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Living with diversity: for a politics of hope without fear

An open letter from the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.

Rather like climate change, a quietly brewing concoction of xenophobia, intolerance and fear of difference is threatening the future of Europe. Aggressive political demagoguery drumming up hatred against minorities, immigrants and democracy itself is on the march again. Leading the charge are not only fundamentalist and xenophobic movements, but also, most worryingly, mainstream political forces trying to appease national majorities, looking for a quick fix to address public insecurities related to economic uncertainty, future stability and Europe's place in the world. And, alarmingly, they are proving to be successful. Many people in many European countries are coming to see the stranger and those deemed to be different as a contaminant or threat, much in the same way as Europe did in colonial times and during its dark totalitarian decades prior to 1945.

Fear, suspicion and hatred are becoming everyday public sentiments, legitimating vilification and harsh forms of discipline as normal, breeding on endless talk of greedy asylum seekers, disloyal and seditious immigrants, would-be Muslim terrorists, and an illusory desire to return to founding principles and chauvinistic values. A new lexicon of "us versus them" is being rolled out, blaming the victims of unfettered financial speculation, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism at a global scale, and pretending to ignore how the contribution of immigrants and refugees has been, is and will remain essential to European social, economic and cultural life. A new mentality of 'catastrophe management' is being promoted, centred on the containment or elimination of the stranger and non-conformist through extensive surveillance, border controls, curtailment of rights, naming and shaming.

This is a dangerous turn, and as in the darkest moments of its history, Europe runs the risk of waking up too late. We are close to the point of no return from a Europe excessively obsessed with diversity and wrongly blaming difference for its problems. These are complex problems, linked to a variety of causes such as deep economic crisis and instability, the impacts of market society on individual and collective responsibility, the absence of a model of belonging appropriate for a plural and open society, the breakdown of comprehensive risk mitigation and social insurance systems, the intensification of a politics of surveillance, normalisation and punishment after 9/11, and nostalgia for a mythical Europe of cosy, homogeneous communities. These problems need to be acknowledged and alternative solutions need to be found; solutions that can harness diversity and difference as a way of facing the future. Otherwise Europe will find itself once again in an age of suspicion and intolerance, with even friends and neighbours becoming enemies as a politics of suspicion and anxiety tightens its grip.

The aim of this 'open letter', which is addressed to publics, opinion-makers and political actors in Europe who value the open and democratic society, is to formulate another way of approaching diversity and difference in Europe. There is considerable latent anxiety over the dark twists and turns we are witnessing in many European countries, but it has yet to stack up into an irreversible clamour for change. This letter might help in raising the tempo. But it is also important that the anxieties and fears on which intolerance and xenophobia feed are not dismissed as irrational, and those who hold them as abnormal, as we frequently find in current anti-racist and anti-fascist protest. The stance of this letter is to acknowledge the unsettlements associated with the profound changes Europe is witnessing, but to seek to dislocate them from their current associations with difference and 'strangers' variously cast and address them, instead, through a politics of solidarity, reciprocal learning and cooperation among all those who find themselves in Europe.

Such dispositions cannot develop in a vacuum. Accordingly this letter traces the outlines of another model of belonging and participation in Europe, one that argues for hope and courage in the face of uncertainty and risk, solidarity and learning as a resource for the future, diversity and cultural pluralism as the status quo, economic fairness, a shared commons at the centre of public policy, and democratic engagement and debate as the staple of political deliberation. In this sense, the letter is a call to European progressive political leaders and representatives, to transcend the short-sighted views and interests that so far have dominated the response both to the economic crisis and to the growing wave of xenophobia and general intolerance vis-à-vis social and cultural diversity.

We call on them to exercise their responsibility to promote and implement legislation and concrete policies consistent with universal human rights, both in Europe itself as well as in the relations and exchanges between Europe and the rest of the world, especially the impoverished societies. That is, legislation and policies geared on the one hand to build on the best European traditions in terms of hospitality, openness to difference, innovation and change, dialogue and democratic engagement, and on the other, in opposition to the colonial and imperial practices still in place, to establish a new set of rules, based on cooperation and reciprocity, in its relations with all those countries where life -human and other- most often is the cheapest commodity.

A Critical Moment for Europe

The enormity of the change sweeping through Europe needs to be recognised with clarity. A hard-won legacy of openness, inclusion and engagement towards the unfamiliar and unexpected is being threatened by a 'catastrophe' approach based on exclusion and the vilification of anything that apparently endangers the customary way of life. Both approaches to change are present in Europe, one looking to the future with courage, curiosity and a desire to evolve, and the other with fear, dread and an anxiety to preserve a privileged but unsustainable way of life.

