Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ethnic Minorities Should not be "Tolerated" in Britain

The worldwide sensation (I first heard about it on CNN in Mexico City) caused by the remarks of a failed game show contestant Jade Goody last week were disturbing not only in themselves but also in the reactions that they provoked from those who supposedly had no truck for racism. The strongest denunciation that Gordon Brown could muster was that Britain is a tolerant nation. Although one does wonder whether he was talking about the tolerance shown by the Brits for people like Jade Goody, it was clear that his remarks were directed towards the tolerance of ethnic minorities in Britain.

That the word tolerated was used to describe ethnic minorities in Britain is deeply disturbing. It only serves to reinforce the sense of division, for in order to be tolerated one has to be different to begin with. Many of the communities of ethnic minorities in Britain have been in the country for several generations if not longer. The time for tolerance should have long passed.

On the other hand the US, from the beginning of its history never just tolerated ethnic minorities. George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish community of Newport just after he had become the US's first President said, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

In other words, When Gordon Brown said that Britain is a tolerant nation, he meant that we 'put up with' minorities. That we British, allow them their civil rights. However their civil rights should not be allowed by the British, they should be automatic. It should not be up to British Citizens of native decent to decide what rights British Citizens of any other decent enjoy because they too are British.

In Britain we do not talk of the British-Pakistani community or the British-Caribbean, we say Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean, we do not wish to suggest that they have anything to do with Britain. On the other hand in the States, people tend to identify themselves as Italian-American, Irish-American, Lebanese-American. One Lebanese American friend told me that he now tries to avoid Europe as a whole, because of the latent racism there. He feels much more comfortable he said in the United States. To be sure there are racists in the US. But in general US citizens are regarded by their peers as equal regardless of their background or decent.

In Britain we would do much better to do the same and to accept our ethic minorities as fellow citizens without question and not just tolerate them.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

ASBOS demonstrate everything that is wrong with British society

I remember vividly my politics professor at graduate school, and an expert on Belgium and Holland once asking my class, "has anyone ever wondered why the Dutch are so fucking liberal?" His answer was that they are so self controlled that they do not need anyone telling them not to do drugs, only foreigners do drugs in Holland and Dutch people would probably resent the state telling them what to do with their lives. The point is that the state only really needs to step in to stop behavior that is deemed damaging to society when society cannot do the job itself. The ASBO in the UK is not only a response to specific social problems, but also reveals a worrying inability of British society to deal with them.

In order to function as human beings we all need to live within societies. As Aristotle said, man is by nature a political animal. Society and the community provide us with a means of interaction that allow for a functioning economy and a division of labour. Anti-social behaviour is so dangerous because it threatens the core of our prosperity, the ability to live in communities free of conflict.

Building these societies that preserve individual liberty whilst eliminating conflict has been a constant preoccupation of liberal philosophers. John Stuart Mill's answer was to say that the state should only be able to intervene in cases where peoples actions were affecting others. The ASBO fits perfectly well into this thinking, but the problem with this formulation is that in todays world this covers practically everything. On the other hand Rousseau believed that the ideal solution was to find a way to make people want to choose, out of their own free will, the best option for society, for this one has to build consensus.

Central to doing this are communities. Communities have themselves certain patterns of behavior, certain practices and norms that are common to them, such as religion, custom and culture. In living together communities have to develop some kinds of standard practices in order to interact with each other and in order for this to function properly communities need to have some standards of good behavior that allow people to live together in peace.

These standards and behavior are reinforced by the very many overlapping social institutions that exist in communities. These can include the workplace, the post office, the local pub, schools etc. When everyone knows everyone else's business and come into constant contact with each other it becomes very hard to break out of the norms that your community has set as acceptable. If you misbehave, soon enough everyone will know about it and the prospect of this makes you want to behave in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Doing so, frees you from the worry of being frowned on by the rest of society.

In Britain this system seems to be breaking down. Increasingly we are living separate lives, unaware of the consequences of our behavior on other people. This is a phenomena that has been examined in the US by Putnam in his excellent book "Bowling Alone" and his findings useful for the Western World as a whole. In it he paints a world where the associations that bind us together, political organisations, sports clubs and so on are dissappearing and our attachments to others loosening.

British people it would seem increasingly need to be told how to behave in society by the state. I was struck by this when I returned to the UK through Stanstead airport after being away for almost a year. A sign at passport control tells people waiting in line that immigration officials will not accept drunkenness or violent and aggressive behavior. I thought to myself do people really need to be told this? is it not obvious that drunkenness and violent or aggressive behavior is unacceptable? But if you live in a world where you never see the result of your violent or drunken behaviour, then it is possible that it isnt obvious.

If the state is becoming the only means by which to enforce good behaviour, the ASBO is its means of enforcement. However, apart from the moral and philosophical problems with the state being the sole guardian of what is deemed to be acceptable behaviour, regulating society in this way is also terribly inefficient. It is far more efficient if nobody commits a crime than to have the police find and catch a criminal and in the same way it is far better for someone not to be drunk and disorderly than for the state to come in and tell them not to do it again. For one thing the offense has already been committed, moreover it might not stop them from doing it again. Thirdly the police and the state cannot be there all the time to prevent bad behavior, they have more important crimes to attend to and no amount of resources would allow them to be present the whole time anyway, nor would this be desireable.

In the end, the most effective way to stop antisocial behaviour is to help people live socially, to invest in our communities, and stop the removal of institutions that serve as centers as of community interacton, or at least try to create new ones. The government therefore, would do well to take a closer look at trying to fix the social decay that leads to anti social behavior, rather than trying to impose social behaviour by decree.