The little red book, as I once heard it called, is my book of opportunity with a royal seal of approval. It is my principle form of ID, my saving grace in an emergency, and my ticket to most of the world. I’m grateful for the doors this pocket-sized book opens.
For now, at least, I can move freely in Europe. I have the right to travel practically anywhere in the world. My passport is my freedom. However, these pages of opportunity can become a burden when used as a shadow to cast people under. Too often, we judge people by the place their passport was issued, not the acts of the person whose face stares expressionlessly from the photo.
I am British, yes. That’s the box I have to tick in forms. That’s the adjective that categorises me to immigration officers. And yes, it does tell you some charmingly cliched things about me: I think queuing is a valuable life skill. I believe a hot drink can make most situations better. I think there is an essential and important difference between a biscuit and a cookie. Many assumptions you make about me based on my plumy accent and birth place are probably true.
Stereotypes and clichés exist for a reason. I’m guilty, if guilty is even the right word, of applying them. You can walk down Heidelberg’s touristic main street and be pretty confident of guessing the nationality of people without hearing them speak. (Germans: clothing perfectly suited to the weather. Brits: shorts and sandals before it’s really warm enough because they are on holiday. And so on.)
The problem is that this gentle application of clichés gets smudgy around the edges. The challenge is that a generalisation can become a stereotype which can become a prejudice. And nothing good ever came of prejudice.
When the Brexit result was announced, people swarmed onto social media and started throwing around accusations. People were proud of Britain. Britain had spoken. The British people had triumphed. (Over what, I am not quite sure.) Or, if you had my Facebook feed: Brits were ignorant. Brits were racist. Brits were stupid. Within hours, everyone who had voted, which ever way, had all done it for the same reason and in the name of Britain. You became one of the 52% or one of the 48%.
It seemed even worse after Trump’s win. I won’t deny it; I am deeply concerned that he has been elected president of one of the most powerful countries in the world. I admit; I do not understand the appeal of a man who has said so many hateful things. But turning on Americans en masse through a Facebook status or a witty arrangement of words in a tweet is not going to do anything about the result.
(Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying people should role over and accept the result. It’s just that lashing out and lumping every voter together is not the answer. When you feel strongly, it’s time to get informed and get active. Not get bitchy.)
Many people I know were visibly shaken by Tuesday’s results. And many of them, just like my compatriots back in June, were personally saddened as well as apologetic for the decision made in their country. What’s more, many were upset about the degree of hatred poured onto them just for being from a certain place.
Sadly, as we all get more and more comfortable in our self-affirming news bubbles, feeding on the opinions sprouted with little consideration on social media, and exposing ourselves only to information that reaffirms that we’re right, it might get worse.
When it comes to American and British politics, it’s hard to deny that 2016 has been anything other than a dark time. Whichever side you take (and I believe there are more than two!), we’ve seen mud-slinging, the rise of populism, division, the legitimisation of prejudice narrative, and a lot, a lot, of misinformation.
Yes, there are a number of Brits out there who collectively think things that are alien to me. Yes, many of the Americans I see at Trump rallies hold views that I will never agree with. But many don’t. And without meeting people, without spending time getting to know a person, you can’t let the shade of their passport or the box they have to tick on a form define them. And you can’t lump people either. It’s tempting, it’s easy, (and sometimes you’re not far of the mark), but nothing good will come of it. Nothing.