The inclusive approach is rooted in the principle of provision for an expanding spectrum of social actors at home and abroad, typically through collective negotiation, social insurance, empowerment and education, social cohesion and inclusion, dialogue and democratic engagement. It brings the outside and the foreign into the inside. Europe's long Humanist legacy, aspects of the post-war European social model, and late-20th century recognition of gender, racial, sexual and post-colonial equality by the EU and many member states can be seen as heirs of this tradition.

The catastrophe approach is rooted in the principle of mitigation against hazard and risk through elaborate military-like preparations including disaster planning, warnings of Armageddon, predatory surveillance, restriction of civil liberties, and the violent oppression of dissent, difference and the foreign. The outside must be kept at bay, the enemy must be named, the primitive must be tamed, and tough measures must be taken in the name of social and cultural preservation, collective security and well-being.

This is how Europe justified the exploits of Empire and colony, its differences with the Orient and Islam, its division of the world into superior and inferior races and peoples conveniently colour coded, the brutal suppression of Jews and Roma, and the brutal suppression of dissidents, non-conformists, workers and peasants by different totalitarian regimes. This is how contemporary 'emergency' measures after 9/11, bent on targeting would-be terrorists, unfit citizens and social outcasts through loose proxies such as physical appearance, religious belief, cultural practices, race and ethnicity, social and economic status, can be linked to a dark European legacy based on the demonization of particular types of vulnerable bodies. And this is how the politics of fear is used to curtail not only civic and political rights for the whole society, but also to dismantle the hard-won conquests of the oppressed and exploited in terms of labour conditions and welfare services.

It is not long before this politics of fear and hate, having exhausted the list of easily identifiable scapegoats, will create new divisions in order to sustain itself. It is not long before a biopolitics of fear and resentment that tries to shut out an irreducibly plural and porous world will incapacitate Europe, as the means to engage, to look ahead, to cultivate an ethic of care, empathy and curiosity are lost.

Facing the Future Together

Europe is home today to millions of people from non-European backgrounds, many religious and cultural dispositions, networks of affiliation that stretch right across the globe. It is as much a site of longings rooted in myths of origin and tradition - regional, national and continental - as it is a site of cosmopolitan identities and attachments, a place of plural and hybrid composition, drawing on varied geographies of cultural formation. In such a Europe it makes no sense to close the borders, to play the game of good insiders and bad outsiders, to defend ethnic and cultural purity, to demonise everything alien, to declare the end of secularism. It also makes no sense to valorise an image of European history which is centred upon cultural homogeneity and nationalised 'purity'. Engagements with difference have marked Europe from its earliest days and such engagements are equally unavoidable in the European present and in any image of its shared future.

There is no denying that these are turbulent times, riddled with large and often unforeseen risks and hazards thrown up by the entanglements of an unregulated and interdependent world. Those risks, however, have much more to do with the uncontrolled movements of speculative financial capital and global economic integration than with the over-controlled displacements of migrants and refugees trying to reach a destination to work and live with dignity, the vast majority of whom are moving within their countries of origin and within the south of the planet. Governance has become an art of trial and error, making the best of an imperfect and fully unknowable world. Risks quickly multiply, mutate, cross borders, and this no doubt worries governments and publics seeking certitude and a secure future. But uncertainty, escalation and imprecision - all requiring the need to act in new ways - should neither be read as unavoidable catastrophes, nor, most importantly, as problems that can be resolved through a politics of retrenchment, generalised fear and militarisation; a politics of harming some bodies for the safety of others. They also represent new opportunities, new prospects on a future in the making.

Europe has to find a way of tackling hazard, risk and uncertainty by harnessing rather than rejecting diversity and difference; by inventing new solidarities rather than craving for an uncontaminated future; by cultivating an ethos of hope, shared ground and common purpose rather than one of hate and division; by accepting that acting in an uncertain world requires the wit, imagination and effort of all stakeholders rather than the designs and impositions of so-called experts and tough leaders; by realising that the negotiation of complexity and interdependence - the world as it has become - requires an attitude of pragmatic experimentalism, continuous learning and negotiation, rather than a stance of heroic certitude and unbending projection.

