the rise in their representation in the public sphere around the world. It’s our problem that we send prized sporting competitions to countries like the Ukraine and would otherwise be clueless were it not for some investigative journalism. It’s our problem because ‘they’ are not so different from ‘you’ and ‘I’. Hatred and those who breed hatred are never really far away. We must do something about it and we must remain vigilant.