Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Notes from a pessimistic optimist



Peace Debate

I was invited to attend the London Week of Peace debate yesterday evening (Mon 21st September), entitled – depending on which publicity I picked up – “Can there be peace without conflict?” or “Can there be peace without violence?”.

It was headed by various representatives of the London community – among them, ex-army commanders, police officers, relatives of murder victims and youth workers. In many ways, then, it fulfilled the usual expectations: there were calls for “the youth” to be listened to; there were calls for “more boundaries” to be set; pleas to stop looking for simplistic solutions, while one person insisted with a straight face that sending more boys to fight in the army would perhaps curb youth violence. (You guessed right, that was the Major General).

Funnily enough, and unsurprisingly so, the others mostly stuck to their territories. The youth journalist and commentator argued that more listening should take place; the parent whose daughter experienced racist bullying called for racism to be “taught” in schools. And so on, with the policeman on the panel asking for members of the community to take some responsibility too; he did, however, stop short of a Crimewatch appeal directed at the camera.

Unfortunately, no one stopped the conversation from taking the slippery slope towards asking “our young people in the audience” to show forth their opinion and shed some enlightenment on the ways of their reprobate friends. There it took on a dark turn, with one well-groomed teenager from Leyton, E10 (we’re in a postcode war, folks) throatily declaring that these tearaway youths need to take responsibility for their actions. Not before namedropping a few hip-hop and grime artists with corrupting influence.

In fact, all the young people present were formally dressed, side-parted and not a sagging waistline to be seen. Presumably, the gun-toting young people we were all talking about were shackled to their postcodes
and thus unable to attend. Which is a real pity, seeing as Kwame Kwei-Armah, leading the debate, repeated twice that it was getting a bit too polite. A foul-mouthed tirade by a gang-banging hoodie would have been a refreshing twist.



Purging the Pessimistic Urge

Debates like this are necessarily tedious. They lack any depth or any real insight. There is no “action plan” beyond reaching out for the canapés outside and making sure to leave a crumb-free hand to shake with your colleagues. Where they can have any positive benefit is in an emotive sense. An audience member may feel inspired to make changes, or may undergo a cathartic process under the weight of what has been discussed. A panellist may feel inspired to promote their latest book, or undergo a cathartic process which will trigger them to write their latest book.

I’m not saying this debate shouldn’t happen – it should; I’m not saying it’s useless – it shouldn’t have to be. So what am I saying? Well, I think what I’m trying to get across is that it needs to be truthful and fair if it is to be of any value. And, if neither, then it should at least be optimistic.

Like any story or film, a debate such as this, where nothing gets resolved, should at least take us somewhere. There ought to be a cathartic process leading from absolute terror and fear to absolute hope for the future. Can you imagine leaving a cinema still not knowing what the film is about, or what has taken place? The only saving grace in these circumstances is when the director has been sufficiently clever to pull on my emotional heartstrings. I was hoping that, after the debate, some sparkly-toothed “youf” would feel sufficiently stirred to take up politics or start a group or do something after the debate, but if I were five years or so younger, I would have been motivated to do nothing, except possibly commit suicide.

The reason for my own disappointment has little to do with the debate itself. It was organised by a well-meaning foundation committed to promoting peace and harmony in the Capital. The debate was designed to be uplifting or challenging, or both. Of that I am sure. But, for me, the real issue is the disgusting and overwhelming sense of pessimism that seems to be eroding the very fabric of our society.


Last weekend, I had an argument with an American friend of mine. She was adamant that there was no other country she would rather live on Earth than England. No other place she felt safer as a woman, or protected, in terms of her rights and security. Sadly, she went a step too far and I lost her when she was trying to pan my earlier argument, which was that we need to rethink our monarchic system.

Whilst having the sense that she was exaggerating somewhat under the influence of alcohol, and the need to prove a point, she wasn’t too wrong. In few other places can I wake up at 7am on a Saturday morning and walk through the park to find comatose partygoers collapsed on benches, handbags intact. In fact, when I haven’t been asleep myself, I’ve seen several people nod off on public transport and not get hassled or mugged. Even more telling is the fact they feel comfortable to do so, and aren’t under a constant state of fear.

