The power of words

[…]

Now, it is a massively difficult to get your head round; how ordinary people, – and Germans are ordinary people just like us, and if we don’t believe that, then we’ll be doing to them what they did to the jews, we will be ascribing a racist characteristic just to Germans, that is unique to them, – I think we can all be grown up enough to know that it was humanity doing something to another parcel of humanity, and that it was very extraordinary. We’ve seen examples of it in our own lifetimes, such as Ruwanda and Burundi and other places where massacres of extraordinary brutality have taken place.

And in each one of these genocidal moments, or attempts of full genocide, each example was preceded by language used again and again and again to dehumanize the person that had to be killed, in the political eyes of their owners. […] And they start to characterize them week after week after week after week, and you start to think that someone who is slightly sullen, someone you don’t like very much anyway, and you’re constantly getting the idea that they’re not actually human. Then it seems that it becomes possible to do things to them that are, we would call unhuman… inhuman… lacking humanity. Oddly enough, we’re the only species that does it…

It is interesting and important to remember that language not only guarantees our freedom.  In free exchanges of ideas, such as this, in which one is allowed to say anything in which one would hope everyone observes the decencies of debate and of good nature and is not cruel and unkind, mocking derisory, unpleasant, vicious or indeed whipping up violence, but as long as ideas are exchanged freely then we can more or less guarantee some level of stability within our societies. But the moment we begin to use special language for special people and special terms of insult to special people, then thats when, and we can see it very clearly because history demostrates it time and time again, that’s when ordinary people are able to kill.

There’s an amazing book called “Ach die schone Zeite”, which I think has recently been translated under the title “Those were the days” and it’s a horrific thing to read because it is so ordinary. It is simply the letters home from the guards and soldiers and SS members and officers of the death camps of Auschwitz, letters home to their families.

[…]

It’ so human that it makes someone kind of gasp at how this kind of happened. And language is at the root of it and I suppose that is why we have to be careful about our language or we have to be alert to it, we have to think about it…

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Making peace with my inner-racist

The mayor of the Dutch city of Rotterdam is an interesting man. Let’s start with the obvious, just to get the elephant out of the room. He was born and raised in Morocco until the age of 15 in a small town in the Nador province. He is a muslim. Even more so, his father was an imam and he himself remains a devout muslim to this day.

Ahmed Aboutaleb, because that is his name, is an incredibly well spoken Dutch politician that has made me nod my head at my tv-screen on several occasions. I wish I could say that his provenance is not what I find most interesting about him. I wish I could say I consider him to be completely “one of us” or that I respect him for and foremost for his qualities as a politician and a person in general … but now that I think about it, every time I am wowed by one of his statements, my amazement is usually intensified, thinking of his background… and when I talk to someone about something I heard him say, I think I do often use words along the lines of “… and that is coming from a man from such-and-such background”. Does that make me a racist? It kind of does, doesn’t it?

Yesterday morning I saw an interview with Mr Aboutaleb on the news, which triggered me to write this blog. He talks about the second generation immigrants that are increasingly finding solace in the more extremist corners of their faith and are considering picking up weapons in armed conflicts elsewhere, to defend these new values they have come to stand for.ahmed_aboutaleb02.jpg

I translated a large part of it and included it below:

You describe young muslims that want to travel abroad to join the fight in conflict zones as people commiting treason, what do you mean by this?

Imagine for example my situation. I came to the Netherlands when I was 15. The Netherlands invested in me for many years, ten thousands of euros in education. I have now reached the point that I can do something for society. For myself and for my parents; especially my parents who have been through a lot to get this far, and then you would say “forget it, I am going somewhere else” and not just that, you are going to do things AGAINST the country that has invested in you. I can’t call it anything but treason.

So you are asking people that turn their backs on our values and the laws of our constitution to hand in their passports. That’s quite a strong statement, isn’t it?

We often organize ceremonies in our municipality, where we hand newcomers their citizenship on behalf of the Dutch State. I always mention that a passport is not just a travel document. It stands for an identity and its core values. And not only that, the values of our country, the laws of our constitution will sometimes need to be defended by force of arms if those values are threatened or the Netherlands are under attack. “If you don’t accept those conditions,” I always say in my speeches, “leave the document here”. And if, after all these years, you find out that these values don’t suit you, be a man and come in next Monday and hand over the passport. This way we don’t need to discuss in the senate who is right and who is wrong.

