Talking won't make all the bigots shut up


By Jennifer Lipman
August 2, 2011
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Ten days on from the horrific massacre at a Norwegian youth camp and the debate about the far-right, extremism and multiculturalism continues to rage on the comment pages and blogosphere.

Libby Purves, writing in The Times on Monday, raised a good point, arguing that compulsory English lessons would integrate immigrants and undermine the extremist cause.

She writes: "One thing would - and must - make a difference, and that is language. Communication. Humans are social animals, and once you converse with a person - however different - you create a bond and open the way to partnership, even friendship.

"Because of all the things we could do to defuse racial hatred and the risk of crazy bigots running mad, the smallest and the greatest is conversation."

I'm all for encouraging people to learn to converse with those around them when they choose a new country to call home and I'd agree that communication is fundamental. The more you can understand someone, the more you're likely to build an emotional connection that would overcome fear or uncertainty.

But isn't it a little naïve to assume that if everyone just talked to each other, those crazies would stop with their crazy thoughts and deeds?

Sure, a refusal to engage with society (such as by learning the language) is fodder for the bigot.

But bigots don't always need fodder. Extremists aren't always quite so rational and assuming they are – that their extremism comes from something tangible - gives them a mask to hide behind.

Assimilation didn't offer much protection to the worldly and cosmopolitan European Jews in the 1930s, the ones who spoke the same language and lived in the same world as their neighbours (many of them the very same neighbours who later turned against the Jews).

In the end, they were no better than those who only spoke Yiddish.

That's not to say communication shouldn't be a priority – it should be.

But language lessons are only one part of the solution, and we'd be wrong to overlook the fact that sometimes, some people hate other people for absolutely no reason at all.

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