I’ve just been up in Kendal installing an exhibition for the upcoming Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was paired up with YWCA Kendal, who operate the cafe & business resource centre that I’m using, as well as providing accommodation for young homeless people upstairs, via Impact Housing Association.

The exhibition tells a number of interweaving stories, centred around the themes of home. I wrote this when preparing the Questionnaire that I used to elicit input into the stories from various users of the building:

Home is an essential human dignity
Home can be a building
Home can be other people
Home can be a state of mind
Home can be a place of safety
Home can be a place in which to grow
Home can become a suit of armour
Home can lock people in – or out

I’ve been writing and illustrating these stories for the last two months, and it’s been a turbulent awful two months for a lot of people, as the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere has ramped up to unexpected and entirely predictable proportions. It weighed heavily on my mind while writing around the subject of homes and homelessness. Initially, I tried to focus more on homelessness in the UK, but that didn’t feel right either. In the end, I’ve worked on the universal underlying issue, which is seeing other people as “other”, attempting to take away their humanity. We do it because we’re afraid.

Main Course

I’m not writing this post to promote my exhibition. I should be working on something else this afternoon, but this won’t wait. I need to rant. I read an article just now (thanks to Tauriq Moosa for bringing it to my attention on Twitter – I highly recommend his twitter feed for uncomfortable ethical issues, he does a great job)

So, here’s the article. In summary:
– in Hungary, a camera-woman was filming refugees being held back by police
– the line broke, and the refugees ran through, towards the film crew
– the camera-woman panicked, and kicked out at a young girl running towards her
– this was caught on film
– camera-woman loses her job, faces criminal trials, and becomes subject of an internet witch-hunt

While I condemn her actions completely – what she did was stupid, disrespectful and small-minded – my heart goes out to the camera-woman. My heart goes out to the refugees too, of course, what they’ve seen on the journey this far beggars belief. Oh, and my heart goes out to the police tasked with holding the line, and the one-dimensional saps hurting in their witch-hunt.

We kick out when we see a rabid animal running towards us. We kick out in our nightmares. We stamp on snakes, cockroaches and other vilified creatures. The camera-woman got confused between a small, vulnerable child who’s been through hell, and a dangerous nightmare monster. Not an easy mistake to make, you say? Various arms, legs and tentacles of the international media have been promoting that exact confusion for the last few months (google for hopkins cockroach norovirus sun Roszke, just for starters). And it gets under our skin, even the best of us aren’t automatically immune to the gradual erosion of common human decency when faced with a barrage of hate-n-crap.

This isn’t a new trick, by the way. The US soldiers in Vietnam referred to locals as “gooks” to encourage dehumanisation. The Nazis in Germany depicted Jews as sub-human. Trace the line back out through the twentieth century and beyond, through Machiavelli’s advice, backwards into antiquity. (Certain sections of the Old Testament and other early literature probably have some good stuff in this vein?) Demonising the other is part of who we are. (Yes, it is “we” – “they” don’t do it, “we” do. Geddit?)

Faced with this barrage of hate-n-crap, we all need to be on guard more than usual to counter the confusion between human and monster. The camerawoman in this story failed that test. She deserves the criminal charges. Being fired? I can’t decide. The witch hunt? Definitely not.

Her employers, who fired her, and saw a bad PR event running towards them, kicked her out with a similar reflex. (I can’t find out much about Nemzeti TV just now – their website’s been hacked, google just turns up variants of this story… so no idea what their general ethos is). They’ve distanced themselves, for the sake of their reputation. Anyone taking pot-shots at her from the comfort of the internet has also drawn an ethical line between “us” and “them”.

Don’t believe the hype. Everyone involved in this chain of events is human. And that means everyone’s got the capacity to be a monster, by letting fear replace our view of the other person with some demonic image, some nightmare rabid-rat-snake that only exists in our heads.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s old quote seems an appropriate point to end this rant on:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

When (not if, because this is big enough to engulf us all) I’m faced with the split-second choice of whether to kick or not, I hope like f**k I make the right choice, and don’t have to face the many internal and external consequences. I don’t feel complacent about doing so, and – whoever you are, dear reader – neither should you.

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