Aren’t people allowed to have another opinion?

Ofcourse people are allowed to have other opinions. There will always be room for that. I am talking now about people that have reached a point that they are prepared to leave this country, take their wife and kids with them and settle in a feudal system, where everything we have been brought up with, everything we have learned about, is rejected. That is a conscious choice, which is allowed, but be a man about it and come hand in that passport as well. If you reject our constitution, that your passport is linked to, than you obviously don’t want that either.

But isn’t that a bit harsh. Aren’t you bringing problems to other immigrants with this statement, people that do not agree with these minorities?

Absolutely not. You know, what people that are involved in these discussions often don’t understand is that dealing with these minorities, and dealing with them strongly, by for example asking them to hand in their passports, is the best way to protect the 1 million people that are wrongly being associated with this. This is the best protection for me, and the other 999.999 others.

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But is repression the only way?

It’s definitely not the only way. Repression in this case may be a small part of a larger whole, but a very necessary one. The big tasks lie with the municipalities, the local authorities and the mayors to organize this debate, to open the dialogue, which we will be organizing here in Rotterdam at the end of September. Let it be a hard discussion, let’s tear this up because nothing shines without friction.

But if you lay the lines down so tightly, won’t it make it more difficult to have this dialogue?

I have always learned that especially when the lines are clear and tight, people are prepared to talk. I can tell you now, this conversation is going to give reactions of repulsion, it is going to spark angry emails but it will also trigger a lot of support. You can’t be everyone’s friend, as mayor of Rotterdam, and luckily that is not my goal either.

So what you are saying is that if there are certain elements in society, no matter how large or small, that we don’t agree with, that it should be removed…

For starters, I think that if you have consciously decided that you do not want to be a part of the Netherlands, that you should be honest about this. Come out, hand in the passport. But, if you are not willing to do so, if you do this secretly and undermine the values of our society, the consequence is that we, as a society, will isolate you and shut you out. And it is justified for the Dutch government to makes this possible and I stand behind these measures. But do not forget that the whole climate that has been created is very damaging for the 1 million muslims that live here. We must treasure them, hold them close and make them feel included and not judge THEM for the choices of these extremist minorities, because that is one of my largest worries…


An interesting interview… I am convinced that this message would have come across a lot different if any of our kaaskop politicians would have introduced it, but coming from him it becomes more acceptable… right? But where does this leave me? Do I actively try to include my muslim countrymen and make them feel welcome? Should I be doing this more actively, or is “tolerance” enough? I really don’t like that idea… to tolerate is to just barely accept someone’s presence… but only just… that’s not what I want to do…

racist but shhh.jpg

I have been wondering a lot lately about the racism I have in me. If someone were to summarize me in 10 words I don’t think “racist” would be one of the words they would pick, but I admit I do live by certain stereotypes though, just because they make life easier. I have always tried to see every situation from all possible points of view and I’m usually able to find understandable reasons for almost every stance. I seem to be losing my ability to put myself in “the other’s” shoes though. Either that, or the opinions people are standing for are truly becoming more unreasonable and I simply can not follow.  I believe the latter is the case, which doesn’t really make me feel much better…

I have an opinion about many things but I have noticed that when people around me talk about things with a whiff of what I would categorize as racism, I pull back from a conversation. I quickly decide these people are ignorant and that giving them my opinion will only pull me into a tiring discussion that will leave us both annoyed and not an inch further into convincing one another. So why bother?

Well… just the other day I changed my point of view, all though I must admit I haven’t put it into practice yet. My idea revolved around the fact that if I don’t open my mouth and voice my very reasonable, well-informed and moderate ideas (yes, I am full of myself), then the only people talking are the people with extreme (or just plain stupid) ideas. And that’s not good! Especially in these times, with tension building all around us and it seems all we are doing is waiting to see who will make that final spark to blow the whole thing up.

I know this new mission of mine will frustrate me. I know I won’t convince 9 out of 10, maybe even 49 out of 50. Maybe I won’t be making any new friends among my co-workers. But I have to try this! I’m giving myself a month to experiment with this and will then report back here on how it went and if I won anyone over to join my team…