Liberal, modern societies pride themselves on what they perceive to be a genuine sense of tolerance towards diversity. Every Mayor welcoming new citizens and every politician feeling in an expansive mood likes to wax eloquently about the different strands that make up our society, and how much the better we all are for what they have to offer. It is just like one big happy family on a giant scale.
The truth is somewhat different, and more harsh and brutal. Below the veneer of tolerance lies a very nasty streak in all our societies, which comes quickly to the fore when aroused. The horrific, mindless slayings of around 50 young people in Orlando, Florida this week, and the debate festering in many countries, including New Zealand, about refugees and migrants sadly bring this nasty streak to prominence. In Orlando, the facts that the people murdered belonged to the gay and lesbian community and the killer’s parents came from Afghanistan were quickly propelled into the public mind as possible explanations of the horrendous act. Here, the government’s decision to increase the annual refugee quota for the first time in 30 years by a miserly figure of just 250 people quickly degenerated into a row about immigration and the numbers and origins of people coming here, and, in what is really polite code for bigotry, whether they would fit into our society. Britain’s great referendum about the European Union seems likely to be decided not on the basis of what is best economically and socially for the British peoples, but rather on the basis of keeping Eastern European migrants out.
The veneer of liberal tolerance has been replaced by the unacceptable face of ignorant bigotry in each instance. Populist politicians everywhere have seen obvious social itches which they are now scratching with raw, crude enthusiasm. And as a result, the world is becoming a less comfortable place.
A big difference in recent years has been the nature of populism. Populist politics used to be about demagogic politicians legitimising in their utterances their society’s deepest prejudices, and gaining political traction as a consequence. Today, however, populism has a more sinister overtone. In a less tolerant world than before, populism is more and more the flame applied to the powder keg. Prejudice and intolerance simply breed more of the same.
Whatever the perversions that led the Orlando killer to carry out his grisly acts, the sad reality is that they are an encouragement to retaliation – especially in a society where the preservation of the constitutional right to bear arms prevails, meaning guns are everywhere, and violence is virtually impossible to control. In Europe, including Britain, the mounting tide of prejudice against migrants of all types has already produced major terrorist reactions, and more are likely. The seeds of dissension and intolerance now being planted and tilled in our country will most certainly not lead to positive outcomes.
Liberal democracies worth their salt cannot stand idly by and allow this wilful polarisation to take hold. Political leaders of decent values need to become more vocal in calling out intolerance and bigotry for the cancer they are, no matter how big or small the incidence, no matter how distorted the populism. Playing to the public’s most latent prejudices the way the populists do is in reality no more than the ultimate form of social bullying – see the world my way if you know what is good for you.
But the one good thing about bullies is that their basic weakness of character and overall vacuity means they implode when challenged. So challenging and exposing bigotry for the fraud it is remains society’s best safeguard against the horrific acts of brutality and oppression the world has been forced to witness in recent years.