Scotland must tackle virus of hate and prejudice – Karyn McCluskey

Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins are among those who spread hateful views in society. Scotland must look for ways to spread the oppositve, writes Karyn McCluskey.
US President Donald Trump (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A big education lesson we have had recently is public health, disease spread and the science of prevention. A phrase that’s entered the public vernacular is the R number, or the reproduction number, which is how epidemiologists rate the potential for disease to spread. It got me thinking about the levels of prejudice, racism and hate that seem all too present in our society. In September 1946, Albert Einstein called racism America’s “worst disease” and indeed hate can seem contagious, indeed prevalent in some places and areas.

So I wonder what the R number for hate is in Scotland. We’ve seen some terrible sights recently, both on our streets and online; people giving Nazi salutes, racist graffiti and language that speaks of intolerance and othering. There are those online whose R number seems huge (Donald Trump, Katie Hopkins). To have the ability to say the worst of things and speak to the dark corners of people’s hearts is a dreadful thing and in these fearful and stressful times they infect others at a disproportionate rate. This infection can have symptoms which include violence and disorder.

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I work with a wonderful person who epitomises everything you want in a human being, colleague and friend – emotional intelligence, smart, funny and brilliant at his job. He has been on the receiving end of every homophobic slur you could think of. He told me of one incident “whilst getting my heid kicked in” in a bus shelter, the man doing it was shouting “Why are you gay? Why are you gay?” My colleague said it was only later he realised this was a totally genuine question. The man couldn’t conceive of why my friend was different to him. My colleague feels the key to preventing this is education, not penalising frustrated, myopic and hateful individuals for ventriloquizing the opinions they’ve absorbed since birth. Water well the roots of our young people and they will flourish; poison them, and not so much.

The R number in some families or even workplaces may be disproportionately high. Constant exposure to prejudice, hateful speech, pervasive attitudes and literature as well as seeking out information and people to confirm and echo your own views is a toxic breeding ground. The infection can be chronic; life-long and life-limiting. Meeting others who espouse your views can exacerbate the behaviour and we get ‘risky shift’ which occurs when people change their decisions or opinions to become more extreme and risky when acting as part of a group.

If surrounding ourselves with people who share our worst views only increases our intolerance what happens if those you meet are different, diverse of thought and outlook? Does it have the opposite effect? If you are able to see those on the other side of the debate – any debate – as people, and recognise what binds rather than divides you, it can prompt some reflection, even understanding. The work the violence reduction unit undertook with gangs did this very thing. Rather than seeking the common enemy, search for the common ground.

I hope the national R number for hate and prejudice is lower than we’d think in Scotland. There are many people who’ve some level of inoculation and are trying to inoculate those in our classrooms, workplaces, community centres and online who feel they have no other option but to use hate as their safe haven. But we all have a responsibility to stop the spread; that might mean speaking out when we encounter it but just as importantly it might mean interrogating the information we take in and the preconceptions we already hold. Reducing the R number for hate means starting with your own thoughts and behaviours. Now, wash your hands.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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