How quick we can be to label other people. To slot them into categories. Pigeonhole them. And, yes, it can make them easier to deal with. But also easier to ignore or dehumanise. Shades of “But of course s/he’s (add your own label), and you know what they’re like!” Case dismissed.
We all do it from time to time. But why? Are we so busy that we don’t want to take the time to try and understand others? Are we uncomfortable with people who don’t think like us, or who don’t believe the things we do? Or are we simply looking for scapegoats when our own frustration, in particular at the debilitating sense of not having any real control of our lives, makes it all too easy to apply a label and then ‘kick the cat’?
Val McDermid is not a woman to be easily labelled, rather is someone who knows her own mind, with clear and forthright views. Takes no nonsense, but is sincere in what she believes. Someone you can trust. Sometimes, however, you come across people who wilfully, deliberately and without compunction make life difficult for others. For example, the ‘buffoons’ in Westminster we’ve seen so much of recently, jeering and catcalling and debasing the very term ‘democracy’. Living in a pernicious bubble of greed, power, entitlement, wealth and self-centredness that does, I’m beginning to think, make them a breed apart. Those people who wine and dine at our expense then, without a qualm, vote to strip even the bare minimum from the vulnerable in our society. They really are a breed apart. And not a breed I can easily come to terms with.
People are (to state the obvious) all individual: all shaped by the circumstances of birth and upbringing. But we don’t live solely as individuals. We live in families, communities, cities, countries. We see the results of our behaviour on others and we have the ability to choose right from wrong. The responsibility for how we behave, and how we treat others, lies firmly on our own shoulders. There’s the (in)famous Philip Larkin poem, This be the Verse, about the effect our parents have on us i.e. the legacy of each preceding generation. But as the clinical psychologist Oliver James says, we can rewrite the script. Despite the brainwashing that took place in Nazi Germany in the run-up to WW2, there were still plenty of people who listened to the voice of conscience that told them ‘This is wrong’. That applies to the ‘buffoons’ in Westminster. They don’t need to be like that. They choose to be.
During our conversation Val McDermid spoke very highly of a former university tutor and friend, Kathy Wilkes, a woman who chose to do what was right, despite the personal cost. Kathy, a philosopher, worked behind the Iron Curtain and lived through the Siege of Dubrovnik (1991-92) during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Croatian War of Independence. As Val says, “She was an extraordinary woman…And perhaps we have choices to make as well. Do we go along with the ‘buffoonery’ that in reality hides a toxic attitude to any kind of social justice, and which is damaging not just individuals, but actively dismantling the very fabric of our society; or do we say ‘Enough is enough’? What sort of country do we want to live in and leave to the next generation? We look back and applaud the Chartists, the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, the young men who died in senseless wars. But we face as grave a challenge to our society as they ever did – the ball’s in our court now. What are we going to do with it?
The full interview with Val McDermid can be found in July’s iScot Magazine