Dignity is delicate


Human dignity is a concept with remarkably shallow historical roots. Is that why it is so presently endangered?

The popular Austrian tabloid Heute has a tradition of publishing pictures of the first babies born around the country in the new year. Vienna’s 2018 baby was a girl named Asel. She was born of Muslim parents. And she was received with hate.

‘Next terrorist born.’ ‘Deport the scum.’ ‘I’m hoping for a crib death.’ Hundreds of similar comments flashed across Austrian social-media sites in what has become a familiar piece of the news cycle not only in Austria, but across the Western world. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, Germany witnessed an 87 per cent increase in hate crimes, rising to its highest levels since the Second World War. In Spain, hate crimes surged from the low 200s in 2009-2012, to more than 1,100 in each of the years 2013 to 2016. In Poland, activist watch groups estimate that hate crimes rose 10-fold in the new millennium.

For a while, such trends were chalked up to an enduring Western anxiety over Islamic terrorism. But as Islamophobia increasingly becomes a single motive among many in these hate crimes, this story no longer holds up. Anti-Semitic crimes are rising dramatically all over Europe, including in typically more tolerant countries. Across the United Kingdom, anti-Semitic crimes rose 34 per cent from 2017 to 2018, hitting an all-time high. France witnessed jumps of over 20 per cent in both 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.

African nationals are also at increased risk. In Italy, where the far-Right nationalist association Forza Nuova now has more Facebook followers than Italy’s largest Left-wing party, a man recently drove around the town of Macerata shooting black immigrants from his car. In Poland – where the nationalistic Law and Justice party ascended to power in 2015 – Amnesty International reported the story of a man who, in 2014, was beaten with sticks in a nightclub by multiple attackers yelling: ‘Fuck niggers, fuck Jews.’ The man was actually Syrian. Two years later, 60,000 nationalists marched on Warsaw brandishing signs bearing slogans such as ‘Clean Blood’.

Meanwhile in the UK, in a sad reversal of malice, hate crimes against Polish people increased 10-fold in 2004-2014, and continue to make headlines. This April, a Polish man in Hull was chased by a gang of 20 men and beaten with a nailed plank of wood. Afterwards, his friend told reporters: ‘This sort of thing happens nearly every day to Polish people here.’ In Northern Ireland in 2015, Igor, an 11-year-old originally from Poland, was beaten so badly that, when his friend arrived to help, he didn’t recognise him. The attackers were other children, some as young as eight. As they beat Igor, they yelled: ‘You are Polish shit!’ ‘Go back to Poland!’

And then there is the United States, where such stories are turning up literally every day. In one incident this year, a woman was aggressively badgered by a white man in a park near Chicago for wearing a shirt printed with the Puerto Rico flag. She captured the incident on Facebook Live. ‘Why is she wearing that shit?’ the man snarled, while stalking after her. ‘You’re not an American citizen!’ The biggest news angle of the incident was the derelict response of the police officer present.

But other concerns were rightly raised. Some, like Luis Gutiérrez, the House representative for Illinois, alluded to the so-called ‘Trump effect’. Between the US president’s racially charged policies and his own willingness to use dehumanising language, Donald Trump has ‘unleashed’ (as Gutiérrez put it) a new tolerance for public expressions of bigotry – a claim given credence by a variety of empirical studies. Others argued that the Chicago incident should not be reduced to reinvigorated white supremacy, stressing instead that the US, like Europe, is now breeding general xenophobia. ‘Germany in the early 1930s wasn’t so different,’ stated one public comment. ‘This is how things start.’ Indeed.

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