Like many of us I woke this morning to the news that another terror attack has happened in Manchester. I guess this one was a little closer to home, in that our daughter goes to Manchester a lot, and theoretically could have been involved. Imagining a loved one caught up in such an event brings it close to your heart in a way that no statistics can. I got the news via Facebook messenger from our daughter (she’s in Leicester right now, so I wouldn’t have worried) and then went to other news sites for details. I now know as much as anyone about what happened. Presumably details will emerge of the who and the how; presumably as usual the why will remain a mystery.
So I go on Facebook briefly – and immediately I am assaulted by a scattering of comments about Muslims, not from friends (who would be immediately unfriended) but by members of groups I belong to. I won’t repeat what the comments said, since they were fairly predictable; but it goes to the heart of my problems about Facebook. I go there every day because I want to communicate with friends, to share life events, to find out what my children are up to, and to catch up with the latest news in, for example, the Labour Party (no campaigning today as a mark of respect.) Yet every day I am assaulted – and that is not too strong a word – by hatred, vitriol, insults and prejudice. When I post even the mildest of comments I am unsure whether it might, out of nowhere, receive an aggressive response from someone who has read into it a meaning which I never intended.
I’ve tried various responses to this: preventive, ie trying to make my meaning as clear as possible; asking questions, eg when someone posts an aggressive comment, asking why they think as they do, and most effective of all, hiding, unfollowing and in extreme cases, blocking. I am careful to mind my mental health when on Facebook, and when posts have a detrimental effect on me, I hide them or unfollow the conversation.
All this seems as nothing in the face of an event like last night’s: and yet it is somehow relevant. How do we deal with atrocities like this? I am aware that, as mere bystanders, we don’t have to deal with very much, and yet there are our own feelings and responses, and those of others with whom we interact. So how do we deal with the inevitable upsurge in hatred and prejudice? Here are some ideas:
Hiding and unfollowing: don’t read the tabloids or follow the trolls. The tabloids have vested interests and are not open to argument, and the trolls just want the attention.
Asking questions: when in contact with far-right groups, ask mild, polite questions. Why do you think that? What makes you say that? Which particular aspects of sharia law do you disagree with? Their beliefs are usually unfocussed and emotional – specific questions can cut into that.
Stand alongside the persecuted: when witnessing a verbal attack on someone, stand alongside them. Ask if they are OK, or strike up a conversation. (Naturally a physical attack needs to trigger a call to the police.)
Difficult though it is, avoid rage and vitriol: these achieve nothing beyond raising your own blood pressure. As the Buddha says, trying to hurt someone with anger is like throwing a spear made of fire. You burn your own hand first. If situations and people enrage you, come back when you’re calmer and ask questions. Above all, don’t get into arguments; debate peacefully.
The scenario in Manchester reminded me of Arthur Miller’s play, ‘All My Sons.’ A corrupt aircraft manufacturer allows faulty parts to be fitted into planes, resulting in the death of young pilots, one of whom turns out to be his son. The title of the play comes from his final recognition that there is no difference between his son and the others: that they were ‘all his sons.’
And there’s the rub. My daughter, thank god, was not in Manchester last night. But other daughters were. All our daughters were.