Labels don’t help at times like this


We like labels in the West. Labels signify our status, our taste, and our income. We wear labels on our clothes, have them on our food and emblazoned on our cars. They become a useful social short-cut to indicate whether you are part of or outside of the in crowd.

But on another level, we label people as well as objects, in the process creating notions of different tribes, those who are ‘other’, those who aren’t ‘us’. This happens on a daily basis in a country still stratified by class like the UK. But at times of national trauma it can comes to the fore as I’ve evidenced today by reading online comments to pieces about Monday’s terrorist bombing in Manchester.

The problem I have with the labels we apply to people is that they further pursue the us and them narrative. We quickly fall into to the black and white, good versus evil language as a short-cut to trying to understand the tragedy, as well as alienating Muslims who live in this country, and who must fear the inevitable backlash whenever an atrocity like this occurs. We don’t apply this one crime condemns them all approach with the Christian religion. Murderers, rapists or terrorists don’t represent their entire race or fellow members of their religion through their appalling actions. A terrorist is a terrorist first and a Muslim, second.

In the UK, the idea of a Muslim otherness goes back to the Crusades and it is not a helpful attitude at times like this when we need to allow families and communities to heal, if they ever can, away from the glare of the media and away from knee-jerk reactionism. Politicians and people need to start asking why this terror attack happened. Not why in a hand-wringing isn’t it dreadful way, but why in a real, not smarting from looking at things in a different perspective way. And that will be hard, because anyone not following the accepted narrative in these circumstances will be accused of not caring about inhumane slaughter. But we do need to find another national narrative and we do need to stop labelling and start questioning.

The 22 adults and children killed in Manchester on Monday night were just out having a good time, they didn’t deserve this any more than any other adults and children are who die as a result of wars not fought in their names.

What we need to avoid at this time are futile gestures, as outrage and anger are ultimately futile. As is changing your Facebook profile picture to say ‘Manchester’ or putting images to show you care on Instagram. Ways to really make a difference are to not allow your life to be ruled by a climate of fear, by not labelling people, by donating money or time to help, by reading, by questioning and by having conversations about what has happened but why it has happened.

I’m sure there are people who will say that these are glib things to say at such a time when I haven’t been directly affected by the events, but that’s all the more reason for those of us who aren’t directly emotionally involved to offer some distance and thought to the situation and also to actually start look into what our governments are actually doing, and not through the prism of the traditional media.

These statistics were taken from a BBC report looking into Theresa May’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia:

“The UK government has signed off £3.3bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the country’s bombardment of Yemen, which includes £2.2bn-worth of so-called ML10 licences – equipment including drones, helicopters, and other aircraft. A further £1.1bn-worth of ML4 licences were also issued – relating to bombs, missiles, grenades, and countermeasures. The UK additionally signed off £430,000 of licences for armoured vehicles and tanks. By March 2017, at least 4773 civilians had been killed and 8272 others injured, according to the United Nations during the war in the Yemen. With just under half of the population under the age of 18, children constituted a third of all civilian deaths during the first two years of the conflict.”

You see the problem with labels is that we create them based upon the idea that we as a country are benign on the global stage, which we are not. Applying very absolute concepts and labels such as good and evil to events such as these means that we should be asking whether the government and the policies this country executes are, in fact, good. One issue, among many,  I have with this country selling arms to be used in conflicts abroad is that it makes this country seem as though it values less the lives of its fellow men than those on UK shores, which in turn feeds terrorism. But we as the people of a country don’t decide what is done in our name any more than people suffering now at the hands of others, using our weapons, in their countries do. And that includes a terrorist purporting to do what they do in the name of Islam. All of which makes putting who we vote for under scrutiny even more important on June 8th.

So, it’s at times like this that what we really need to do to show solidarity with our fellow man and drop the labels that create divisions, which is exactly what the people of Manchester did on Monday night. A homeless men went to assist the wounded and dying, Northerners opened up their homes and taxi drivers switched off their meters. Countless other acts of kindness will have been carried out by people brought together through suffering but in a time of crisis recognising that labels are just a social construct. At the end of the day all human lives are precious, and there is always a reason that people do the things they do, however hard it might be, at times, to try to understand.

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