Joyce McMillan: Whether it’s Winston Churchill or Shamima Begum, beware the simplicity of hate

Oscar Wilde once said the truth is rarely pure and never simple – and we should remember that amid attempts to turn John McDonnell, Winston Churchill or Shamima Begum into hate figures, writes Joyce McMillan.

Shamima Begum, then 15, seen at Gatwick Airport in 2015 as she travelled to Syria (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Shamima Begum, then 15, seen at Gatwick Airport in 2015 as she travelled to Syria (Picture: AFP/Getty)

In an age of extreme polarisation in politics, any brief moment of subtlety and nuance comes as a blessing. Yesterday morning, 12 hours after the publication of the news that one of the Bethnal Green schoolgirls who fled in 2015 to join the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had been found alive in a Syrian refugee camp, BBC News took itself down to Bethnal Green, where around half of the population are from a Muslim background, to seek some opinions about what Britain should do about 19-year-old Shamima Begum, and her future.

According to her interview with Times journalist Anthony Loyd, Shamima Begum is unrepentant but grief-stricken following the loss of two young children, almost nine months pregnant, and eager to come back to Britain; and the people of Bethnal Green had clearly given the subject some thought. Some felt she had been groomed and brainwashed as a 15-year-old child, and deserved a second chance. Some felt that as a British citizen she should be allowed to return, but made to face the full force of the law. Some thought that she had made her choice in 2015, and should have to live with the consequences, even if that means permanent exile; and all seemed aware of the complexities involved in reaching a decision on such a case.

Meanwhile, though, the online haters were having a field day, exchanging ideas on exactly what kind of bloody end Begum should meet; and the truth is that it’s that online world of instant and vicious judgment that now dominates the tone of public debate, in the UK as elsewhere. It takes its cue from the brutal, hate-mongering headlines long beloved of some sections of the popular press; and it revels in stories like this week’s fierce spat over the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s decision to reply “Tonypandy – villain”, when asked in a quick-fire Q&A session whether he classed Winston Churchill as a villain or a hero.

In any sane political world, of course, it would be generally acknowledged that Winston Churchill was both of those things, at different times and in different contexts. In the current hectic state of global, UK and even Scottish politics, though, such complexity will not do. Like the young Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer, a couple of weeks ago, McDonnell now finds himself grilled, pilloried, damned and kebabbed (as Neil Kinnock once memorably put it) for daring to acknowledge the once well-known dark side of this Tory idol. “With us or against us,” yell the zealots of the new patriotism police; and the same fate will doubtless, in the end, meet anyone who argues too strongly for the rehabilitation of Shamima Begum. The woman is obviously evil, say those who wish to divide the world into a morally perfect “us” and a morally inexcusable “them”; and anyone who speaks up for her is clearly as dangerous as she is.

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Now of course, in our adult moments, all of us know that this kind of “othering” is an immature and dangerous mode of thought. Every book of wisdom known to humanity, including the Bible, warns us sternly of the dangers of judging others while failing to judge ourselves; yet still, we tend to suppress negative aspects of our history to the extent that many people see any mention of them as treachery. The Brexit folly has of course fiercely redoubled this tendency in Britain, offering some kind of licence to those who see all things British as good, and all things foreign as intrinsically inferior. The #metoo movement has led to troubling debates about how we should think of sometime heroes now damned for alleged sexual crimes and misdemeanours. And the once turgidly sensible waters of Scottish politics are now also troubled by the wave of polarisation, as extremists on both sides of the independence debate go at each other with levels of moral disgust and blazing hatred that seem out of proportion to a debate about the technical relocation of limited political powers, in a globalised economy now facing such massive existential threats.

So what can a responsible citizen do, in a time when such madness has the upper hand? The first rule, I suppose, is to refuse to be drawn into debates conducted in such absolutist and misleading terms. The second is to know how to take sides – which it is often important to do, particularly in a time of rising neo-fascism – without succumbing to an ideology of hate.

And the third, I think, is to remember that there is at least one field – the arts, music, culture, every kind of creativity – where the acceptance of complexity, in the search for a sense of truth, is an essential part of the work. This week, I sent out a message mentioning a new play now on tour about the wartime Labour Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston, and his role in promoting hydro power in the Highlands; and within seconds, one or two independence supporters were on the case, slamming Johnston as a Labour imperialist who had drowned people out of their Highland glens without consultation or compassion.

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Yet to work at all, the play – precisely because it is a play – will have to involve conflict, debate, and questioning of Johnston, as well as a celebration. In a world of increasingly dangerous polarisation, in other words, a responsible citizen’s job is to do as the people of Midlothian did this week, when they rebelled against the decision to end free music tuition in their schools; and to go on carving out and cherishing the creative civic spaces where people can meet and be together, experience music and stories and debate together, and begin to find the common ground on which they can build a lasting future. As Oscar Wilde said, more than a century ago, the truth is rarely pure, and never simple; and while the world’s haters once again begin the futile attempt to build a future on a basis of simplistic lies, it matters more than ever that we hold those places of creativity and complexity open with all our strength, and never let them go.