Today has been a strange day. It’s been the day of the planned eviction of families from the part of Dale Farm for which planning permission has not been granted. After the MPs expenses, the bank bail outs and the riots, we once again get a national event which lets us learn what kind of a society we live in. I worked til late and then came in and caught up on the news (mainstream), then went to twitter and a few blogs to see what people’s reaction to the events was. Judging the reaction on social media we live in a society which is much more horrid and hate filled than many of us would want to admit.
Twitter is probably not the best tool for a nuanced debate about the rights and wrongs of the Dale Farm case. Twitter forces a distillation of thought and opinion, it is epigrammatic and so it intensifies emotions, whether good or bad. So if you hate travellers, or gypsies, or gypos, or pikies, then that hatred will be concentrated in what you tweet. I turned to the #dalefarm hashtag just now and there were some messages of support at the top of the stream. The 4th one down from @stephen_gash was ‘Waste of Ammunition. Fix Bayonets?’, this was in response to a tweet which read ‘Why not just shoot the fuckers’. So somebody has advocated shooting women and children, and another person has replied, no doubt revelling in his sense of humour, that it would be easier and cheaper to stab them to death. And this on a public forum.
I did not have to dig deep to find this kind of hatred, it is there seething and boiling away on twitter. If you get a chance have a look at www.jewify.org. This site takes stories in the media mentioning ‘gypsy’ and ‘traveller’ and replaces that term with ‘Jew’. The effects are startling and you begin to get a glimpse of how travellers are truly the last group in our society who can be routinely abused, vilified and demonised without any fear of reprisal. Many of the tweets I read today were sick and offensive in the extreme. People agonised over the role of twitter in the riots and how it had supposedly contributed to that mass outbreak of criminality. But many of the tweets I saw today were not being used to cite illegality, they were actually illegal in and of themselves. Inciting racial hatred online is a crime and people have been convicted of this. No doubt many would argue these tweets about shooting people or stabbing them to death are not really serious, they are just banter and only liberal loony left wingers could mistake this carefree knockabout gypsy baiting for being a genuine crime. But even though the people tweeting this nauseating content will never face censure, their actions create a mood, set a tone, and create the conditions where others may decide to attack travellers as a result of being emboldened by this.
Other people on twitter have been using the Dale Farm story to show just how witty they are. I have lost count of the ‘they are travellers FFS, why don’t they just go travelling’ tweet and all of its variations. This is truly hilarious, genuine wit on display, Oscar Wilde, had be been alive would have killed someone (maybe with a fixed bayonet) for a line as witty as that.
Many called for the gypsies to be evicted from the ‘green belt’ land and upholding the council’s right to take its land back, citing the argument that if they had bought a field and plonked a house in the middle of it, they would expect it to be bulldozed. Yes, nice argument once again, apart from the rather irritating influx of the facts of the case. Firstly the land is now privately owned by people on the site. The issue is that no planning permission has been given for people to erect dwellings and live there. Secondly the council itself had the land concreted before the travellers arrived and used it to store derelict vehicles. The idea that the travellers descended on a lovely patch of somebody else’s land, ripped the turf up and proceeded to illegal occupy it is simply not borne out by the facts. The part of the Dale Farm site which the council are looking to evict from is a scrag end of shitty land which nobody but the travellers would give a fig about. It was dirty and derelict when they took it over, and they have done some work and made it their home. They have stayed within the boundaries of the land they own and they have erected nothing but single storey dwellings. The travellers’ cultures, customs and way of life may not fit those of Middle England, but people (yes!! people!!!) are living on this site, children are growing up there, old people are waiting to die there, and to set these people back on the road again after 10 years, with no alternative places for them to go, is the act of a society where gratuitous persecution has taken over from a considered and balanced attempt to find ways of addressing cultural differences.
Other tweeters have grasped onto the impression that travellers pay no taxes and have used this to justify the evictions at Dale Farm. Once again a quick check of facts complicates this easily held prejudice. Even Basildon Council has admitted that the residents are paying council tax, but the facts don’t have to get in the way of a good tweet. My view on this is simple. If any of the travellers are avoiding paying tax or indulging in any other illegal activity, surely having them housed on a stable site where they have an address and can be contacted will make it easier to investigate crimes than if they disperse with no fixed abode. And thousands of middle Englanders commit tax fraud every year but you don’t see bulldozers rumbling towards semi-detached houses in the leafy suburbs. Philip Green the billionaire owner of Top Man has also been accused of not paying his taxes, to the tune of £300m , but somehow a wealthy businessman with an unpaid tax bill of stellar proportions is not such an affront to people as a few hundred quid here and there which someone dealing in scrap metal would have to pay to HMRC. It appears that travellers and rioters are both worthy of the same treatment here, namely ‘collective punishment’; taking the crime of individuals who belong to a group or community and making all members of that group or community pay for these crimes. Just how the children and elderly people on the site could be guilty of not paying taxes is not clear, but the necessity of punishing them, for many, is a moral imperative.
As I said, Dale Farm teaches us some unpleasant truths about our society. The fact that many of us prefer to hate and condemn rather than try and understand. The fact that many reach for stereotypes and stock hate figures rather than trying to appreciate the nuances of a complex case. The fact we call ourselves an open and tolerant society but are prepared to turn the blindest of blind eyes when an ethnic group we can’t sympathise with crosses our sight lines.Image is creative commons from the ‘Save Dale Farm’ Flickr account, Available from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dalefarm/6095686925/