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My Tram Experience: Time to Be Constructive

Posted on the 02 December 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
My Tram Experience: Time to be constructive

Emma West rants against minorities in Britain.

It’s frustrating how short the lifespans of viral videos are. It’s only been five days since the ubiquitous My Tram Experience video, the secretly recorded racist ranting of an angry British woman on a tram, hit YouTube and the novelty has already been exhausted. The ranter, 34-year-old Emma West of New Addington, has been arrested; Internet trolls have trolled, news reporters reported and commentators commented on a story that’s beginning to feel out of date.

More than 8 million people have watched this video:

But the conversation has been so predictable and so uninspiring. The tram rant served as a nationwide reminder that unprovoked, unashamed racism still exists. Emboldened by this jolt to the national memory, bloggers hurl themselves at their keys and recount their stories, complete with racist slurs, childhood identity crises and adult self-affirmation. Articles abundant in rhetorical questions invite readers to share their own troubled pasts in violent detail.

This mass catharsis, heart-rending as it may be, is just so… fruitless. And it’s a distraction. Instances like West’s outburst are rare opportunities for us to be constructive. By being offended ethnic minorities achieve nothing, but by posing questions the conversation can progress.

Sunny Hundal’s terrific piece in The Guardian marks a start. He notes that the law can be the worst possible way of dealing with situations like these and skips through the obvious reasons why: The law is often ineffective, legislation can often be a blunt tool, laws can discriminate against minorities and that arrest will only stifle racism, not eliminate it. He oversimplifies the case, but with his last point he hits the proverbial nail on the proverbial head.

I don’t accept that the law has no role to play and we must be careful not to elide crucial legal distinctions. She was arrested for racial harassment and no one can argue that there are no laudable reasons for criminalising hateful conduct. If Emma Frost’s rant were ageist, sexist or homophobic the legal response should be the same. Law has a role in regulating our conduct, in clarifying society’s accepted morals, in sending a message and the message being sent is simply this: You cannot harass others. But complacent observers are not sensitive to this distinction and so it’s Hundal’s last point that needs to be explored.

Emma West is ignorant and historically wrong but she’s not an anomaly. The deterrent effect of an arrest will only drive those like her behind walls. The corollary of this self-censorship is that it makes her a rallying point, a martyr to the self-declared warriors fighting the immigration invasion. But it’s only once these bigots raise their heads above the parapet that they can be counted and only then can they can be asked to explain their prejudice. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that liberal societies protect themselves from the threat posed by extremism by exposing it. The tram experience should encourage us all to foster an open environment in which more people like West air their grievances, so that more people like Emma West can be held to account.

One of the first commenters on Hundal’s article simply says that West shouldn’t be given “the oxygen of publicity”. To ignore racism is to neglect it, and allow it to fester. It’s inherently counter-productive.

Had Hundal been on the tram, he says he’d have let her know that he was English and then gone back to pretending he didn’t care. I object to this defiant apathy. Racists need to be engaged; Emma West must be criticised and there is nothing more shaming than public condemnation. There is no greater mirror forcing you to reflect than national criticism. There is no better way to learn the extremity of your views than to face a tidal wave of liberal, tolerant disapproval.

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