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Brexit and Beyond

Reflecting after the results of the EU referendum were announced.

Friday was a very surreal day. It was an utterly heart-breaking day. I spent much of it in an almost dreamlike daze. I honestly hadn’t expected to be hit so hard by the result of the EU referendum, and I know many people who feel the same. By the end of the day I wanted to say something, to try and make some sense of it all. But I couldn’t find the words. And I questioned the value of my voice amongst the noise. A self-aggrandising, self-centred rant wasn’t going to help anything. I am still struggling with those concerns and doubts, but I’ve decided it’s important that I try. And to do so publicly, for reasons I’ll get to below.

It’s not just those of us who supported Remain that are upset right now. Many of those who voted Leave are now discovering that they have been lied to. Apparently it was a mistake to suggest that the (verifiably inaccurate) £350m we would “save” each week would would be spent on the NHS. Oh and immigration levels probably won’t change all that much post-Brexit either. Some are also immediately regretting their vote having seen the first real-world impacts it has had. Some people are genuinely pleased, of course, and I’m not trying to suggest that everyone who voted Leave was ignorant or duped.

But the ongoing narrative – perpetuated by both the media and the political establishment – which blames immigrants for so many of our country’s woes has paved the way for a rise in racist, nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment. That sentiment has now been legitimised and bolstered, in the minds of some, by the Leave result. Not hindered in the least by the official Leave campaign. Of course not everyone who voted Leave based their decision on racist tendencies, but those that did will now feel vindicated and empowered. And that is a terrifying prospect. The ramifications have already been horrifying within just a few short days.

2pm today in Sheldon near Solihull West Midlands. Banner says “RAPEFUGEES NOT WELCOME” And they made Nazi salutes.

— Media Diversified (@WritersofColour) June 25, 2016

Migrants have been weaponised by politicians; blamed for active decisions made by the government to implement unnecessary austerity measures that have destroyed public services.

— Maya Goodfellow on Media Diversified.

A Facebook photo album filled with hundreds of examples of racism and bigotry is growing every day. Twitter is filled with many, many more examples. Even newspapers who have played their part in the anti-immigrant narrative have been providing coverage. I have seen many try to dismiss fears of racism and xenophobia as overblown fear mongering. But the growing body of evidence (and, indeed, lived experiences for many) is really not contestable. These are scary times for people of colour. It’s time for a big conversation. This racism has always been here, but now it has been given permission to come out into the open.

Now more than ever we must stand together with people of colour, ethnic minorities, and all those who are being made to feel unwelcome or unsafe in their own country. And it is their country. No less than it is mine or anyone else’s. This country belongs to all of us. It shouldn’t even need saying. I will never be the target of racism, I will never willingly perpetuate racism, but I believe if I do not stand clearly, firmly and loudly against it I will be complicit all the same.

We need to work on social cohesion not just tolerance or parallel coexistence but on bringing us together, to acknowledge the good and bad in each of our cultures and traditions. Otherwise our pluralism is going to be fodder for forces that seek to polarize us which includes our increasingly insidious media. No society on earth today can withstand that sort of divisiveness.

— Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini,

Itâ’s also going to be more important than ever to give a voice to (and listen to) people who are not well represented in mainstream media. Media Diversified have been doing a great job of just that these past few days (as they always do). Gal-dem magazine is another, “written by women of colour for all to explore”. Sister-hood is a new online magazine that highlights the voices of women of Muslim heritage. We have many big issues to solve but to solve them we need a unified voice, one built from as many voices as possible, creating something that is even more than the sum of its parts.

Another big issue, which was barely mentioned in the referendum debates, is climate change. The EU is far from perfect when it comes to environmental issues, but it provided many environmental protections that could now go up in flames. Climate change is a global issue that will affect all of us, but it will hit the poorest first and hardest. It is already doing so. The Paris climate agreement was a great step forward, but even it didn’t go far enough. This is a challenge we all need to fight together. We don’t need to be part of the EU to do that, but it certainly looked like a more appealing option than relying on our own government. A government led by a man who wants to go all out for shale and one that might soon be led by a man who denies man-made climate change altogether.

“We can and must respond creatively to the triple crisis and simultaneously overcome dehumanization, economic inequality, and, ecological catastrophe.”

— Vandana Shiva

If we can’t muster a reasonable response to immigration now, what are we going to when the effects of climate change continue to accumulate and force more and more people from their homes? Will we abandon them to their fate as well? We in the west have played a much bigger role – thanks to our dangerous obsession with endless economic growth at any cost – in creating that fate which others are now forced to live and deal with. Will we demonise people for wanting (or rather, needing) to move to a country that hasn’t been ravaged by droughts or floods or other natural disasters? Our shameful response to the current refugee crisis suggests that we will do all that and perhaps worse, unless something changes.

As Jacques Cousteau famously said, “people protect what they love”; I believe that’s the crux of these issues. Not just the environmental ones. We also protect who we love, but we can be pretty picky about who qualifies. I see compassion and selfishness as two related aspects of a person which radiate outwards. Loving yourself to the exclusion of all others is clearly selfish, but isn’t loving your friends, family or even country to the exclusion of all others also selfish? A wider selfishness, sure, but selfishness nonetheless. Putting your own friends and family first seems reasonable, even admirable, but if it’s at the cost of other people’s friends and families, isn’t the whole endeavour incomplete? Can’t we widen our spheres of selfishness to create true compassion?

“That is sad. Swallows aren’t members of the union, and migrant birds and so on. One just hopes that collaboration on these issues, conservation issues, will transcend political divisions,”

— The Independent, David Attenborough saddened by EU referendum result

If we can’t even find it within ourselves to love our fellow human beings because of their skin colour, race, religion, gender, sexuality, political views, favourite sports team, or whatever else that makes them into “others” how are we ever going to tackle environmental problems that don’t even have a face? Or those that have faces vastly different to our own? But we need to so. Now. Yesterday. Urgently. Climate change is the greatest threat we’ve ever faced as a species but it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by and detached from it all. Especially when people have more immediate concerns – racial hatred, austerity-fuelled cuts, further losses for those in the poorest regions of Britain who were most reliant on EU funding, etc.

I think the basis of the answer is an old one, ancient even, but more important and relevant than ever. Compassion. We heard the answer when Martin Luther King Jr. said that “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We hear it when the Dalai Lama speaks of love and compassion as “necessities, not luxuries” without which “humanity cannot survive.” And of course when Mahatma Gandhi said “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” We need to love our neighbours, but first our concept of what a neighbour is needs to get much, much bigger.

EDL demo in Newcastle. About a dozen. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by opponents waving “refugees welcome here” banners

— Matthew Cooke (@SafeEng) June 25, 2016

I believe we can get there.