On keeping it together

· mumblings · life ·

I’ve been trying to marshal my thoughts into some coherence for more than two weeks now, but I think I’ve been gripped by disbelief. I keep thinking that I’m going to wake up, and find that it has all been a horrible, disturbing dream, and that my country isn’t really a chaotic, directionless, leaderless, vicious, fearful, isolationist, xenophobic place. While I’m waiting for that to happen, I should really try to write something about it, and the way that coincidence has made me even more sensitive to the current situation. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even cohesive: it’s just a few of the things that have been circling around in my brain and making it itch over the past few weeks.

My first itchy thought concerns evidence. I’m not the first to point this out by any means, but facts and evidence have been a conspicuous casualty of the whole Referendum campaign. As a scientist, facts and empirical evidence are my bread and butter. I understand the way in which a proportion of the population feels that they have been lied to and disenfranchised (they feel that because it’s true — they have been), but the correct response to that is to use the evidence and your common sense and come to your own conclusions, not to be pulled along by yet another set of lies that play on your fears and insecurities. It’s fine to say, “I don’t think situation X will be as the experts say”, but then that must be followed by “because…” in which you provide evidence (facts and figures, not feelings, not vague but punchy allusions to “control”). The problem is that facts and evidence don’t stop being true just because you don’t believe them. They will happen anyway.

The second itchy thought revolves around sorrow and shame. The day of the result, I was involved with Open Day activities at work, which meant talking to visiting young people (about the enter their second year of A levels) about University life, our course, and their future. Without exception, these people were bright, engaged, enthusiastic, terrified, excited and — most heart-breakingly of all — hopeful. These are young people who weren’t able to vote and therefore found their future and its wide open horizons suddenly severely restricted, without their consent. There were times that day when I had to seriously hold it together to avoid bursting into tears while talking to these shocked young people who were trying to take it all in1. Going to University, leaving home, and starting your adult life are all big enough steps, without throwing more chaos and uncertainty into the mix. Later that day, I attended a University award ceremony to celebrate the achievement of post-graduate students and their supervisors, a good proportion of whom were from elsewhere in the EU or the world. Even though (as I’m sure is clear from what I have written so far), I voted Remain, I felt deep shame about the way the country had collectively voted, and couldn’t stop apologising on behalf of ‘my’ country. Though in truth, Britain has never felt less like my country.

Finally, what has horrified and grieved me most about the campaign and its aftermath has been the mood of xenophobia, and a rejection of anyone perceived as different. This is ridiculous. The strength of Britain has always been its diversity. We are a small island and we take people in. Those people become British and add to the rich and exciting tapestry of our country and culture. I’m British and my family (on both sides) has been here for generations, but back in the 17th Century, my ancestors (on my father’s side) were Huguenots who fled religious persecution and subsequent massacres in France and settled in London, bringing skills like silk weaving and lace making with them. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to make a life in Britain and contribute to our collective life and culture, bringing rich additions of your own, and you can put up with ubiquitous drizzle, you are British. Diverse cultures are stronger than monocultures and more able to adapt flexibly to change. All it needs is for people to be understanding of (and interested in) difference, rather than fearful of it. People are just people, and cultural difference is a very thin veneer of variation on top of a common foundation.

This struck me particularly deeply on that particular day, because the final event of that day2 was that Mr. Bsag and I went to The Autism Show on at the NEC. Why? Well, about a month ago, Mr. Bsag was (after a long process of assessment, with a couple of false starts) diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum3. Finally, after struggling for nearly 50 years to fit in to a society that didn’t really understand him, and of which he therefore didn’t feel part though he wanted to be included, he had an explanation. Evidence. A fact. This is a good thing. While people tend to think of autism as a problem or difficulty, it isn’t always, and it doesn’t have to be. Really, it is a neurological difference. One of the best parts about the show was attending talks given by passionate autistic people, asking only for understanding of difference from the majority of neurotypicals. They made it clear that autistic people have clear strengths that contribute to the richness and diversity of our society.

Mr. Bsag is 50 this week, and this autumn, we will have been married 16 years. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with a worthy birthday gift, but he is Mr. Impossible to buy for. Perhaps the best gift I can get him is this: to tell him I have always known and loved his (autistic) strengths. He is passionately interested in things, fiercely against injustice, open, honest and above all deeply loyal and loving. I have always known this, but now I understand why, which helps. I hope that knowing why will come to help him too, particularly in these difficult times. You’ve been incredibly strong to get this far without people understanding why you are as you are. You have earned every one of your 50 years. Happy Birthday, my lovely husband.

  1. I know — hard to believe isn’t it, Andrea Ledsome? I don’t have children and yet I somehow have a “very real stake in the future”. If you have your own children, of course you care about their particular futures, but if you don’t have children, you are free to care about making the world better for everyone’s children. Note that I’m not saying for a minute that most parents don’t also care deeply about other people’s children. It’s just that if you don’t have your own, you can’t have any possible tension or conflict between what is best for your own children, and what is best for everyone’s children. ↩︎

  2. It really was an unusually busy one. ↩︎

  3. Specifically, Asperger Syndrome. ↩︎