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Laurie Penny on The X Factor: Gamu Nhengu and the importance of empathy

The plight of the X Factor hopeful reminds us of the power of reality television.

Nothing is real until it's been made into reality television, and that includes human suffering. After years of arbitrarily blaming every imaginable social problem, from housing shortages to unemployment, on migrants, the caring British public has finally rallied to defend one single, solitary immigrant from forced deportation after seeing her perform reasonably well on the X Factor.

Eighteen-year-old Gamu Nhengu, originally from Zimbabwe, has a cherubic smile, a powerful set of lungs and an expired visa. Millions of viewers watched entranced as she belted out a precociously soulful cover of "Walking on Sunshine" in front of judges on the TV talent show, earning herself a standing ovation and a welter of appreciative Facebook fansites. Despite her popularity with the viewing public, however, the young singer was kicked off the programme and into the welcoming arms of the UK Border Agency last week amid murmurings that X Factor producers had declined to deal with her precarious immigration status. Having lived in Clackmannanshire for over five years, Nhengu and her family now have just days to leave the country.

In the past week, tens of thousands of supporters have written letters to the Home Office, signed online petitions and even travelled to Scotland to stand outside Nhengu's flat with wobbly homemade banners, treading that occasionally precarious picket line between popular protest and co-ordinated stalking. Even the Daily Mail has caved in to reader pressure and run panegyric pieces portraying young Nhengu, a benefit-claiming immigrant, as the unimpeachably twinkly offspring of Michael Jackson and Little Orphan Annie.

It's incredible. Campaigners, activists, aid workers, lawyers, family members and any number of asylum seekers have dedicated their lives to persuading a hostile press and a population raddled by prejudice and private anxiety that migrants are human beings with human rights who deserve compassion - but it turns out that all that was really needed was for one of them to stand on a stage in a party frock and compete for the chance to be publicly humiliated by Simon Cowell.

Perhaps the Refugee Council ought to rethink its press strategy. Perhaps they could put out fewer serious pamphlets about institutional abuse in immigration holding facilities and more spangly song-and-dance numbers. Perhaps the public might be more sympathetic to the plight of the hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who come to this country fleeing persecution in countries where homosexuality is illegal if they were all to dress up in sequins and perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Disappointingly, however, stardom is not the top priority of most of the thousands of immigrants currently facing deportation from the UK. Most of them are more immediately concerned about being forcibly returned to countries where they face rape, torture and even murder. Most of them are interested in nothing more than the chance to earn a decent living and a scrap of social respect. Many of the 900 men and women currently locked up in segregated cells in the Yarl's Wood detention centre just want to be able to see their kids again. But not Gamu Nhengu: she wants to be famous, and unlike the aspiration to live a life free from hunger, terror and persecution, that's something we can all relate to.

The formalised rules of managed frenzy that pass for emotional interest on reality television provide an empathic format with which the TV-viewing public can relate, because we know what is expected of us. There's nothing challenging here: we know how this story goes. Here's the shot of the contestant in her home, surrounded by her family; now here she is, waiting for her cue on live camera, with the voiceover informing us about how she just wants to help her mum out. As she steps in front of the judges, chewing her beautiful teenage lips, cut to a shot of her loving parents waiting nervously backstage; as she finishes her set piece to rapturous applause, zoom in on her family crying with relief. A thousand asylum appeal videos with mournful piano soundtracks could not hope to produce the revenue-generating response of a televised reality pageant tugging robotically on the dull heartstrings of a nation used to producing feelings en masse, for someone else's profit.

It would be easy to extrapolate that consumer culture has now reached the point where the only emotion with which the general public can truly empathise is aspirational craving -- not pain, or fear, or intimacy, none of which can be reproduced or ritualised in gameshow format, but simple, needy, greedy longing, for more status, more luxury, more money. It would be easy to assume that the only thing that truly unites us in these troubled times when the social can only be accessed in commodified, photostat formats is the asocial impulse to better our individual situation sat any cost.

That, however, would be the wrong assumption. Late capitalism has warped our capacity for empathy on a social scale, but has not destroyed it. Inside every one of us, from the welfare-claiming immigrant to the wealthy city worker, is a vulnerable, hopelessly young person desperate for acceptance, preparing for our big moment in the spotlight, anxious not to let our loved ones down, hoping to be judged kindly. If we can collectively realise that notion, even for the interim of a Saturday-night talent show, we will be one step closer to building the kind of society that we need.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.