When I was growing up, I attended multicultural schools and still count Muslims, Hindus, and Christians of varying denominations – and ethnicities – among my friends. I’ve taught in multicultural schools and seen evidence to suggest that children are still forming friendships that cross cultural and religious boundaries, despite the fact their parents have come from places where these boundaries have forced them to take refuge here. I’ve seen gay couples walk hand-in-hand in places where I would have thought they would be beaten to within an inch of their life. I’ve had people run after me when I once accidently let a twenty pound note drop from my back pocket. These anecdotal stories, which have taken me seconds to recall, remind me that London is still a place in which humanity, tolerance and relative safety can be found.

So, based on these observations, what is it that makes me the ONLY person in a room of over 100 people raise my hand to say I believe London is relatively peaceful? Is everyone else living in fear, or did they simply not understand the question? How are people defining peace? And, if not in London or the UK, where can we say there is an example of peace in the world?

Before answering these questions, I would like to qualify my judgments by adding I don’t think we live in a perfect system. Yards from where I live, there is evidence of serious drug abuse, crime and neglect. I know people – although, thankfully, not many – who have been mugged and raped. I have acquaintances that have lost a relative to knife crime and others who have been associated with gun crime in the past. But in a city with a population calculated at between 7 and 12 million inhabitants, such occurrences are bound to happen. Any peace we can claim, therefore, must be mitigated by the fact violence and conflict, crimes or anomalies – whatever words you use as an antonym – are certain to happen at some point. It is only when these ‘anomalies’ can be said to be out of control, or when they cease to be anomalies and are taken as the norm, or the expected, we can say that this is not a peaceful city in which to live.


Stepping Away from the Peace Index

Working with young people, I can’t help but despair at the pessimism I hear around me when, in reality, prospects for children and young people are high, as well as expectations. More people than ever are attending universities. Exam results are higher. The standard of life here can be said to be much greater than times past, when it comes to healthcare and welfare. And with all of these facts come an immense pressure, which is undeniable. Still, however, the voices that inform our young people are adding to that pressure.

Year after year, the quality of exams are questioned. More than ever, there are added burdens to student debt (I can’t even imagine the day when I finish off paying my student loans). And, worse still, we are constantly being told that it isn’t safe to walk the streets. Day after day, stories of postcode killings sell to newspapers, and we offer these back up to our youth as evidence that they have created an unsafe world.

The truth is, there are places in our capital where postcode violence exists, and where children roam the streets in territorial packs, looking for strays to hunt down. There are people who present such anecdotes – see! See! We are in a feral society. We’re in a societal meltdown... The ship is sinking – but, the naked truth of the matter is a disproportionately high number of people are living in the fear of crime, compared to the number of actual criminals, and the incidence of actual crime.

So I agree, there are areas that need regeneration; there are children that need rehabilitation; and those who have somehow slipped through the net need to be reined in. But if the oil needs changing in your car, do you curse the car and go out and buy another one? Or do you just change the oil?

Extending the metaphor somewhat, I think there are too many people prepared to jump bandwagons, and not enough mechanics to see the ride through the whole way. Our adult pessimism is infectious; it is highly contagious and pervading. We are our own enemies, looking for shadows in the dark where there are none. We create the atmosphere and the mood in our societies and, if we want to create a peaceful neighbourhood, we must first create peace with ourselves. Start believing in the overall honesty of the people around us. Start trusting in our own tolerance, for do we not live relatively harmoniously already?

At the outset of the debate I attended, the participants were told to Google the "Peace Index". Apparently the UK is 34th out of 144 countries, presumably not a bad result until you look at us compared to the rest of our regional neighbours in Western Europe, where we are 5th from the bottom.

But, looking at Global Peace Index methodology, there are questions relating to government expenditure on the military, including the deployment of troops. Also, the ratio of security and police officers to civilians was included in calculating peace. Most telling of all is the perception of criminality in the country. Which just goes to show, the more peaceful you think the place you are living in is, the more it will become so.

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