Black and white and grey all over

Did you ever have one of those days where in a matter of minutes you were exposed to things that when you compared them turned out to be polar opposites?  I had one of those days today.

I had traveled from The Hague to Utrecht in the Netherlands to meet with a university professor.  I arrived by train a little early so I had a chance to wander around the beautiful old city near the Dom (if you haven’t been to Utrecht you really should go).  My trip also afforded me the opportunity to see where my daughter, who had lived for six months studying in Utrecht, spent all my hard earned cash.

While meandering near the Oudegracht I came across a statue of Anne Frank, whom I’d imagine everyone knows from the diary she left behind when the Nazis occupying the Netherlands took her and her family away to a concentration camp.  To the Nazis Jews like Anne were undesirable, unwanted and disposable.

This dehumanisation has not been limited to the Jews.  It happened when Stalinist policies led to the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It happened in 1994 in Rwanda when the majority Hutus massacred some 800,000 Tutsis referred to as “cockroaches”.  And it is happening now in the Netherlands when populist demagogues like Geert Wilders can egg on a crowd saying “Willen we meer of minder Marokkanen?” (do we want more or fewer Moroccans?) and getting the answer “minder, minder, minder” (fewer, fewer, fewer).  This is the same man who has called for the banning of the Quran and the closing of mosques.

Incidents like this lead to polarisation and violence.  Is it a coincidence that we are seeing attacks in the US on ordinary Muslims  when wannabe presidents like Donald Trump call for a ban on Muslim immigration and suggest that all Muslims are terrorists?  Yes, not all these incidents are necessarily hate crimes and not all can be placed at the foot of Mr Trump, but does anyone think that these statements are helpful?

It appears that labeling people as the “other” is simple, or at least that would be a reasonable conclusion given how often it occurs. Our history is certainly replete with examples.  Think of the head tax placed on Chinese immigrants to Canada in the late 19th century.  Think of the way the Irish emigrants to the US were treated upon arrival in the 1860s (there is a great scene about this in the film Gangs of New  York).  Whatever the psychological or perceived protective factors are that lead us to do that we do it well.

In light of the rise of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic parties in several European countries this shift in the acceptability of rejection and the attempt to rid society of those the populists see as undesirable is worrisome.  A lot of the people I have spoken to in the Netherlands over the past ten days are really concerned about what is happening to their society.  There is a general election coming up in 2017 and there is a palpable angst that fearmongerers like Wilders could gain more influence.

So in a world where black and white positions are on the ascent what can we do? Well, for one thing we can champion the grey.  And that is exactly what the campaign #Dare to be grey is doing in the Netherlands.  I sat down with the inspiration of the project, Dr. Jacco Pekelder, today and came away with  a sense of hope that all is not lost.

The premise of #Dare to be grey is that there is a vast body of people in the middle (the analogy in Dutch is the “grey middle” – it doesn’t really work in English) that do not belong to either the black or white pole and who can see nuance.  The important point is that this group is truly the majority (unlike US preacher Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority which was neither moral – in many cases – nor a majority) and that they outweigh the extremes by a long shot. What Dr. Pekelder and his team of students were able to do was to mobilise, via social media, a huge cohort of people who are not pleased with the black and white dichotomy.  And from what I saw today they did so pretty well.

As I noted in a previous blog, initiatives like these are not the whole answer to violent extremism or social rupture or systemic discrimination, but they are a good start. And, again as noted before, they are cheap (I was astonished how little the #Dare to be grey project cost).  In a time where an Austrian cardinal can, with a straight face, scream that Muslims want to conquer Europe and eradicate Christianity (no, I am NOT making this up), as if the Ottomans are again at the gates of Vienna, we need the majority to stand up and reject this demagogic nonsense. #Dare to be grey is a good start – let’s hope it inspires others to follow in its footsteps.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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