A start on this difficult but necessary journey to rethink how best to live in a plural and uncertain world is to jettison a culture of emergency management through obsessive surveillance and control. What is needed, instead, is to clarify why democracy, inclusion, empowerment, fairness and social justice for the many and not only the few - in Europe and beyond - is a precondition for dealing positively with uncertainty and change. New work is required to show with conviction and evidence that gender, class, racial and sexual equality are a good thing, that access for all to the means of well-being in a society releases new capabilities and reduces envy and resentment, that full-blown democracy involving universal rights, representation, popular participation and public scrutiny spreads responsibility and checks power abuses, that investing in the collective infrastructure shared by all and in future sustainability reduces fear and anxiety along with underpinning a sense of the shared turf, that widespread economic opportunity, parity and security can reduce conflict and disaffection.

These cannot remain empty phrases, but must form part of a new and passionately felt politics of social inclusion and justice that is not just whispered from the sidelines, but can demonstrate that there are significant gains to be made by majorities and minorities, citizens and residents, and above all, society as a whole. This is not an argument for a simple return to the welfare state. Times have changed, and past effort was not without its problems. Only too frequently, states and elites rolled out giant programmes in the name of equality that fell far short, while majorities continued to discriminate against minorities, outsiders, and the vulnerable under the guise of universalism and collectivism.

Towards a Politics of the Commons

The challenge of bridging similarity and difference, the particular and the common, the familiar and the strange thus remains an unresolved challenge, as does the need to show how such bridging is the road to peace, progress and understanding in a turbulent world. These are difficult issues that need to be addressed through collective debate over the concerns at stake, through public ownership of and conviction in the justice of the proposals put forward. Otherwise the proposals - no matter how sophisticated or persuasive - will be rejected as impositions.

A start can be made, however, by indicating the kind of ethos that is needed to face the future through diversity and difference. First, it must be an ethos of hope not fear, trust not suspicion, reciprocity not domination, dialogue not condemnation, and negotiation not aggression. Secondly, it must be an ethos of finding vision in the dark through many eyes and torches held by many hands, united by belief in the benefits that come from unity and solidarity, but also by the knowledge that the way can never be fully illuminated, is full of pit holes and dangers to be negotiated through common concerns. Thirdly, therefore, it must be an ethos of pragmatic learning, trial and error, but clear about the principles of the open society and the Charter of Human Rights that cannot be violated. This includes pressing for the complete dismantlement of the catastrophe mentality and its infrastructure. These three dimensions of an ethos of shared concern, mutual engagement and pragmatic learning should be the basis on which a sense of 'the European' should emerge.

The problems of race, ethnicity and culture that have come so much to centre stage in the politics of catastrophe management need to be put back in place by making space for a wider frame of collective reference and shared ambition, itself understood to require the effort of all members of a society. An ethic of care for the commons has to lie at the centre of an inclusive and non-fearful politics of preparedness for the future,
harnessing difference and pluralism for common benefit, proposing shared injuries, concerns and injustices as political demands, rather than divisive accusations.

Pragmatically, this means pressing for particular keywords such as hospitality, fairness, solidarity and mutuality as the prime colours of the open society; debated in the public arena, used as the measure of things by people and institutions. It also means publicising something that Europe has excelled in historically, which is the tradition of nurturing public space and public infrastructures open to and shared by all. The achievements of public libraries, squares and parks, public education, health and transport services and facilities cannot be underestimated, especially when these spaces are used and appreciated by all. They are the formative ground of citizenship and a respect for shared resources.

Then, it means advocacy for a vibrant public sphere, a variety of modes of collective communication, an instinct of taking things of social interest into the public arena. So, instead of burying latent concerns or new policies being introduced by stealth, challenges, threats and risks are here named, debated and subjected to democratic scrutiny. It means seeking unity in difference through a politics of shared concerns, common problems made visible (such as housing and well-being, employment, security, urban services, the quality of the environment, future sustainability, and so on), so that the concerns that face us all can become the basis for collective understanding and solidarity.

Finally, it means organising to protect the commons. Much is said today about the need to protect the environment against pollution and consumption. Our children may have little air to breathe in times to come if we continue to disregard nature. But there is more of the commons to protect, raising once again old questions of ownership and stewardship that will not go away. Banking reforms, redistributive justice, corporate social responsibility, public ownership and control, the democratic accountability of public communications, work for all, fair wages, universal insurance, building capability, regulatory reform, the social economy, and other aspects of the economy organised for meeting needs and spreading rewards, are all part and parcel of a much needed new politics of diversity. It is through such reforms that future growth can be directed to the many and not only the few, and for outcomes that address envy and enmity. Europe's political classes seem to have forgotten this link, made so clear after the war in the effort made by states and progressive movements to repair the economy and the commons as the way forward for both prosperity and solidarity.

This letter is a call to intervene, to revive an old tradition in Europe to question, to dissent. It proposes that living with difference in Europe should be seen as an opportunity to face the future together, in mutual respect.

Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.