Joyce MacMillan: British reaction to foreign cultures can be immature – and potentially dangerous

FORGIVE me if I sound a little irate. but it's something of a culture shock to return from a visit to Syria and Lebanon with David Greig's play Damascus – much of it spent, at the behest of the British Council, debating how people in power often use enemy-images of some frightening "other" to strengthen their own position – only to find elements of the British media indulging in an astonishing display of "othering" over one of the major news events of the week.

The story was that of Josef Fritzl, the man imprisoned for life in Austria for one of the most horrific crimes of familial sexual abuse ever recorded. During the trial, one of the jurists involved said that the case – whose shocking details hardly need repetition – was all about "absolute control over the family". And that, it seems, is about as close to an explanation for Fritzl's behaviour as we are likely to get.

But instead of reflecting in sadness on the horror of such extreme and destructive family passions, and commending the Austrian judicial system for disposing of this hideous case with such speed and restraint, some elements of the British media fell to complaining that more detail had not been exposed, and that Elisabeth Fritzl had not been paraded before the world's cameras. Worse, they implied the case reflected some kind of essential flaw in the Austrian social system; a small-town cronyism that leaves crime undiscovered, and a claustrophobic society that somehow lends itself – in the Natalie Kampusch case as in this one – to the imprisonment of young women in cellars.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Now it's pretty obvious this is self-serving nonsense. If there is one thing almost all human societies have in common, it's the existence of a small hard core of male psychopaths for whom total control over their women is an overwhelming compulsion. And if two young women in Austria have been held in cellars by such psychopaths, that's largely because so many Austrian houses, by government regulation, have large concrete bomb- cellars; spaces that provide sex criminals with opportunities to imprison and abuse.

British society, after all, offers its own particular opportunities for the abuse of young women. There are the drugs, the drink, and the late-night taxi-driving used by the Croydon rapist John Worboys, who was finally convicted this week after committing some 85 assaults on women passengers over seven years; there is the role of trusted family babysitter, abused by the long-term Dumfries rapist David Hiddleston, also sentenced this week.

And if you scan the British press over a few months, you will not have to look far for the most common contemporary British type of "control" atrocity; the murder of young children by their separated fathers, who would apparently rather kill their own children, and themselves, than allow their former partners to move out of their control and into new lives.

Add to those extreme cases the frighteningly high apparent incidence of low-level domestic violence against women, and it becomes pretty clear that Britain has plenty of beams to pick out of its own eye, in terms of pathological male behaviour towards women, before it starts lecturing Austrians about the motes in theirs.

And as for the Arab world in which I have spent the past week – well, if Austrians can still become "others" at the drop of a hat, Arab and Muslim people are now relentlessly stereotyped in the West as the prime enemy of "our way of life", including our generally liberal attitude to women's rights. Yet a single glance at the social scene in Arab cities such as Damascus and Beirut is enough to suggest that the picture is far more complicated than the usual western stereotypes suggest.

It's not only that some women wear veils, and some do not, preferring big back-combed hair and glittering lipstick. It's that even those women who are veiled do not always conform to the stereotype of submission. Many work in high-powered jobs, with terrific commitment and focus; and some young fashion-victims, veils firmly in place, load the visible parts of their faces with enough botox, lipstick and eye make-up to confuse every man within 50 yards.

And if this is a time of immense complexity for Arab and Muslim women, about which few generalisations can be made, then their position is also more familiar than we in the West pretend. As the vehemence of the backlash against feminism often reminds us, our societies themselves are still little more than a generation away from a world where women were legally subject to their husbands, and where – well within living memory – they could bring intense social shame to their families not only by having sex outside marriage, but by leaving the house, or entering the church, with an uncovered head.

Which is to say that, if we look for long enough at any group we regard as "other", then, sooner or later, we will find we are looking at parts of ourselves; parts we have lost and wish we could regain, or parts we wish we could repudiate completely but remain etched in the hidden places of our minds.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

To separate ourselves from those parts of ourselves we do not like, and to try to attach those qualities to some other group, is a profoundly immature reaction; it leads to a dumbing-down of our own complex perceptions, and eventually to the possibility of war, in all its murderous stupidity. Yet still we do it.

As if Josef Fritzl's crime could be explained by his nationality, and by specific failures of the Austrian social services; and as if anyone but a fool could be satisfied by an explanation so shallow, so limited, and finally so wrong.

Related topics: