What the story of the niqab-wearing Welsh speaker tells us about what we want to hear

Confirmation bias is always a powerful thing. We’re always hungry for scraps that can support our own narratives and reinforce our belief that we are right.

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You know this story because you’ve seen it on Facebook. Maybe you’re one of the 20,000-some people to have shared it. Or if it missed your wall, you saw it today in the Metro or the Times or the Welsh local press. It’s an irresistible one, seen through the eyes of a man on the replacement rail service between Newport and Cwmbran, though he doesn’t participate – he’s not the hero here, just the storyteller.

There’s a woman in a niqab, talking to her son in a non-English language. On the seat in front of them: a white man, who turns around and tells the woman that she’s in the UK and should be speaking English. On the seat in front of the white man, an elderly white woman who now says to him: “She's in Wales. And she's speaking Welsh.” How delicious. And how unlikely, if you care about things like that.

If the story sounds familiar, that might be because you’ve heard it before, in a slightly different variant. “Racist gets public linguistic comeuppance” is a trope that’s been circulating for years: heres one version set in America from 2013, where the woman is accused of speaking “Mexican” but is actually speaking Navajo. She’s also on the phone rather than speaking to her son, and it’s the woman rather than a third party who delivers the killer blow: but give or take a few details, the archetype is still the same.

News reporters have spoken to the original Facebook poster, but not to any of the participants in the scene. Maybe they will show up in time. Until they do, all we have is a story – and an unlikely one. We know there are very few niqab wearers in England and Wales: extrapolating from a French survey, there are likely to be just 1,000 women who wear either the burqa or niqab. And you’re more likely to find them in England than Wales, where just 1.5 per cent of the population is Muslim (in London, it’s 12.4 per cent). Then there’s the language: the south east of Wales, where this story is set, has one of the lowest densities of Welsh speakers in the whole region.

That doesn’t make this parable of British chauvinism vanquished by multiethnic Wales (perfectly integrated in language if not in dress) untrue, but without corroboration, it’s more appealing than plausible. And, unless you saw it happen, there’s absolutely no reason to believe it’s true – except for a desire to believe that things like this can happen. In this story, there are good people and bad people, and the good outnumber and triumph over the bad. The truth is revealed, and the belligerent racist is silenced.

In reality, immigration is an issue where anxiety and actuality only infrequently collide. Polling agency Ipsos MORI found that the number of immigrants coming into Britain is the top issue for EU referendum voters; in research published four days later, just one in five respondents said they had been personally adversely affected by immigration. This mismatch between information and emotion is dismaying, but why should liberals be perplexed by it when the proliferation of the racist bus story shows that credulousness is equally possible on either side of the issue?

Confirmation bias is always a powerful thing. We’re always hungry for scraps that can support our own narratives and reinforce our belief that we are right – and always willing to suspend critical faculties when a story fits our own prejudices. That goes for people whose prejudices tell them that a woman wearing a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service is a dangerous alien who need to be taught a lesson, and it’s true also for those whose prejudices tell them that this same woman must be an assiduously integrated parts of British life.

But neither side needs the woman in a niqab on the Newport to Cwmbran rail replacement service to be real. In fact, it’s more convenient all round if she doesn’t exist, because so long as she can’t pop up with any awkward human complications, she can be the screen where we project our own self-image. A length of black fabric on which to publish the statement of own politics. A totem of all the ways that we, the onlookers in this story, are unlike the stupid racist who can’t tell Arabic from Welsh.

Self-congratulatory sermonising helps no one, and certainly does nothing to address the grievances that leave voters are nursing, which can be both misdirected and real. When the result of the EU referendum is known on Friday, neither Leave nor Remain will be enough to settle the proxy was about immigration that this campaign has become. The certainty that our political opponents are idiotic and immoral is a comforting one, but it’s poisonous too. People can believe wrong things without always being wicked – fortunately for you, if you shared an unsubstantiated story of a racist getting schooled on public transport. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.