The politics of difference is having a moment. A prolonged, worrying, heart sickening moment. The entire presidency of Donald Trump is a study in othering, a cut price YouTube tutorial in how to alienate people and stoke fear. 50 people were gunned down in New Zealand last week, Muslims are being interned in concentration camps in China.
I’m not naïve enough to think that this is the first time that sentiments like this have led to atrocities like Christchurch. People have, out of fear, or malice, constantly defined against; discrimination on the basis of race, or religion is not a new phenomenon. Genocide is not a distant reality in a world where an Australian politician calls for a ‘final solution’ to Muslim immigration.
We all want to believe that faced with this kind of atrocity, we would do something, because we all want to believe that we are decent people. There are people who do step up, either during a crisis or after it. In 1999, a student at the University of Edinburgh, Ellie Maxwell, founded Firefly International, a charity that seeks to foster multi-ethnic youth projects in Bosnia, to heal some of the trauma that continues to linger in the aftermath of the Bosnian Genocide. She was 21. Twenty years later, the charity has expanded and continues to do vital work, reducing difference and establish multi-ethnic relationships.
This week at the University’s Old College Quad, Firefly is hosting a light installation donated by Bruce Munro and at the end of the week, on March 29th, they are launching the Ellie Maxwell award, which seeks to encourage other young people to join the charity sector. It’s also an evening of poetry, music and talks, one of which will be given by Amal Azzudin, co-founder of the Glasgow Girls – a group of young, female activists who have successfully campaigned to change immigration laws.
On an individual level, we can participate in ending the process of active othering in two key ways; empathy and understanding. ‘Feeling things’ is often seen, especially by those who seek to create division, as weakness. But emotion is one of the most universal currencies that we have to trade on. We all feel the same things and anyone who tries to persuade you that a certain group of people deserve less empathy is basing this rhetoric on a perceived absence of humanity and therefore, of feeling. Dehumanising people is an important step towards genocide – it much easier to kill people if you believe that they are not people.
Art is about feeling things. You know what art you like and what art you don’t like based on how it makes you feel, in that spot just behind your breastbone. Go to the Munro light show, take a break from the library and stand with your friends. Take a second to think about what it would be like to grow up in a place where the buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. If you can, go to the event on Friday and listen to the Bosnian choir, Kuchke, and learn something about another culture, another history. We have a responsibility, at the very least, to try to create an environment in which difference is a cause for celebration, not fear.
You can find tickets for the event just here