on the stories we tell

Hong Kong, my home, was rocked by major protests in 2014. Localist riots and student-led scuffles break out much more regularly now than in my parents’ day.

In June 2016, the UK voted by referendum to leave the EU. There was a spike in reported racial crimes across the country in the weeks afterward.

In July 2016 a French North African and an Afghan refugee launched attacks in Nice, France, and Wurzburg, Germany. There is little evidence for any coordination between both attacks, though Islamic State has claimed responsibility for both.

In the same month, a girl in the Indian state of Haryana was assaulted and gang-raped, allegedly by the same men who had been convicted of gang-raping her in 2013.

And as the 2016 US Presidential Election draws ever closer, both Republican and Democrat supporters are stepping up their rhetoric. International opinion mostly sides against Trump.

Every one of these stories stars a clear villain (though tellingly no clear heroes emerge). Who is to blame?

The entitled, self-righteous students of Hong Kong who just don’t realise how good they have it. Along with the uneducated, localist thugs.

Racist morons who hate immigrants. Befuddled old folks motivated by nostalgia.

Muslims.

Illiterate, uneducated country bumpkins who don’t know how to treat women properly.

White trash, uneducated, racist bigots.

Though most reputable media outlets have stayed reasonably impartial, this hasn’t stopped our popular stories from developing their own colour and flavour. And reading all these headlines will lead one to conclude that something is deeply, deeply wrong with our world. The world of 2016 is going mad – this is the story that we know, the story we pass around. It’s going mad because of those people.

My friend summed it up well: this is the rise of populism. I just don’t know where to live now, she sighed. And in many ways she is absolutely right – the thread of disenfranchisement runs through many of these stories. But are the stories we tell even accurate? Or worse, are they contributing to the problem?

I find it disturbing that when criticism is leveled at Brexiters, Trump-supporters, members of PEGIDA and even the men who carry out rapes in India, this one accusation crops up again and again: they’re uneducated, they’re illiterate, they’re unintelligent. Which very often implies that we, the accusers, are educated, literate and intelligent, and qualified to pass such judgement.

But have we – educated, urbane and thinking – taken the time to hear the full story?

Hong Kong students have been accused of being pigheaded and entitled. But at the same time the average Hong Kong graduate (along with many localists, student or otherwise) faces very dim career prospects within a fairly restrictive job market, a lukewarm economy and the near-impossibility of moving out of his parent’s flat.

Brexit has brought out some very ugly, wrong behaviour in the UK. But many working-class people have legitimate grievances against the free-market economics of the EU. And nostalgic though some of the old folks may have been, they deserved their vote – moreover, many would have seen firsthand the failure of the euro and the ruin of the EU PIGS.

Paris, Nice and Marseilles are home to a vast underclass of Muslim North Africans, facing dim career prospects, vulnerable to radicalisation. The worldwide refugee crisis is now entering a particularly sinister phase as young refugees grow up confused and angry, knowing only displacement and flight for most of their thinking lives.

Rather incongruously, the five convicted in the Haryana rape are all educated men, though two of the five are Dalits (‘untouchables’) – marginalised young men who seem to comfortably fit the popular version of the story. And even of the six convicted in the 2012 Delhi rape, one was a labourer, one was a shop assistant, three worked on a bus, and one had a school education; broadly this fits the popular story, but it’s not exactly that simple.

Trump’s supporters include a fair share of strong conservatives, but rather unexpectedly, Hispanics as well, and people who simply feel politically marginalised, regardless of education or income level.

This is not the rise of morons, it is the increasingly angry rise of a marginalised underclass.

At this point it would seem politically correct to wallow in self-recrimination, but let’s not do that. Whatever grievances these people may have had, their choice to express themselves through hateful speech or violence, lethal or sexual, is on their heads, not their victims’.

But if we, as global citizens, whether 1% or not (and if you’re reading this on your phone or on a monitor, in a comfortable, well-lit room, you are in the 1%, as am I), have even a shred of interest in stopping the madness, we need to change the way we tell our stories.

The story of 2016 cannot be the Rise of the Morons. It must be a story that acknowledges the culpability of people who say and do hateful things, violent things, perverse things, unwise things; but also acknowledges that this behaviour comes from somewhere; that their grievances, no matter how objectively legitimate, are legitimate at least in their own heads; and that they’re bad and/or stupid is not a good enough answer to why things are getting ugly.

I was walking with my friend through an air-conditioned mall the other day, noticing how many of the mall staff were old men and women, mopping the floor, standing guard or stooping down to pick up trash with a pair of tongs. I have lived in Hong Kong for most of my life and this has only really hit me in the last year, to my great shame. This system, I (rather too) sagely told my buddy, is predatory. Our comfort relies on their discomfort. Those mall oldsters are an underclass – ignored, marginalised and used by an overall pretty clueless privileged class.

That is the system we’ve created in our world at large. And the underclass is biting back across the world. Is it ‘their’ fault when people get hurt or killed? Yes. Is it ‘our’ fault for creating and sustaining a system that leaves the underclass out in the cold? Harder to say – but it is definitely our fault when we refuse to listen to different versions of the story, when we accept only the story crafted by and for the 1%, that only further shuts out the underclass and makes them even more bitter.

We must examine other sides of the story, we need to hear the story from the lips of the marginalised people, before the 2016 Rise of the Morons comes to a head.

Postscript: in the days after this article was written, two terrorist-style attacks were carried out in Bavaria, Germany (a mall shooting and a suicide bombing, the latter of which thankfully claimed no lives but the bomber’s); as well as one attack in France, where an octogenarian Catholic priest had his throat slit like a lamb’s. The latter two attacks were claimed by Islamic State. I realise I seem to prattle about understanding and social justice – but really who will give justice to the old priest and the mall-goers? Meanwhile the British police are seriously reconsidering their approach to racist crimes. My words feel oh so empty now. 

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