Our empathy in the wake of Grenfell and the Finsbury Park attack is admirable. But we cannot allow it to obscure who the real victims areby Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin / June 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
Inevitably, London has responded to the Finsbury Park mosque attack with an uplifting Tube sign: “Tough times don’t last, tough people do. Stick together all of us.”
Now, I’m sure the staff of Finsbury Park Underground station had the best of intentions when they chose this as their quote of the day.They, and those who shared it online, were invoking a comforting image of a resilient, united London that stands tall despite being buffeted by tragedy. Because, as the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner put it, this was in a sense “an attack on London and on all Londoners.”
But that notion of unity must be tempered by an awareness that ‘London’ has not experienced this horror—a specific group of people from a specific community have. The same is true of the Grenfell Tower fire. For all of us, proximity and non-stop media coverage take their toll and the last few weeks have been frightening and draining. But I have seen too many well off, white Londoners suggest that we’re all victims. We’re not.
The real victims are dead, or in hospitals around the capital, or in temporary accommodation, grieving the loss of loved ones and wondering if their remains will ever be recovered. In the main, they are poor people of colour whose fears have been ignored by local authorities and by government, and whose anger is now being condemned.
What can the sign in Finsbury Park tube station mean to those people? For many of them, these tough times will last. They may be provided with new homes, and their grief and trauma may subside over many years, but their loved ones are never coming back. The agony of the last few weeks will dominate their lives long after the rest of us have moved on.
Of course, I understand the need to find defiance and hope in dark times, and admire Londoners’ many expressions of empathy. But empathy—the act of sharing another’s feelings—must be kept in check, lest our own feelings occlude those of the victims.
We must not allow our empathy to overwhelm our solidarity.
Because solidarity isn’t about feeling another’s pain: it’s about witnessing injustice and suffering and doing what you can to stop it happening again. While solidarity may be premised on common humanity, it also demands that we recognise the specificity of other people’s experience, and tailor our response accordingly. It requires that the victim of injustice or violence remain at the centre of the story.
However, as the LSE’s Ruth Chouliaraki has argued, the ethics of solidarity have shifted in the last few decades. We have moved from a communicative tradition of objectively representing the suffering of others “towards a subjective representation of suffering as something inseparable from our own ‘truths’ that invites contemplation of our own condition.”
This shift is overwhelmingly apparent in the response of well-off Londoners to the Grenfell tragedy. We have clung to our rosy narratives of the generosity and unity of Londoners, even as the devastating consequences of London’s inequality have played out before our eyes—even as the victims are screaming the reality of their marginalisation.
Following last night’s attack, we have again fallen back on the rhetoric of unity and diversity, unable to countenance the reality that our city is still the site of hatred and violence, and that Muslim Londoners must live with that fear.
This is a performance—a projection of a certain type of London that we wish existed. It paints over the real London, where diversity, freedom and unity exist alongside division, hatred and grotesque inequality.
And this discourse has a real impact. Why were so many people so shocked on Friday when Grenfell victims stormed Kensington Town Hall? Because their fury has no place in the sanitised, soft-edged London we have built in our minds.
Why have people continued to donate clothes, food, toiletries and household goods to Grenfell residents, even after volunteers have made it clear that they can’t handle any more donations? Our need to perform generosity is compulsive, continuing even when it increases the strain and workload of those on the ground.
Without question, suffering can unite us. But it can also emphasise how divided we are, how much of a gulf exists between those who can enjoy the luxury of schmaltz and sentiment, and those whose suffering is too great to allow them any respite.
Difficult times demand comprehensive responses. They require us to step outside our comfortable narratives about ourselves. The victims of violence and inequality—those who have suffered most in these terrible weeks—need more than a cheery tube sign. They need change.